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Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit For Theirs is the Kingdom of the Heavens

January 25, 2014

SermonOur past series on the Creed laid out how we should believe in order to inherit the Kingdom of God, stressing how our beliefs transfigure the entire person leading to a new and holy world of blessed thoughts, sacred sentiments, and virtuous actions. In this new series, we intend to look at what the fathers saw as the perfect exemplar for the Christian life that should inform the choices and sharpen the focus of the Christian even as the Law of Moses guides the Jew in day-to-day life. The subject, then, of this new series will be the Sermon on the Mount in which the Lord Christ spoke about the kind of life that leads the blessedness of God ruling the human heart. The word μακάροι translated as blessed, selected by the Evangelist Matthew, is etymologically unrelated to our word for blessing (εὐλογία), but rather refers to a fortunate state that in Greek mythology was reserved only to the gods of Olympus who were secure from the ills of life and threat of death. Later, patristic thought would use another word, dispassionate (ἀπαθής), to refer to this state. But what is clear is that the Lord is showing a way to freedom, freedom from reacting to fears and threats as well as the safety and security of knowing that God is ruling the heart and guiding us according to His Holy Providence towards the harbor of His love. It is a path that can purify, illumine, and even deify the believer who walks on it in his heart and in his life.

In commenting on this particular passage, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens,” Saint John Chrysostom highlights the words “in spirit,” for there is no blessedness, meaning safety from ills and suffering, in material poverty, quite the contrary in fact! Poor in spirit refers to a particular disposition or orientation of the soul.  Saint John writes, “What is meant by ‘the poor in spirit?’ The humble and contrite in their reasoning mind. For by ‘spirit’ He is referring to the soul and our ability to choose. After all, many become humble because of the pressures from their circumstances, but He does not refer to them, for that is not a matter for praise. Rather, He calls blessed first those who are humble and modest” (Homily 15 on Matthew, PG 57.223). This means that blessedness is in our hands, so to speak, if we make the choice to be humble above all about our thoughts, our conjectures, our conclusions, and our estimations. This means we don’t let our thoughts break out into emotions and actions, but we bring everything in our being before God and then in God’s presence walk forward, feeling, thinking, and acting as humble children of light in a darkened world. Being humble certainly does not mean being passive, it is watchfully active and intentionally sacrificial. In fact, further along in his commentary, Saint John provides the example of the Psalmist who notes that “The sacrifice for God is a contrite spirit, a contrite and a humble heart God will not despise.”

This poverty in spirit, characterized by voluntary humility and contrition, has already become a primary theme in the preaching and teaching of Christ’s public ministry.  In chapter 3 of Matthew, Jesus approaches John the Forerunner and voluntarily condescends to baptism. In the following chapter, Jesus confronts the pride and vanity of Satan through humility. And now in chapter 5, He makes it the very beginning of the path to blessedness, leading to the kingdom of God. Proper contrition leads to humility, the crown of the virtues.  Saint Melania once wrote, “All the virtues and all ascesis are in vain without love.  The Devil can easily imitate all our virtues; he is conquered only by humility and charity” (Roman Synaxarion).

Yet, we must ask ourselves, “How does this poverty in spirit function in the circumstances of our daily lives?”  Perhaps the most obvious way in which poverty in spirit can be practiced in daily life is keeping vigilant watch over our speech.  Saint Theophan the Recluse advises, “When you have to speak, before expressing what has entered your heart and letting it pass to your tongue, examine it carefully; and you will find many things that are better to not let past your lips. Know moreover that many things, which seem to you good to express, are much better left buried in the tomb of silence” (Unseen Warfare, chapter 24). His counsel is also found in many places in sacred scripture and the works of the fathers. Saint Arsenios used to say, “Many times, having spoken, I later regretted it, but never have I regretted keeping silent.” Likewise Psalm 141 read at every Vespers instructs the faithful, “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.”

A second practical application that may be useful in cultivating poverty in spirit concerns one’s thoughts about others, i.e., not judging others.  The clearest example of this may be found in the Lord’s parable about the Pharisee and the Publican.  While the Pharisee sought to “puff himself up” in comparison with the lowly Publican, the Publican placed his faith and hope in the Lord’s mercy.  He did not seek to compare himself with anyone else or judge anyone else.  Rather, he focused on his own state and asked the Lord for mercy.  In the end, it was the Publican who was justified (and deemed blessed) and not the Pharisee.

In the circumstances of our daily lives, poverty in spirit is cultivated by the continual and voluntary recognition of our dependence upon God.  It is characterized by a perpetual distrust in our own ability to save ourselves or justify ourselves.  Even our talents and abilities are viewed as gifts from the Lord above and to be used for His glory and our salvation.  We are mere stewards of these gifts and they are to be utilized as aids in our journey to the Kingdom.  If we live our lives in such a way as to cultivate this poverty in spirit, we are promised a kingdom that is eternal and blessed. In fact, if we become poor in spirit, it is already ours.

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