The poor in spirit

Assistant Rector's House, October 1999

In the 90’s I don’t see that it is possible to be happy and poor. (Columnist in Sunday newspaper 19th September)

Happy are you poor; the Kingdom of God is yours. (Jesus quoted in Luke Chapter 6, verse 20 - Good News version)

The first quotation is not a view particular to our age. Doctor Johnson said ‘Resolve not to be poor... poverty is a great enemy to human happiness’. Mr Worldly Wiseman in Pilgrim’s Progress said that the recipe for happiness is ‘prosperity, comfort, peace of mind, and popularity’. Much further back Aristotle believed that few people could be happy, for ‘happiness requires good health, enough money to be comfortable, an attractive physique and good fortune’.

Jesus appears to be at odds with many thinkers of every age. Yet many voices of the poor seem to agree with him. In a recent survey of those on lower incomes in this country, some participants refused to accept the label ‘poor’ because they said it was associated with other things like misery and laziness and grime and degradation - and as one said:

Being poor is about how you feel, not just about money.

and "I feel OK, I’m happy" was the unspoken message, "don’t label me".

So what is Jesus saying? It is silly to interpret his words as meaning that God wants people to be poor. To be starving, to lack basic amenities, to suffer from lack of education or healthcare - these are an affront to the dignity and value of a human being. What he is saying is that it is the poor who openly admit their need - their need for God and their need for interdependence with others. They know there are questions and are looking for answers.

By contrast, when Luke goes on to say "how terrible for you who are rich!", he is defining the "rich" not by their wealth, but as those who take life greedily, believing themselves to be independent and self-sufficient. They do not have a vision for the future good of all, because life now is fine for them. All is closed. For those with closed minds there are no questions. And the rich do not have a monopoly on closed minds!

Matthew’s phrase is "the poor in spirit". These can be found among both rich and poor in material terms. They are the people who live life thankfully:

  • open to receive gifts of help and strength and wisdom from whatever source it comes
  • open to ask questions about the truth of life
  • open to offer whatever gifts they possess in the simple belief that they can be used

These are the happy and blessed.

At Harvest-time we give thanks for the gifts which God has given us, some directly from his created world, some available through the actions of those he has given us to live with in his world. The challenge of Harvest is always to find ways of affirming our interdependence each with the other. For the rich and powerful (comparatively) to consider how they may offer their money and technical and political skills to work for justice and quality of life for all, to meet the demands of God’s justice; for the poor to recognise and offer their own gifts of faith and simplicity and questioning which reflect the person of Jesus. And for everyone to reflect on how our fullness of humanity depends upon a mutual openness, a gracious to-ing and fro-ing of giving and receiving.

Blessed are the poor, not the penniless, but those whose heart is free.

Eileen McLean
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 27th September 1999