Who are the “poor in spirit”?

That was the burning question last night at our first Lenten Bible Study on the Sermon on the Mount. We began and ended with the Beatitudes, exploring what they meant in the historical context, in the context of Matthew’s gospel, and in the context of our own lives. The behaviors and attitudes Jesus blesses (declares happy), are they things to which we should aspire?

We struggled most with “poor in spirit.” What does  that mean? One powerful suggestion was that it refers to those who are beaten down by life, dejected, depressed, hopeless. Perhaps it refers to those who are spiritually empty, or empty themselves spiritually to receive God’s grace.

Frederick Buechner proposes that the poor in spirit “are the ones who spiritually speaking, have absolutely nothing to give and absolutely everything to receive …” That fits with another theme in Matthew’s gospel, the emphasis on the weakest, most vulnerable, “the little ones” (cf Mt 18:6).

In Christian communities, our tendency is to do just what we do in the rest of life, distinguish between the proficient and the struggling, the powerful and the weak, the successful and those who fail. God’s reign entails a reversal of values. We’re somewhat comfortable when the values that are reversed are material, there’s plenty of biblical precedent for that. What if God’s reign entails a reversal of spiritual values, too? What might that mean?

Kathleen Norris’ lecture at the Frederick Buechner Center

“So what” is an essential question for people of faith: what does it matter that we worship, or meditate, or chant sutras? Another way of looking at that question — one that any church congregation could ask itself — is what would we, our neighborhood, our society miss if we weren’t here — we crazy people who choose to act as if God does indeed exist? The rector of my church in Honolulu asked that question of our congregation several years ago, and it moved us to expand our ministries in ways we could never have foreseen. We now offer free-wi-fi to the neighborhood; and host a weekly farmer’s market. We added a hot lunch to our monthly grocery give-away, giving our many elderly neighbors who come a rare chance to socialize.

But sometimes just the presence of a church — a space for something as useless and marvelous as worship — can be a powerful witness. Last year a woman staggered into our church office — she’d had a bad fight with her boyfriend, and had taken an overdose of barbiturates. She’d left their apartment, and after wandering for a bit, was headed to a park where she might curl up under a tree and die. We’re across the street from that park; and the woman told the church secretary that when she saw the church she realized that she wanted to live. Tell that story the next time an atheist tries to tell you that churches serve no purpose; or a misguided and bitter poet says that religious language is a dead language.

via Frederick Buechner Center.