The Most Obscure Beatitude

     Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5:3

     Have you ever pondered the first of the Beatitudes, Gentle Reader? Were you uncertain about what it might mean? Perhaps, given that the Sermon on the Mount is deemed an indispensable roadmap to living a Christian life, you were baffled by what it commands of you. Those are all common reactions to Christ’s declaration that the “poor in spirit” are blessed, or will be.

     As the Sermon on the Mount was the first of Christ’s great pronouncements on what God wants of us, it’s appropriate that we should give it serious thought. Yet Christian clergy of all denominations have been tentative, muddled, or both in explicating it. Their parishioners have endured a fair amount of confusion as a result. I endured a muddled discourse on it this very morning.

     So for what it’s worth – which will be for you to decide – I’ve decided to put my own shoulder to this wheel.


     First, imagine the following dialogue between our old friends Smith and Jones:

Smith: The Giants will host the Pygmies this coming Wednesday at Oversized Arena!
Jones: Of course I know! I’m a huge Giants fan.

Smith: So am I. I’ve got two tickets to the game. Want to come with me?
Jones: Sorry, I can’t, but I’ll be with you in spirit.

     What did Jones mean by his last statement above? Surely not that his ghost would sit beside Smith (or hover above his head) during the game. As he’s another fan of the Giants – the only maze-hockey team worth following after the recent barrage of trades – Jones will be rooting for them against the Pygmies just as Smith will. So while he can’t attend the game in person, Jones will be pulling for his team right along with Smith. He’ll be there in spirit, though his cheers and exhortations will be inaudible to Smith.

     That’s one approach to “poor in spirit.” There are poor persons in the world, and while we may not be numbered among them in fact, we can empathize with them. We can and should assist them when and as appropriate, just as (we hope) they would do for us were our circumstances reversed.

     While it’s a valid interpretation, it’s not the only one – nor is it the most important one.


     To say “I’m poor in X” implies a corresponding hunger for X, or for those things that go into making X. If you were to say instead “I don’t have any X,” it would lack that implication; you might want some, or you might not. To express a poverty of any kind says concurrently that you want more of whatever it is you’re poor in.

     “Things of the spirit” are of several varieties:

  • Faith in God’s love;
  • Hope of His mercy;
  • Comprehension of His will;
  • Humility in thinking of and dealing with others;
  • The cardinal virtues:
    1. Prudence;
    2. Temperance;
    3. Justice;
    4. Fortitude.

     With those things in stock, the love of God and neighbor, as Christ prescribed to us in the two Great Commandments, becomes achievable. But the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican comes to mind:

     Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
     And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
     I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

     [Luke 18:10-14]

     The humble man never says to himself, “Okay, I’ve got the virtues in good supply, so I can stop worrying about them and concentrate on other things.” Neither does he judge others’ supply of them. The virtues aren’t merely abstractions to be honored in one’s skull; they’re perishable skills that must be exercised through one’s words and deeds. The humble man works at the virtues, practicing them consciously when the opportunity arises. Should his hunger for the things of the spirit ever fail him, he’ll be in trouble in the hereafter.

     This is a more imperative interpretation of “poor in spirit.”


     I don’t claim the above to be exhaustive or definitive. It’s simply my take on the first Beatitude. I’ve never heard any priest, minister, or lay preacher utter a comparable interpretation.

     The usual closure at this point would be “Your mileage may vary,” or something like it. But however you approach the Beatitudes, let’s pray for one another and ourselves that:

  • We come to understand them as Christ intended;
  • We’ll practice them assiduously throughout our lives.

     A roadmap is of no use unless one follows the course it indicates. So also with the Beatitudes.

     May God bless and keep you all.