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The Blessedness of the Poor

The blessing of the Old Testament was prosperity, but the blessing of the New Testament is adversity.—BACON.

In that condition (humble and rustic life) the elemental passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity; are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; in that condition our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity; and are more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated.—WORDSWORTH.

Who are the “poor in spirit” who are commended in this Beatitude? Some commentators, influenced by St. Luke’s version of the Beatitude, have supposed that the words “in spirit” are a later addition designed to “spiritualize” our Lord’s original commendation of poverty. On the other hand, it has been asserted that Old Testament usage had dissociated the word “poor” from any material associations, and that what our Lord commended here was lowliness of spirit. The truth lies between these two views. In all the other Beatitudes, Jesus is dealing, not with circumstance, but with character. Their whole significance depends on the fact that the characteristics that bring blessedness belong to the inner life, and can be cultivated by any man, whatever his outward circumstances may be. It is therefore almost certain that what our Lord is commending here is not the outward condition of poverty as such, but the attitude of mind and heart that poverty helps to foster. Yet He was certainly thinking of actual poverty, not of spiritual destitution. The idea that happiness is to be found in the accumulation of material possessions, and that the favor of God finds expression in the well-filled basket and store, was the first illusion that Jesus set Himself to correct.

In the Old Testament, we can detect two lines of thought that run parallel for a time. On the one hand there is the idea that outward prosperity is a sign of Divine favour. On the other hand, the poor, afflicted and oppressed, are regarded as under the special care of God. In the later psalms the “poor” are the God-fearing remnant who have learnt through suffering to depend on Him. Their trust would not go unrewarded; the blessings of the Messianic Kingdom would be theirs. “God will show mercy to the poor in the gladness of Israel.”1 This Hebrew idea was in marked contrast with ordinary Greek thought. “It was not till they were employed to translate the Old Testament ideas of poverty that the Greek words for ‘poor’ and ‘needy’ came to bear an honorable significance.”2

“A poor man in the East has not only a hunger for food; he has the hotter hunger for justice the deeper hunger for God. Poverty in itself, without extraneous teaching, develops nobler appetites. The physical, becomes the moral, pauper; poor in substance, he grows poor in spirit. It was by developing, with the aid of God’s Spirit, this quick conscience and this deep desire for God, which in the East are the very soul of physical poverty, that the Jews advanced to that sense of evangelical poverty of heart, blessed by Jesus in the first of His Beatitudes as the possession of the Kingdom of heaven.”3

So in the synagogue of Nazareth Jesus claimed to be the fulfilment of the prediction of Isaiah of one anointed to preach good tidings to the poor. And when the Baptist sent from prison to enquire whether He was in truth the Coming One, His reply was that the prediction was being fulfilled—“the poor have the gospel preached to them.”

Canon Scott Holland points out how, in this Beatitude, Jesus is pronouncing the verdict of experience. “There is something that He has found in the poor which He could not find elsewhere. There is a certain receptivity, a sensitiveness, a response, which is the peculiarity, the note, which poverty brings with it. The spirit is more on the alert in the poor; it stirs more readily to the touch of God; it is less cumbered, less reluctant, less stupid and stolid and obstructive, than with those who have more of this world’s goods.”1

From the first He found the chief response to His teaching among the poor, on whom the regulations of the law laid an almost intolerable burden. “The man of slender means, the mechanic, the day-labourer, especially the peasant, who should venture to make the attempt, must very soon find that such requirements as those concerning the Sabbath and purification bade defiance to the best will.” To such men the yoke of Jesus was easy and His burden light.

Jesus deliberately chose for Himself a life of poverty, and though He imposed no vow of poverty on the inner circle of His disciples, it is noteworthy that when a rich young man was inclined to attach himself to the service, he was bidden, not to bring his wealth with him as a contribution to the cause, but to go and dispossess himself of it before he joined the ranks.

Yet, in itself, poverty does not bring blessedness. It involves restricted opportunities, constant pressure of material needs, anxiety, not for ourselves, but for those who depend on us. The poverty of monastic life was poverty sheltered from most of the disadvantages that make it hard to bear. The men to whom Jesus was speaking earned a precarious livelihood as artisans and fishermen. How could He tell them that poverty was a blessing?

