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?