The “poor in spirit” are those who cast themselves on God's grace. We personally acknowledge our spiritual bankruptcy before God. It is the tax collector in the temple, beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:9-14). It is an honest confession that we are sinful and utterly without moral virtues needed to please God. It is the opposite of arrogance. In its deepest form, it acknowledges our desperate need for God. Jesus is declaring that it is a blessing to recognize our need to be filled by God’s grace.
Thus, at the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, we learn that we don’t have the spiritual resources in ourselves to put Jesus’ teachings into practice. We can't fulfill God’s call by ourselves. Blessed are those who realize they are spiritually bankrupt, for this realization turns them to God, without whom they cannot fulfill what they are created to do and be. Much of the rest of the sermon rips away from us the self-delusion that we are capable of acquiring a state of blessedness on our own. It aims to produce in us a genuine poverty of spirit.
What is the practical result of this blessing? If we are poor in spirit, we are able to bring an honest appraisal of ourselves to our work. We don't inflate our résumé or boast about our position. We know how difficult it is to work with people who cannot learn, grow, or accept correction because they are trying to maintain an inflated picture of themselves. So we commit ourselves to honesty about ourselves. We remember that even Jesus, when he started working with wood, must have needed guidance and instruction. At the same time, we acknowledge that only with God at work within us can we put Jesus’ teachings into practice on the job. We seek God’s presence and strength in our lives each day as we live as Christians where we work.
In the fallen world, poverty of spirit may seem to be a hindrance to success and advancement. Often this is an illusion. Who is likely to be more successful in the long run? A leader who says, “Fear not, I can handle anything, just do as I say,” or a leader who says, “Together, we can do it, but everyone will have to perform better than ever before.” If there was ever a time when an arrogant, self-promoting leader was considered greater than a humble, empowering leader, that time is passing, at least within the best organizations. For example, a humble leader is the first characteristic mark of companies that achieve sustained greatness, according to Jim Collins’s well-known research. Of course, many workplaces remain stuck in the old kingdom of self-promotion and inflated self-appraisal. In some situations, the best practical advice may be to find another workplace if at all possible. In other cases, leaving the job may not be possible, or it may not be desirable, because by staying a Christian could be an important force for good. In these situations, the poor in spirit are all the more a blessing to those around them.
Luke renders this as “blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20). Scholars have debated which of the two accounts is primary. Jesus opens his ministry in Luke 4:16-18 by reading from Isaiah 61:1, saying that he has come “to preach the gospel to the poor.” When John the Baptist questions whether Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus replies, “The good news is preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:5). But other scholars point out that “the poor” are the humble and devout who seek God, which suggests that “poor in spirit” is the primary sense. This accords with Isaiah 66:2, “But this is the person to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word.” Jesus references “the poor” fifteen times in the gospels. Three times he refers to those who have nothing to eat, but eleven times he refers to the humble and pious who seek God. Perhaps the best resolution is that the biblical concept of the “poor” refers both to socioeconomic poverty and spiritual bankruptcy, and the consequent need to depend on God.
Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001), 20.