Sometimes the Gospel confronts me with a painful realization, an insight I don’t want to face. I’d like to cling to my naïve view that the spiritual journey is a self-improvement project, a path defined by what I achieve, a way to earn and deserve a reward. Yet, there it is – the lead sentence in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5: 3) The poor are blessed? Really? Are you sure? That’s not the way I want it to work!
I see myself as talented, hardworking, and achievement-oriented. As a result, viewing the spiritual journey as a self-improvement project is highly seductive. It plays to my strengths, gives me a way to succeed, and provides me with a goal my ego understands.
Then I find myself confronted by the clever wisdom of Mirabai Starr. She asks me and a thousand others in a crowded conference room a disarming question: “How’s your self-improvement project going?” Taking her question to heart and being honest with myself leads me to an unsettling conclusion. No matter how hard I try, even my best efforts come up short.
Mirabai’s question cracks open a door; it urges me to consider another way. No matter how noble my intentions or virtuous my actions, I am unable to save myself. God alone has the power to heal and redeem. That insight forces me – painfully, even against my will – to admit my need and accept my powerlessness. It opens me to God in a new and more profound way.
When I acknowledge my humanness, I am able to let God be God. I am invited to open my mind, my heart, and my spirit to God’s healing and redeeming power. It creates the possibility of moving beyond my relentless self-determination and my persistent yet futile struggle to achieve perfection. Facing that honest self-reckoning urges me to swallow my pride and tame my ego. It causes me to reflect on what it means to be poor in spirit and on what the kingdom that Jesus announces and embodies is all about.
To dramatize something of what it means to be poor in spirit, Jesus tells a parable about two men praying – a Pharisee and a tax collector. (Luke 18: 9-14) Luke points out that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” The Pharisee represents the religious elite, and the tax collector is a social outcast. Tax collectors were considered traitors who conspired with the Romans and cheaters who defrauded their fellow Jews. No one in Jesus’ audience would miss the tension of such a dramatic contrast.
The prayer of the two men could not be more different. The Pharisee thanks God that he is not “like other people” – citing a list of sinners, including the tax collector. He then goes on to boast about his own efforts of fasting and tithing. In contrast, the tax collector’s prayer is a humble, heartfelt acknowledgement of his sinfulness. He is contrite and begs for mercy. Jesus ends the story with an unmistakable conclusion: “This man (the tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other.”
Jesus’ parable helps open our minds and our hearts to grasp what it means to be poor in spirit. It encourages us to embrace several challenges in becoming poor in spirit.
Becoming poor in spirit requires challenging us to reconsider how we see ourselves. In what ways are we like the Pharisee – projecting an inflated view of ourselves, presuming our motives are pure, and seeing our actions as a way to earn and deserve God’s favor? By contrast, in what ways are we like the tax collector – recognizing our faults and failings, grounding our life and our prayer in self-awareness, and humbly begging for mercy? My reluctant conclusion is that all too often I am like the Pharisee, and there is much that I need to learn from the tax collector.
Becoming poor in spirit challenges us to decide where to place our trust. The Pharisee – and those like him in Jesus’ audience – put their trust in themselves and their own efforts. They relied on their religious practices – their own self-improvement projects – to justify themselves and earn righteousness. The tax collector has recognized the limits of his own behavior and his utter inability to save himself. He admitted his own unworthiness and begged for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Being poor in spirit urges us to adopt the stance of the tax collector, to acknowledge our own unworthiness, and to rely totally on God’s mercy.
Becoming poor in spirit challenges us to rethink how we regard others and relate to them. The Pharisee sees himself as separate from those he judges to be somehow less than he is. In his arrogant self-perception, he asserts that he is “not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” He is sure that he is “one up,” better than they are, in some way privileged and superior. Becoming poor in spirit opens us to an inclusive view of God’s presence within and among us. It is a vision of radical solidarity. My priest friend John captured this notion in a very different prayer: “Thank God that I AM like other people.” He grasped the inclusive nature of community and human solidarity: we are all one, united in the body of Christ. Paul says it clearly: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3: 28)
Becoming poor in spirit opens us to what Jesus calls the kingdom – God’s presence within and among us. Jesus urges us to live with a deep humility – grasping that the greatest are called to serve the least. Being poor in spirit means being ready at any moment to wash the feet of others. It invites us to take on the mind of Christ – emptying ourselves and pouring out our lives in service of others. Becoming poor in spirit calls us to recognize Christ in strangers and immigrants; in those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, or imprisoned; and in all who are vulnerable in any way.
Ultimately, becoming poor in spirit deepens our understanding of the cross. It is an instrument of death transformed by Jesus’ self-emptying surrender into the definitive symbol of redemption, new life, and resurrection. Becoming poor in spirit is a lifelong journey of transformation. It requires abandoning our feeble self-improvement projects and surrendering ever more deeply to the presence of God within and among us. That journey calls us to abandon our resistance to being poor in spirit and embrace the promise of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The poor in spirit blessed? Yes! . . . Really!
Questions to Ponder
Here are several questions to help you reflect on and embrace being poor in spirit.
- In what ways have you experienced seeing the spiritual journey as a self-improvement project?
- In what ways are you challenged by Jesus’ teaching: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven?
- As you reflect on the contrast in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, what insights come to mind?
- In what ways does being poor in spirit challenge you to:
- See yourself in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector?
- Reconsider whether you place your trust in your own efforts or in the mercy, forgiveness, and love of God?
- Rethink how you regard others and relate to them?
- In what ways are you being called to embrace being poor in spirit as a lifelong journey of transformation?