The Good Life: The Beggar's Wealth
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Wealth and the Favor of God
The world traces a curious line back to the origins of wealth. Poverty and suffering, they affirm, are the result of wickedness, laziness, and evil. Riches and health, however, are a sign of God’s favor. Even Job’s friends tout this attitude in response to the righteous man’s great suffering (Job 8:5-7). Sociologist Max Weber affirmed this idea in his seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, claiming it as the underpinning of capitalism. He claimed that if a person wanted
“to be certain of his state of grace (i.e., salvation), ‘do the works of him who sent him, as long as it is yet day’. Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God, according to the definite manifestations of His will” (104).
According to this writing, the Calvinist teaching of predestination (click here to learn more about this belief) laid a gnawing anxiety on the average person’s conscience. How, the pious individual ponders, can I know that God chose to save me? In Weber’s reckoning, certainty could never be fully had this side of heaven.* One, therefore, demonstrated his salvation by working hard and not wasting time, which is sinful. The wealth generated in these efforts gave the laborer tangible proof of his salvation.
Jesus, however, teaches us that wealth, while not inherently evil, is neither a fruit of righteous living nor proof that one is right with God. The Father, from whom all material blessings come, “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Naked we came to this world, and empty-handed from it we shall depart.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit”
In stark contrast to the world’s perception of wealth, Jesus teaches that an impoverished spirit is a noble virtue. We should be ever aware that our own lives can never produce enough virtue to merit God’s grace. When we approach the Lord’s throne, it should be with empty hands extended in supplication (acknowledgment of our need). Of this the prophet Isaiah writes, “This is the man to whom I will look: he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). The beggar who approaches the Father will receive a kingdom, yet the man who styles himself a king will receive nothing, for his pride fools him into thinking he has all he already needs. The self-satisfied man is just as impoverished as the beggar, but the hubris of the former blinds him to the fact. The poor in spirit, however, realize that they have nothing in their own strength. "God gives where he finds empty hands” (St. Augustine). As we draw near to God with empty hands stretched out, we can be confident that we will receive a kingdom.
“Theirs is the kingdom of heaven”
In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), Christ links an impoverished spirit with God’s will being done on earth. Because an awareness of our own emptiness is necessary to approach God’s throne, we must trust that God is a good Father who will give us what we need (“Our Father in heaven…give us today our daily bread”). The Lord promises to give us what we lack, for his hands are the ones kneading our daily bread.
As we witness the Father provide what we need on a daily basis, we gain the boldness to request the next part of the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” When we implore him to send his dominion to earth, we are asking him to uproot injustice, to obliterate oppression, and to unnerve disbelief. Were we to depend on our own strength, the evil cycle of the world would roll on eternally. Relying on the power of God, however, sin’s wheel can be broken. Ultimately, God will be the one who fully establishes his kingdom on earth, but he longs to use us to give the world a foretaste of what that dominion will entail. While this is a thrilling prospect, it is only accessible through the suffering of self-honesty. The path of contrition, owning up to our emptiness, is pitted with pain, but it is the lane on which the Kingdom is carried. Open your hands, therefore, O broken beggar, for your King has called you to herald his Coming.
*Note: this is somewhat of a caricature of Reformed theology. Your baptism, hearing the regular preaching of the gospel, and the faith you exercise through both give you certainty that you are saved. In short, trust Jesus, go to a Bible-preaching church, and don’t worry.
For further reading:
DeYoung, Kevin. “A Meditation on Strength and Weakness”.
Passion City Church DC, sermon (5/5/19). “Your Kingdom Come” (podcast).
Smith, Colin. “What it Means to Be Poor In Spirit”.
Smith, D. Blair. “Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit”.