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blessing poverty theology weakness wealth

Poor in Spirit

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Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:3 (NIV)

When Luke records this dictum, he leaves off “in spirit,” so it becomes a saying about poverty. Yet what benefit, what good is there in being poor or in having an attitude of poverty? To answer this, I think we should consider the attitude of the rich.

What does it mean to be rich? What benefits does wealth confer?

Wealth does not make it possible to satisfy all your wants. In fact, there is nothing that can do that. Nevertheless, wealth expands the choices of the rich and provides greater opportunity and access to the means of satisfying more wants. Rich people don’t need anything. Their wealth is sufficient for them.

Consider what Paul tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you!

1 Corinthians 4:8

Paul’s criticism is that their perception of their own wealth has blinded them to the needs they still have. By becoming boastful and proud, they have lost the sense of dependency that is fundamental to the Christian life. Jesus, in his own life, demonstrated that same dependency. He relied on support from his followers for his livelihood, of course, but he again and again announced that the things he was saying and doing did not originate with him but with his Father, the one who sent him.

Like Paul, John also criticizes the church in Laodicea for the same spiritual myopia:

You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

Revelation 3:17, 18

Like the Corinthians, the Laodiceans believed they were rich, and their misapprehension blinded them to their actual poverty and need. Wealth, therefore, comes with a spiritual curse. The rich are less likely to see their own need. This was also the case of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, so rich in their own conception of righteousness but so impoverished in love and care toward their fellow human beings.

The blessing of poverty, therefore, is an awareness of need, of dependence on others, ultimately of dependence on God. To those who are aware of their need, Jesus makes an extraordinary promise. The kingdom of heaven is theirs. That place ruled by God’s love, by mercy and grace, that place which he taught was within their grasp, already belongs to those who know they have needs they cannot meet themselves.

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Where is Heaven?

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The languages of the Bible do not distinguish between “heaven” and “sky.” The sky was an unreachable expanse with lights moving in it, with clouds that watered the earth. Only birds and certain insects could travel there. Perhaps it was natural to assign it as the abode of God and to people it with winged beings—cherubim and seraphim, the angels who make up the armies of God. At some point, however, the meanings of sky as the expanse above our heads and heaven as God’s home turf began to diverge. By the time Jesus appeared, no one who heard him announce that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” thought he was talking about the sky.

Nevertheless, the idea of heaven as a place in the sky persists. In cartoons that show good people after death, we see them dressed in white and sitting on clouds, often with wings like the angels. God and his throne are always “up there,” and many people still refer to heaven as a place where the dead who have lived a good life go to remain in some sense alive through all eternity.

To the ancients, the sky was unreachable but not limitless the way we now regard space11 Of course, there is some dispute about whether space is infinite. We are told that the universe is expanding, but it is not clear whether the emptiness that it is expanding into exists as anything definable. Compared to modern conceptions of space, the ancient heavens were relatively cozy, near enough to be seen, an abode of invisible beings just beyond our grasp. Within my own lifetime, space has become unimaginably vaster and older. I remember as a child learning that the universe was 7 billion years old. Now it is more than 13 billion. New technologies seem to push the edges of the universe ever outward. It’s little wonder we feel lost and insignificant in such vastness. If heaven is simply up from earth, it includes such immensity that we can’t begin to understand the sheer scale of it. Current estimates put the actual size of the universe at 93 billion light-years across, most of it so distant that its light will never reach earth. It will be forever beyond our ken unless we discover some means of traveling faster than light without relativistic aging22 See, for example, Randall Munroe’s How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-world Problems.

When Jesus appeared preaching in Judea and surrounding areas, his message was strange. “Change the way you think33 The traditional English translation of “repent” carries with it a sense of remorse over sin and feelings of guilt and shame. The Greek word means something closer to regret, the sort of self-reproach you have when you discover you’ve taken a wrong turn. The remedy is to turn around. Jesus’ message begins with a declaration that we have taken a wrong turn in our thinking. We need to change the way we think. For Paul, this transformation of the mind needed to become a way of life (Romans 12:1-2).” he declared, “for the kingdom of heaven44 It is worth noting that Matthew is the only gospel writer who uses the term “kingdom of heaven.” The others use “kingdom of God” instead. Matthew (or his source) exhibits a very Jewish reluctance to refer directly to God. is within your grasp.” Jesus announced that the unreachable was within reach, the place of perfect happiness, where God’s good will is always done, was right at your elbow. You can take hold of it.

Some religious leaders once asked Jesus when the kingdom of God would come. He replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”55 Luke 17:20-21. If heaven can be found anywhere, it is in your heart. You can’t get much nearer than that. People with heaven in their hearts bring heaven with them wherever they go, and the influence of their heavenly mindedness spreads out around them and transforms their personal lives, their relationships, their businesses, and their communities. The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who took a little yeast and mixed it with 60 pounds of flour and leavened the whole batch66 Matthew 13:33.. This is not a political agenda; this is a subversion of all worldly systems of power and control. It is a love agenda. It is serving instead of demanding. It is giving instead of taking. It is vulnerability instead of invincibility.

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