“Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit”

Scripture – Matthew 5:3

Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones

Sunday, September 18, 2022


Are you ready to plunge into the Beatitudes? Last week, Week One of this sermon series, we focused on the eight blessings as a whole. They are Jesus’ opening volley of an extended sermon commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. Tradition has it that Jesus preached this sermon on a mountain on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is not really a mountain; it’s a hill. And the Sea of Galilee isn’t a sea; it’s a freshwater lake.

Be that as it may, it is evident when we read and reflect on these eight blessings, we do not ponder pious platitudes. Some are startling teachings that take the wisdom of the world and turn it upside down – like “Blessed are those who mourn,” or “Blessed are those who are persecuted.”

This fall, we will take the blessings one at a time to consider what God’s Spirit might be saying to us through them. Today we attempt to drill down on the first blessing to find out if we can ferret out precious gems. But first, we must figure out what this blessing means. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Really? Shouldn’t it be “Blessed are those who are rich in spirit?” Did some ancient scribe blunder when he copied the manuscript? Or was Jesus presenting a provocative opener to signal to his disciples and the people in the crowd that his sermon would be unlike anything they had ever heard before?

It helps to remember the original context. The people who climbed up the hill to hear this outspoken rabbi were poor people living under crushing Roman occupation. They were fisherman and farmers. They were carpenters and stonemasons. They were people out of work and begging for food. They were women raising children and trying to concoct a meal out of meager resources. For them, each day was a struggle with no end in sight. They may have come to hear Jesus simply as an opportunity to step off of their treadmill for a couple of hours and think about something other than their multiple miseries.

It was to people such as these that Jesus sketched God’s vision. He called it the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God. It was a glimpse of life in God’s heavenly realm. Yet, the kingdom was not only a beautiful existence that they would enjoy after death. Jesus declared that it was already beginning to break into the present world. For those who wandered out to hear if Jesus had anything fresh to say – any word that might give them a glimmer of light – these eight blessings were, as one scholar put it, “like bolts of lightning splitting the skies.”1

Over the centuries, scholars have debated who the “poor in spirit” represent. Surely, they are people who are at the bottom of the economic ladder and have been beaten down by life. They are people who constantly feel vulnerable and know the bitter taste of desperation.

However, if Jesus intended to direct his first blessing only to the materially poor, then he would have said, “Blessed are the poor” and not added “in spirit.” Many scholars over the past 2,000 years agree that the first blessing is directed not only to people who are materially poor, but includes a wider swath.

As we reflect on each Beatitude, I think it will serve us well not to strangle it until we squeeze out one and only one meaning. I don’t suggest that we can manipulate a Beatitude to say what we want it to say. Rather, I point to the fact that the meaning of a Beatitude can vary depending on one’s context. First century peasants being oppressed by the Roman Empire no doubt heard some of the Beatitudes differently than we well-fed Americans living in a democracy. People struggling with a tragedy will hear them differently than someone living a dream-life. Like parables, the Beatitudes can have multiple meanings. God’s Spirit prompts different interpretations depending on our stage of life, our station in life, and our historical context.

To whom was Jesus speaking when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven?” Does poor in spirit refer to people who have been crushed by the events of life? That is, people who are exhausted and jaded.

Could poor in spirit refer to people who are depressed? That is, people who feel they are at the bottom of a dark hole with no way to climb out.

Could poor in spirit refer to people who are lonely? That is, people who are cut off from friendships.

Could poor in spirit refer to people whose spiritual life has withered? That is, people who feel no connection to God.

I suspect Jesus meant to include all such people when he referred to the poor in spirit. He wanted them to know they were not abandoned and that God is particularly concerned about people in pain. One day their fortunes will be reversed.

However, many theologians throughout the ages have been convinced that Jesus meant something more. They believe that when Jesus spoke of the poor in spirit, he was referring to people who recognize their need for God. That is, people who are humble as opposed to people who are arrogant. Not people who are full of themselves, but people who recognize the void within themselves.

On several occasions in the gospels, we see that some of Jesus’ sharpest words were directed at those who were pious braggarts. Jesus said, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12). On one occasion Jesus pointed to a child and said, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:4)

Author Brian Doyle says that for much of his life he did not understand humility. His parents, school teachers, college professors, and scholarly writers gave him the general idea of what humility entailed. However, “the word humble never registered with him because he was not humble. (He says) he had no real concept of humble until his wife married him which taught him a shocking amount about humility. And then they were graced with children which taught him a stunning amount about humility, and then friends began to wither and die…and he began, slowly and dimly, to realize that humble was the only truly honest way to be…anything else is ultimately cocky, which is either foolish or a deliberate disguise you refuse to remove for complicated reasons maybe not even you know.”2

Humility is the honest recognition that much of life is beyond our control. We cannot fix everything that is broken or guarantee that we will have a good job or trustworthy friends or live a long life. Humility is waking up to the fact that we are dependent on God and a rich life is rooted in living in harmony with the ways of God.

