Many people look at the poor and see their inferiors, pitiful people, who seem to the observers to be disgraceful. Not only are the poor considered unfortunate, but they’re also thought to be worthy of contempt. Sneers and huffiness skip easily off the tongues of those who are not poor. But I’ve seen many people who are destitute of finances yet don’t live in deplorable conditions. Their living rooms are neat and smell fresher than the homes of some wealthy folks. Their children are bathed, dressed in well-mended clothing, and play with safe toys on clean floors. Poverty does not signal a lower quality of individual, only the amount of money available to take care of basic needs.
This isn’t to suggest that people who have few resources are always admirable. Grinding poverty chips away at your heart and soul, pulverizes your ambition, liquidates your vigor and leaves you without hope or desire. You might become lazy, flighty, shiftless. The stereotype of the poor is a genuine description of some people, and poverty does breed additional poverty, generations of it! When you live long without basic resources, your children have fewer privileges, and they have greater weaknesses to overcome. Not all poverty is a chosen condition, but when the only condition you’ve known is penury, you see yourself as destitute, disfavored, deprived. When you reach this mental, emotional and spiritual pit, you believe yourself to be inferior and act as if you’re insignificant.
Yet Jesus used poverty as an illustration of happiness. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he declared, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3, NIV). The verse is often explained by comments about the poor having no one but God to trust, so in humility and faith they focus on the Almighty. He’s the only hope they know.
The poor I’ve known may have devout faith in the Lord, but their hope is only partially drawn from him. Few of them see God or Christ as their prospective route out of the grinding bowl called poverty. More often, their anticipation comes from self-confidence, pride, and a desire to experience a better life. This is exactly the opposite of what Jesus said in the beatitude. God is their best source of hope, but they don’t believe it. Like most human beings, the poor may be persuaded they themselves are the greatest defense against poverty, against all problems. Optimism rises from within the poor themselves. But self-confidence leads them away from trust in Christ. They aren’t poor in spirit, in attitude, in temperament.
A needy man whose desire for happy days drives him to work hard and achieve more than his neighbors may rise from poverty to wealth. Success may come because he fashions a business out of the gravel he finds at the bottom of the human heap. When driven so far down, he could only look up and begin to climb. Along the way out of poverty, his soul grows stony. Self-confidence becomes arrogance, pride becomes inflexibility, desire becomes obsession. After his spirit is calloused, people turn into tools, and poverty is like a feared rat chasing him around the rooms of his life. He doesn’t become a better person, only a richer one.
Where are the poor in spirit who possess the kingdom of heaven? Aren’t they people whose spirits have chosen humility? They’re the ones who elect not to scramble after position, prestige or power. They pour energy into compassion for others, gentleness of conduct, sincerity of relationship, into placing others’ needs above their own. The poor in spirit are people who understand the value of modesty, reserve, tenderness and calm living. They love others as they love themselves. No wonder they’re blessed! No wonder heaven rules over their lives!