The words “in spirit” give us the answer. Poverty may breed resentment and anxiety, and unfit the soul for blessedness; but it may foster trust and detachment from the over-valuation of material interests. Poverty in spirit does not mean poverty of spirit; it means freedom from the cares and riches and pleasures of this life that choke the word. The man who is poor in spirit is the man who has no desire for the accumulation of material things; who is neither embittered by straitened resources nor elated by great possessions.

Jesus habitually regarded riches not as an object of legitimate ambition, but as a danger to the spiritual life. He saw in the desire for material wealth the evidence of a false estimate of values, and warned His disciples against covetousness on the ground that a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things that he possesseth. An economic system based on the idea that greed is a legitimate incentive to production, and a social system that regards wealth as a passport to respect and consideration, are in direct antagonism to His teaching.

He taught the supreme value of spiritual things, and told men to lay up for themselves treasures in heaven, since the treasures of earth had no permanent value. The desire for wealth is largely a desire for security. But is security really good for us? The wish to be protected against the changes and chances of mortal life easily passes into the attitude of the rich fool of the parable.

One of the first results of fellowship with Jesus was to create a new indifference to material things. Matthew left all, rose up and followed him; Zacchæus gave half his goods to the poor; the sons of Zebedee left their boat and their hired servants; St. Paul triumphed in the thought that in the service of Jesus he had suffered the loss of all things.

This indifference to material wealth was no mere affectation. The Hebrew Christians took joyfully the spoiling of their goods, knowing that they had in heaven a better and more enduring substance. And Clement of Alexandria, in his well-known sermon on the rich young ruler, declared that the man who goes on trying to increase without limit, ever on the look out for more, with his head bent downwards, is false to the Christian ideal.

Again, our Lord’s standard of valuation of men was based wholly on character. It was a characteristic of the new Kingdom that it would reverse human orders of precedence. There are last that shall be first. The evil of a social system based on wealth is that it estimates men by a wrong standard, and regards that as desirable which Jesus regarded as dangerous. Under such a system the temptation to acquire wealth without too scrupulous a regard for moral considerations is perilously strong.

Then, lastly, our Lord called men into a life of fellowship, and nothing hinders fellowship more than great divergencies of material possessions. We can learn from the Epistle of St. James how early in the history of the Church this obstacle to fellowship began to show itself in the Christian Society; and even the agape associated with Holy Communion became an occasion for vulgar display (see 1 Corinthians 11:21). The class-consciousness that we deplore in the labor movement is the outcome of a class-consciousness on the other side. It is very difficult for a rich man to give without a sense of patronage entering into his giving; and patronage is incompatible with the spirit of fellowship.

Are we, then, to regard our Lord’s command to the young ruler as a general law of the Kingdom? The teaching of Jesus certainly points to the deliberate acceptance of a simple standard of life as a Christian duty, but great possessions may be a trust from which a man ought not to free himself. The clearest summary of Christian teaching on the subject is given by St. Paul. “Charge them that are rich in this present world that they be not high-minded, nor have their hope set on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate, laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on life which is life indeed.”1 For the special danger of wealth is that a man may gain what seems to be the whole world, while he loses his own soul. It is because the man who is poor in spirit is saved from this danger that his is the Kingdom of the heavens. Deliberately refusing to spend his strength in heaping up riches, or in envying those who have gained the wealth that he does not desire, he is set free to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. It is one of the paradoxes of the gospel that the Kingdom belongs to the poor. So St. Paul describes the apostles as “having nothing and yet possessing all things.” When the sun has set, a vaster universe is revealed to us, invisible by daylight. Is it not often when the sun of earthly prosperity has set that men recognize the Kingdom that had been hidden before?

How can we translate this Beatitude of Jesus into the language of modern thought? The acquisitive instinct is probably the strongest instinct, for good and evil, in the natural man. It has been the motive-power of the development of civilization, and of the wars and cruelties that have degraded it. So the first instinct that the children of the Kingdom are to conquer is the instinct that makes getting the main motive of life. God is rich beyond all conceivable estimates of wealth, yet His gladness is in giving. If He receives our gifts, it is not because He needs them, but because love is meaningless if there is nothing that it can give. And in the incarnation He “emptied Himself,” giving His whole self that we through His poverty might be made rich. It is when we have emptied ourselves that we are most like God. The artist who has put his whole self into his picture or his poem, that so he may serve mankind; the teacher who has poured all his resources of mind and character into his work; the leader of industry who has contributed his powers of organization and enterprise without hope of reward—all men who have served and suffered, impoverishing themselves for the enrichment of the world—all these are imitators of God, and theirs is the Kingdom of the heavens because the qualification for admission to the Kingdom is likeness to the King.

