Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
Traditionally, poor in spirit means “humble,” but as St. John Chrysostom explains, poor in spirit signifies “humble” with an added dimension: It refers, really, to those who were humble by choice, not those who became humble because they were forced by circumstances into humble pie. As a person from a particularly proud country at a particularly proud time and living in a culture that is ridiculously proud, egotistical, narcissistic and ambitious, these concepts make me squirm just a tad.
“What is meant by ‘the poor in spirit?'” St. Chrysostom said in his fifteenth homily. “The humble and contrite in mind. For by ‘spirit’ He hath here designated the soul, and the faculty of choice. That is, since many are humble not willingly, but compelled by stress of circumstances; letting these pass (for this were no matter of praise), He blesses them first, who by choice humble and contract themselves.”
I have known people who appeared quite humble — modest, quiet, non-self-assuming… I think the word we’re looking for is non-egotistical. They were not as self-centered as they rest of us are. They seemed to have been born with a natural humility that was built in to their personality. But, St. Chrysostom tells us, Jesus really seeks to bless those who were not only lowly but are “awestruck,” and who “tremble at the commandments of God.” Perhaps, then, acting humble is not enough, but abiding in a deeper sense of humility achieves this concept of being poor in spirit.
Those who receive the direct blessing — the actually poor in spirit — were those who possessed both senses of this term: the modesty and the God fear. St. Chrysostom was reminded of Isaiah’s admonition, To whom will I look, but to him who is meek and quiet, and trembleth at my words? (Isa 66:2, LXX). Thus, poor in spirit means more than humble or modest, but meek, quiet, God-fearing.
He also proposed that Isaiah gave us different types of humility. One of which is humble in his own measure, the next is excessive lowliness. “It is this last lowliness of mind which that blessed prophet commends, picturing to us the temper that is not merely subdued, but utterly broken…”
Of course, the antithesis of poor in spirit is proud, and St. Augustine gives us a view of pride that I think will help us to understand what exactly the Lord meant when he spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.
St. Augustine wrote: “We read in Scripture concerning the striving after temporal things, ‘All is vanity and presumption of spirit;’ but presumption of spirit means audacity and pride: usually also the proud are said to have great spirits; and rightly, inasmuch as the wind also is called spirit. And hence it is written, ‘Fire, hail, snow, ice, spirit of tempest.’ But, indeed, who does not know that the proud are spoken of as puffed up, as if swelled out with wind? And hence also that expression of the apostle, ‘Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.’ And ‘the poor in spirit’ are rightly understood here, as meaning the humble and God-fearing, i.e. those who have not the spirit which puffeth up. Nor ought blessedness to begin at any other point whatever, if indeed it is to attain unto the highest wisdom; ‘but the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;’ for, on the other hand also, ‘pride’ is entitled ‘the beginning of all sin.’ Let the proud, therefore, seek after and love the kingdoms of the earth; but ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'”
In other words, poor in spirit means pride-poor. If pride denotes a striving for earthly things — money, power, prestige, etc., then poverty of spirit describes a yearning for the things of God that do not involve money, power or prestige. Thus, poor in spirit alludes that a mere human being is deficient in everything that is important to God, and can only receive those God-honored traits by his faith in Almighty God.