Poor in Spirit – Rudolf Horst, SVD

Matthew 5:1-12a, Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes challenge us all. When Jesus calls blessed the poor in spirit and those hungry for righteousness, he is also condemning the self-satisfaction that leads to sloth, a deadly disease that’s risen to epidemic proportions in the world.

Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” is probably the most famous sermon of all time. And the opening lines of that sermon are equally famous – for 2,000 years they’ve been known as “the Beatitudes.”

In nine short verses, Jesus lays out the character sketch of the spiritually successful person who is truly blest, fortunate, positioned to experience perfect happiness and the fullness of joy. This is what “beatitude” means.

Now the very first qualification takes us back a bit. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Is Jesus endorsing poverty? Is he a Marxist who champions the proletariat and vilifies the bourgeoisie?

Not at all. Note that he is talking about the “poor in spirit” here. What does this mean?

Last Wednesday we had a long discussion in my 4th year Theology-class at MST. One Seminarian who has to give today a homily in his apostolate area of Payatas, asked: “How can I preach blessed are the poor, as Luke puts it, being surrounded by people who not just live in but suffer tremendously because of poverty. In a place where the henchmen of the President enter every day and night and kill “alleged” drug users, killing innocent people and cause children who see their fathers shot a lifelong trauma?

One Seminarian from Latin America commented: When the Spaniards occupied our country, they kept the people poor, meaning dependent, and the Spanish priests consoled the people by quoting Jesus: “Don’t worry, blessed are the poor.”

In today’s gospel by Matthew, there are two words added, namely ‘in spirit’, ‘blessed are the poor in spirit.’ What does this mean?

We have to go back to the time of Jesus when in his society there were the Anawim, those people who were materially poor but relied totally on God. A god example is Mary. In other words, the poor in spirit are those who are aware of their own smallness and emptiness. The poor in spirit are not those who recognize how puny they are before the mysteries of the Universe and the Creator of that Universe. They don’t let their own accomplishments and abilities blind them to their mortality and vulnerability. The poor in spirit don’t fool themselves, they were aware of the truth Clive James expressed in a sentence a friend sent me yesterday as text: “Stop worrying – nobody gets out of this world alive.”

And why are they blessed? Those who are not influential, educated or wealthy have an easier time recognizing their need since it stares them in the face every place they turn. For this reason, the Church was full of such people in the New Testament era, just as it is today. The poor of spirit are empty and so long to be filled. They hunger and thirst for the wholeness that is called holiness, for the food that truly satisfies.

After an hour-long discussion, one Seminarian suddenly asked, “But who are the rich in spirit?”

Hmmm, the term does not appear in the gospels. But true, if there are ‘poor in spirit’, there must also be people who are rich in spirit’. And it must be people who are opposite to the ‘poor in spirit.’

Jesus mentions elsewhere how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom because it is very easy for the successful to lose touch with their neediness and to actually believe the flattery of the people around them.

The rich in spirit don’t hunger for anything. They are “full of themselves,” self-satisfied. When offered an opportunity to grow spiritually, they protest “but I’m a good person and worship God in my own way” or “I go to Church every Sunday, isn’t that enough?” Such people are too busy for prayer and yawn when exposed to a spiritual discussion. They are too absorbed with themselves to be interested in God. They may get excited about a famous basketball team or about Miss Universe, but never about heaven.

This lack of spiritual hunger, this utter apathy in the face of the things of God, is actually one of the Seven Deadly Sins. It is called Sloth or spiritual laziness. Sloth is a sneaky sin that quietly creeps into the lives of even religious people and gradually chokes out true spirituality. It diverts our attention from the things of heaven to a countless other things until we find ourselves bored with God, making only routine and mechanical efforts, at best, to “fulfill our Sunday obligation.” There is no passion, no zeal, no desire–just lots of excuses.

About 10 days ago Pope Francis spoke about this spiritual laziness to be found in lay people, priests and even bishops. He called these Christians “parked Christians; they have found in the Church a good place to park. For them the Church is a parking place that protects life, and they go forward with all the insurance possible. But these are stationary Christians.”

These are the rich in spirit who are not called blessed.

Reading the Sermon on the Mount, and especially the Beatitudes, is a good check. It’s one of the best of all examinations of conscience, perfect to read before every confession and every Lent.

One month from now, on March 1, we enter again the season of Lent. The fasting is meant to re-stimulate our spiritual appetite. The spiritual exercises are designed to shrug off the laziness of sloth. Christianity is not just a matter of believing in God, but avidly pursuing Him. “A Christian,” Pope Francis said recently, “cannot stop but must move on, constantly following Christ who never stops.”

So, the question we can reflect on now for a few minutes is: Am I poor in spirt, or rich in spirit? Have I become a lazy, a “parked” Christian, or do I strive to become an ever better follower of Christ?

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