Spiritual Poverty

by Fr. Ceslas Spicq O.P., classes given in 1973 at Ecône on St. Luke’s gospel.


“Blessed are the poor” is the first Beatitude given both in St. Matthew, who counts eight such blessings, and in St. Luke, who counts only four. In St. Luke, the stress is on all forms of poverty, including suffering, mourning, and hunger. The same author also adds the four opposite curses: riches, satiety, exuberant joy, and popularity. All too often, a quick read has led to the belief that only the poor are God’s chosen ones and the rich are cursed as such, and that these Gospel maxims could be the logo of the Theology of Liberation. Nothing can be further from the truth, as we will see by analyzing the proper scriptural meaning of the Beatitudes.

The Poor in Spirit

This Beatitude of the poor is given an abstract touch in St. Matthew by the addition: “poor… in spirit.” This means that not all the poor are blessed but only those who are spiritually so. The best translation from the original is: “Blessed are those who have the sense of their indigence.”

The same concept of spiritual poverty is evoked with the other Beatitudes mentioned by St. Luke: “Blessed are those who [presently] suffer hunger after justice’s sake; they shall be satiated.” Hunger is the mark of poverty and privation. We are again dealing with the poor: oppressed and defenseless persons who have no hope but in God. Far from being the exception, this was the life of the immense majority in antiquity, which enjoyed no citizenship, no protection, and no rights whatsoever, with only too rare exceptions. Such too was the lot of much of Israel’s political situation: a country ravaged by wars and tribulations within and without.

The imprecation which St. Luke brings up against the rich follows the meaning we gave to the blessings. Jesus does not curse the human riches, satisfaction, and joy as such. The curse falls only upon those who are not, and refuse to become, His disciples. Jesus directs His discourse to two clear-cut and abstract categories: the type of the rich like Dives, and the type of the poor like Lazarus of the same parable. What He means is that the poverty of the latter is as much a help to Christ’s disciples as the riches of the former is rather an obstacle.

We are Begging Creatures

“Blessed are the poor.” The Greek ptochoi has a definite realistic sense of “beggar,” “vagabond,” and “tramp.” In St. Luke, Our Lord seems to direct His words specifically to His disciples, using the term “you” rather than the “they” of St. Matthew. Hence, the sense would be that: “For you, my disciples, without money or possession, who have left behind the means of subsistence, poverty is a blessing, because now, you are really dependent on God and you are entitled to expect everything from Him.” It has inspired the practice of all evangelical counsels lived by monks and nuns who profess the three vows. It is interesting to notice also that the practice of the vows is intimately connected with the theological virtues. One practices poverty because one hopes and expects all from God; obedience because one believes and submits himself to God; chastity because one loves God above all else.

And this is in line with the Biblical tradition which praises those who know that they are nothing and are happy to be so. In the Bible, God in person takes care of the birds, which neither amass nor sow the fields. Spiritual poverty, that is, poverty of heart, means dependence. For St. Thomas Aquinas, poverty deserves the dignity of virtue only when we recognize ourselves as the clients of divine Providence. The apostles left all for Christ and became thus dependent on Him to care for them.

The Greek term for “poor,” ptochos, comes from ptosso, which means “to diminish oneself,” “to shrink.” Hence, it has the sense of humiliation, oppression, and not of mere physical indigence. St. Albert the Great defines the poor as the one who is not self-sufficient. The human creature has been described as “an ardent vacuity which, though open to all things, is a congenital naught.” This nuance runs through the psalms which are characterized by the resignation and submission of the creature to God’s will. We are light years away from the atheistic workman so praised in some circles for being poor. Such a one will not deserve the divine blessings in the mind of the psalmist.

In Biblical terms, “poverty” is another term for the religious soul, which is the beneficiary of God’s good pleasure. Israel as the penitent nation is the “poor” which moves God to pity (Is. 49:13), God protects the poor (Ps. 9:13-19; 34:7; 35:10), and the Messiah will deliver him (Ps. 72:2-4 and 12-13). The poor is the man of low condition, mistreated, humbled, awaiting all his help from God. He is the client of God and all his joy lies in the expectation of the messianic kingdom (Is. 61:1). He is presumably the first beneficiary of the messianic kingdom which will benefit the religious men. Resigned and abandoned as he is to Providence, prompt to obey God’s orders, he will become the pious man and deserve the praiseworthy epithet of ‘just’ which was attributed to St. Joseph among others.

The Kingdom of Heaven

The “kingdom of heaven” is a Biblical expression, which replaces the “kingdom of God,” since the Jews avoided scrupulously using God’s name for fear of misusing His name in vain. What “the kingdom of heaven” refers to is the totality of good to hope for, the sum total of the aspirations of the pious nation of Israel. In other words, it means the messianic era (Dan. 2:44), the kingdom which the God of heaven will raise forever through the Messias.

Estin: means “is,” with the verb in the present tense. The meaning is: “To you the kingdom!” This is not a promise but a contract; and this contract, this kingdom of God, is inaugurated here and now. The poor have already started to penetrate the kingdom and are presently in possession of its riches. Hence, the paradox of “to you who are poor is the true riches!”

Our Lord, in His Magna Charta of Christian morality (Mt. Ch. 5-8), wishes to change nothing to the social or political landscape, and does not even denounce the crying injustice. Since the outer circumstances are not going to be reformed overnight, He advocates for reforming the way the soul deals with its lot. He calls “blessed” those who suffer…Why? because God will calm their hunger. This “justice” which they hunger for is the messianic salvation. For, by it, their right will be recognized and no tyrant will ever steal it away from them. This is the logical conclusion of the state of the poor, and a leitmotiv of the prophecies and the Psalms: the messianic salvation will bring about peace (Ps. 17:14; Jer. 34: 23).

The idea is reinforced with the next beatitudes of those who mourn and those who are hated. Those who, for centuries, have been afflicted, miserable, and have awaited the salvation of Israel, shall be consoled (Is. 61:1; Sir. 48:24). Just recall Simeon’s prophecy at the Presentation in the Temple: “Now let your servant, Lord, go in peace.” It is the sigh of an impatient soul saying: “I have suffered enough! It is high time for me to return to you.” The miserable troop of those who lament is drawn from the defenseless, the poor, and the humble, easy prey open to injustice and violence. Hence, the Messias will have another task at hand: to bring consolation (the “Paraclete” of Jn. 16:20; Apoc. 7:17; Is. 49:3; 51:12; 66:13). Indeed, another typical designation of the Messias is that of “the Consoler” (Lk. 4:18; Apoc. 21:4).

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What poverty is suggested by Our Lord here? He speaks of a spiritual poverty, of detachment of heart from the goods of this life, as is commonplace in Scripture. All the aspects of poverty, including hunger and persecution, are blessed in as much as they favor the interior virtues, gateway to the kingdom of heaven. And, when St. Luke contrasts the fourfold blessings with the four opposite curses of riches, satiety, exuberant joy, and popularity, he stresses that they are commonly the source of dangerous temptations. The “poor in spirit” really points to souls that thirst for God, are dependent on Him, and rely upon His justice and mercy; therefore, they expect nothing from a world passing like a shadow. These poor creatures are rich with the only lasting riches: the adopted filiation by God and the certitude of its eternal inheritance.