The objection urged against Socialism is that it would reduce all men to one dead level of poverty, and that inequality of wealth would soon reappear unless the coercive power of the State was exercised to prevent it. No change in the economic structure of society will by itself deliver a community from evils that are really due to a wrong estimate of values. The first step in any effective attempt at social reconstruction must be to estimate things as God estimates them. The foundations of human society are not economic, but moral. Yet it is true that moral developments will produce economic consequences. If a whole community could be purged of the sin of covetousness, its economic structure would forthwith be changed. The motive for the accumulation of wealth would be gone; the rich man would no longer be counted as an object of envy; men would choose to be poor in order to be free; and only those material things that ministered to the enjoyment of all would seem worth accumulating. The only kind of communism that has any moral value is the communism that is the voluntary expression of a sense of brotherhood. The local attempt at this kind of communism in the Church of Jerusalem was a temporary expedient to meet a special need, but there is no doubt that the early Christian communities accepted a responsibility for the welfare of their members much greater than has ever been the case in later times. The attitude that made this possible is exactly the poverty in spirit that Jesus commended. In the well-known words of Lucian, “Their leader, whom they still adore, had persuaded them that they were all brethren; in compliance with his laws they looked with contempt on all worldly treasures and held everything in common,”

It is often said that the Christian duty of almsgiving could not be fulfilled unless there were men of wealth in the Christian society who could give of their abundance to those who have need. But no one who knows anything of the kindness that the poor show to one another can attach much importance to this argument. Almsgiving may mean large subscriptions given by wealthy people, but it also means the widow’s mite given to the service of God or the needs of men. We have all learnt to recognize that a Church is stronger when it depends on the small offerings of the many rather than on the larger contributions of the few. Jesus Himself, though He was dependent for support on the contributions of His friends, was accustomed to “give something to the poor” (St. John 13:29). And perhaps it is part of the blessedness of poverty that its almsgiving represents real sacrifice often made in secret with no desire for public recognition or reward. For the Kingdom is given to those who, perhaps unconsciously, serve Christ in serving the least of these, His brethren. “Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

But if this Beatitude is true, ought we not to aim at creating poverty rather than relieving it? In answering this question we must distinguish between the poverty that imposes on men a simple standard of life and the actual indigence that makes the pressure of physical need so strong that mind and soul are starved. Extreme poverty and extreme wealth are alike in this, that they lead to an over-estimate of the value of material things. The main ground of impeachment of our economic order is not that it does not enable everyone to become rich; but that it is unjust in its apportionment of the rewards of industry. Whether Socialism would afford a better guarantee for justice is a question into which we cannot enter; what is certain is that a redistribution of wealth that would prevent actual destitution and also render impossible the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of individuals would, if it could be effected, provide a better soil for the cultivation of moral virtue than the existing economic system. Christian ethics can never accept the doctrine that a man has the right to as much material wealth as he can get without actual dishonesty. Circumstances may involve a man in the responsibility of administering wealth that he has not earned or desired, but the man who deliberately sets himself to accumulate material resources in excess of his legitimate needs is placing his spiritual life in grave danger. For the Christian character is like the plants in our rock-gardens that flower best in soil that is not so rich as to discourage them from striking their roots deep into the crevices among the rocks where they find moisture when the surface is dry.

The Kingdom of God is not offered to the poor as compensation for the discomforts of earthly life; it is theirs not because they are poor, but because they are poor in spirit, finding a refuge from anxiety in their childlike trust in the unfailing love of their Father in heaven.

1 Psalms of Solomon.

2 Adam Smith, Isaiah.

3 Ibid.

1 Scott Holland, Our Neighbours.

1 1 Timothy 6:17–19.

Masterman, J. H. B. (1921). Aspects of Christian Character: A Study of the Beatitudes (pp. 29–42). Longmans, Green and Co. (Public Domain)

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