Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3)

The pithiness of some of Jesus’ teachings, coupled with their familiarity in the church, often empties them of their radicality and counter-intuitive divergence from commonsense. Translated into the language of ethics for what Christians must do or become on the sanctified path of maturity, their affront is traded for a manageable to-do list. I get it: Everyone has questions about how to best live their lives, to do the right thing and not feel guilty. But the search for immediate ethical relevance frequently misses the forest for the trees.

This is particularly true of Jesus’ blessing of “the poor in spirit,” a phrase commonly understood as those who have the virtue of humility. The “poor in spirit” are said to be the spiritually lowly before God, who are blessed for their contrition. Unfortunately, this misses Jesus’ actual point, exchanging revolutionary paradox for the narrower (safer) gate of piety. Jesus isn’t prescribing some ethical ideal that people need to attain in order to climb the stairway to heaven (sorry, couldn’t resist), or a better version of you that you need to be for God to like you. As one commentator put it, Jesus here doesn’t offer a “list of entrance requirements for the kingdom as [he] offers comfort to the saints”. Again, I get it: We all want the promise of God’s blessing to shield us from our own self-doubt. Humility feels like an attainable low bar because it coheres with and reinforces our pre-existing anxieties of inadequacy.

But the poverty of which Jesus speaks isn’t a religious disposition or the attitude of remorse, but a state of disaster and loss of all worldly security. The “poor in spirit” Jesus extols have had their spirits quelled by tragedies and hit rock bottom — their intrinsic givens offer no way out of their circumstances. Jesus regards as blessed those who have no safety nets left and who cannot help themselves (namely, everyone).

Jesus ministered to the educated elites and the illiterate masses; he indiscriminately broke bread with the poor and sipped fine wine with the rich. He came for everyone. But the people who called Jesus their friend were not those we might deem to be worthy, laudable, or #blessed. The “poor in spirit” were drawn to Jesus like children to an ice cream truck on a hot summer’s day: the destitute beggars with no familial support, rich tax collectors who betrayed the trust of their neighbors, a zealot who we might today deem a terrorist (Lk 6:15), and even a Roman henchman whose daughter suffered from inoperable disease.

The ministry of Jesus cut across worldly divides in ways that were unfathomable to his peers and to us today, extending from outright criminals to the hopelessly destitute, from the compulsive liar to the protester in the street who has had enough. As Howard Thurman noted, “wherever a need is laid bare, those who stand in the presence of it can be confronted with the experience of universality that makes all class and race divisions impertinent” (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 93). Jesus offered an entirely new way of viewing the world that transcended factions and tribes, where worth before God was measured by the universal experiences of failure and suffering. Both sinners and victims stand together under the banner of divine blessing, united by loss and alienation from worldly security. Together, they find common cause in their disparate experiences of grief and desolation and the one God who is making all things new.

God hears the cries of tragedy that ring out from the streets of Minneapolis to the tear-soaked pillows across the world and unequivocally aligns himself with them and their desperation. He is the great physician who came to restore the wounded to health and assure them of a better tomorrow. Under the shadow of his comforting and life-giving wings, we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, running to the places of despondency because that’s where we first met Jesus ourselves. If there is an entrance requirement to the kingdom of heaven it is merely our sorrow, frustrations, and sin. It beckons all people, from east and west, white and black, sinner and saint, into a great congregation of the needy and calls them blessed. Blessed are the broken, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.