We work for financial security. No one tries to be poor. Yet the gospels say that the poor are blessed with God’s loving concern. The gospels also tell us to help the poor, which would relieve their poverty but also that special care of God. This ambiguous message can confuse sincere people.
The apparent paradox is resolved when we understand that the gospel concept of poverty has two dimensions: the external condition of want and the internal disposition of trust. The first, material poverty, is to be remedied; the second, poor in spirit, is to be embraced.
That distinction also clarifies the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.“ Not only rationalists but also the faithful often wonder about the meaning of poor in spirit and how that is blessed by God.
To be poor in spirit is to have the soul of a poor person. It is to be humble and contrite of heart. The psalmist describes the poor in spirit, “O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes. Like a child rests in its mother's arms, even so my soul rests in you.” (Ps 131:2) The poor in spirit have the disposition of children who realize their total dependence on loving and caring parents. The poor and children are not always virtuous. God does not favor them because of their moral character, but because they are more disposed to simple trust.
“The poor you will always have with you," (Mt 26:11) is not a disregard of the needy. On the contrary, it refers to a biblical call to generosity: “The needy will never be absent in our land; that is why I command you to open your hand to the poor and the lowly.” (Deut 15:10)
Mother Teresa said that the poor do not need us as much as we need the poor. By them we are blessed. The mysterious wisdom of God abides the poor as an opportunity for us to become rich in compassion and love. Again, the psalmist: “Happy are those who consider the poor and the weak.” (Ps 41:1)
That first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is the gateway to another beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” While gospel love for the poor cares for the needy it also challenges the roots of poverty. Only just economic systems can foster peace. The causes of material poverty are to be eradicated.
Poverty of spirit is another matter. It is to be embraced. While the poor realize that they are in need of alms, we are all truly in need. We need the time and talent and trust of others. We need their kindness and compassion and love, if not in things material, in the greater values of friendship, fidelity and forgiveness. Only the arrogant do not value the riches of the poor in spirit.
Fr. Earl Meyer is at the St. Fidelis Friary in Victoria, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.