Tony Hoagland died of pancreatic cancer, but before he died, he wrote about his humbling experience and the wisdom he gleaned from his illness. He received treatments at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and wrote about how cancer completely altered his vision of life. He pointed out that in a cancer center you become comrades with people “of different ages, body types, skin colors, religious preferences, mother tongues, and cultural backgrounds.”

He realized that among fellow cancer patients “everyone is simultaneously a have and a have-not. In the land of cancer, no citizens are protected by property, job description, prestige, nor pretensions; they are not even protected by their prejudices. Neither money nor education, nor ambition, can alter the facts. All are cancer citizens, bargaining for more life…(and) It is true that you may not have previously considered these people your compatriots. But now you have more in common with them than with your oldest childhood friends.”

A serious illness focuses your mind like nothing else. Hoagland said, “you can contemplate the long history of your choices, your mistakes, your good luck. You can think about race, too, because most of the people who care for you will be nonwhite, often from other countries. You may be too sick to talk, but you can watch them and learn. Your attention is made keen by need and by your intimate dependence upon these inexhaustibly kind strangers… And when the nurse from the Philippines, or the aide from Houston’s Fifth Ward, or the tech named Dev says, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ you are filled with gratitude for their compassion…”

“This is the stupefying and ultimately transforming thing: that here, where I do not expect it, I encounter decency, patience, compassion, warmth, good humor. I remember the middle-aged nurse from Alabama, his calm Southern twang and beer belly, who stood firm one night, utterly unperturbed while I vomited repeatedly, as if a demon had seized control of my insides. With great empathy, he administered the proper shot until I fell backward into a state of blessed relief. I remember the shift nurse with pale-olive skin and thick eyebrows who, in the middle of the night, brought me hot packs of damp folded towels heated in a microwave. She was from the Middle East, maybe Syria or Egypt. She was so kind and respectful to me that, after she departed, I abruptly burst into tears and blew her a kiss through the closed door.”

Reaching for an understanding of how we human beings can overcome our prejudices and many of the barriers that divide us, Hoagland went on to write: “At the bottom of each human being there is a reset button. Undeniably it is difficult to get to. To reach it seems to require that the ego be demolished. But reach that button and press it, and the world might reshape itself…”3

I’m not certain, but I think there is a good possibility that the word stamped across the reset button is humility.

 You cannot go very far in your spiritual life without humility. You have to know in your soul – not just in your head, but in the essence of your being – that you are not all wise and do not know what to do in every situation. Some people have a strong desire to tell themselves and the world that they deserve 100% of the credit for the successes. Their ego cries out for recognition, for affirmation, for applause.

But when Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” he was pointing to the fact that it is only when we recognize that we are frail, incomplete, and, at times, misguided that we realize our deep need for God. It is when we acknowledge our spiritual poverty that God can fill us. Those who are “poor in Spirit” are blessed because they know that they need God more than anything else and that is when they begin to see glimpses of the kingdom of heaven.

Might this be the perfect time for each of us to check our humility scale?



  1. Rafael Malpica-Padilla, “Rejoice and Be Glad,” Day1.org, November 7, 1999.
  2. Brian Doyle, “The Final Frontier,” Sojourners, January 2016, p. 36.
  3. Tony Hoagland, “The Cure for Racism Is Cancer,” org, September, 2018.



Prayers of the People

Jill Getty


Holy God,

We confess that the beatitudes are difficult to understand, and we wonder about the happiness that we are supposed to find in difficulties especially when the world is filled with never ending suffering and pain.

We each carry our own stories embedded deeply in our hearts and we also carry the stories of our extended families, friends, church members, and the world in our souls.

We confess that we become empty, impoverished shells without your spirit touching us, bringing light, life, healing and giving us guidance during the most trying times. If the beatitudes tell us anything, it is that we need you to sustain us as we go through life’s journey.

Dear God, we pray for those today who are dealing with the harshest realities in our world that have landed them in the hands of evil oppressors, dictators and heartless, greedy, power-hungry leaders. Please God bring your kingdom to them in such a way that they find relief from the heavy burdens they endure and freedom from those who suck the very marrow out of life.

Free them from the dominance of those who only care about themselves.

We pray for those who have suffered under the violent acts of others; for those who have lost loved ones in shootings and stabbings and grieve their losses with such depths that no one but they can understand the turmoil they suffer.

We pray for those who live in poverty across our world; Those who have no food and very little means of acquiring it.  We pray for governments who do not allow aide to come into their countries for fear of losing control and power.

We pray for the poor in our nation who are suffering under the current economic crisis due to low wages and inflation.  We pray for righteousness and justice; for equality and compassion among all people.

Loving God, we pray that we could overcome our prejudices; that we would treat one another with respect; that we would act for the good of humankind; that we would allow love to infiltrate our hearts and souls so deeply that our words and work become part of the healing transformation of the world.

Holy One, bring your nourishment and your transformation to the poverty of our souls so that you can usher the Kingdom of Heaven into our world as we fervently pray and live out the words you gave us:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.