Ask a Franciscan

What Did Jesus Mean by 'Poor in Spirit'?

In Matthew 5:3, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In Luke 6:20b, he says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.” Is he talking about two different groups of people? If not, what does “poor in spirit” mean? How can being “poor in spirit” make you blessed?

They are not two different groups of people. The “poor in spirit” are not tempted to credit their cleverness or God’s special favor for any financial success they might have. Because the “poor in spirit” are immersed in God’s truth, neither wealth nor political influence can give them a false sense of security.

Outstanding New Testament women and men who demonstrate poverty of spirit include, to name only a few, Mary (the mother of Jesus), Joseph, Simeon, Anna, the good Samaritan, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and the Galilean women who supported Jesus’ ministry. The Hebrew Scriptures are also filled with many men and women such as Deborah in the Book of Judges and the prophet Jeremiah.

Most books of the Old Testament do not assume that there is an afterlife where the wicked and virtuous receive different treatment. Hence, there was great surprise regarding Jesus’ parable about the afterlife of a rich man and the beggar Lazarus (Lk 16:19–31). Those same books assume that God rewards good people in this life with wealth, good health, and many children. People lacking one or all three of those rewards were regarded as being punished by God. Jesus rejected that understanding. The late Johannes Baptist Metz wrote a wonderful book whose English title is Poverty of Spirit.

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