“The poor in spirit,” Matthew 5:3
Where in the context of New Testament anthropology is this understanding of some human beings located? It is clear this statement is not an anthropological definition of “the poor.” Neither is it a statement about the Holy Spirit. It is about a specific category of people, as is those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. Spirit, in that it pertains to human beings, is the activity of willing, the exercise of power, and the capacity to perceive meanings of the outer world in relationship with inner strivings.
The poor in spirit are those who are almost completely deficient in spirit. The emphasis here is on spirit. Is it possible that the statement refers to a medical or psychological condition? Perhaps it is something like depression, or despair? Mark 2:17 – “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.” Perhaps this verse can throw some light on the poor in spirit.
Kierkegaard reminds us that the human being is a spirit, a self, a synthesis. With the disappearance of the synthesis, or any element of it, human being disappears into an inward void, detached, inaccessible, in a state of complete despair. This is existential alienation and abandonment.
Such persons live in complete isolation and loneliness, their suffering is so intense that it can hardly be described. They can neither describe nor name their illness, for they are as yet completely unaware that they are ill. Neither do they demonstrate any sense of wellness. The illness manifests itself in withdrawal, and the state of existence of these persons is withdrawal. The phenomenon of withdrawal is characterized by the taking into oneself one’s entire external world, relationships, modes of being, modes of acting and modes of speaking, rejected by the outer world and confined to an inner world of silence.
This internalized state of existence makes them unable to reach beyond themselves, because for them “beyond themselves” does not exist. They have been exiled to an unfathomable land whose geography is probably best described by “here” and “now.” They live in a land of here and now. They have neither past nor future. Nothing impels them, nothing beckons them. They have been abandoned by both history and hope. Their entire existence is enclosed in a rigid small space out of which they have no possibility of emerging or escaping.
This enclosed tiny space has its own peculiar meaning. I am reminded of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych. Toward the end of Ivan’s life we read:
“All those three days, during which time did not exist for him, he was struggling in that black sack in which he was being thrust by an unseen resistless force. He struggled as the man condemned to death struggles in the hands of his executioner, knowing that he cannot save himself. And every moment he felt that in spite of all his efforts to struggle against it, he was getting nearer and nearer to what terrified him.
“At that very moment Ivan Ilych had rolled into the hole and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that his life had not been what it ought to have been, but that that could still be set right.”
The poor in spirit completely despairing in their isolated existence are not totally devoid of hope. In their geography of here and now, in their kingdom of the present, the kingdom of this passing world, arrives a promise. Something awaits them beyond their understanding, beyond their reach, as all of God’s gifts are beyond my understanding and beyond my reach. The Light of the world appears, announcing the arrival of a newer world. “Repent and believe. The Kingdom of God has come among you.”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Some thoughts on a rainy afternoon.