I’m sharing three more excerpts from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land. I was struck by his reflection on the Beatitudes in general, but particularly with this reflection on what it means to the “poor in spirit”:
It’s worth pausing to reflect on each of the Beatitudes. And with the moral theologian Servais Pinckaers, O.P., as our guide, we can start to think about how we might live them in our own lives. So let’s begin.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The first Beatitude reminds us of one of the strongest themes of Scripture: God’s love for the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. We see this in the Old Covenant, in which God instructs the people of Israel to care for the poor and the alien in their midst. He tells the Israelites not to harvest every speck of grain in their fields, but to leave some for the poor and the stranger who have no food of their own (Lev 19:9–10). He also commands them to set aside every fiftieth year as a Jubilee. In that year property that was bought or sold must be returned to its original owners (Lev 25:8–28).
Through the prophets God rebukes those who violate the spirit of these commands: “Therefore because you trample upon the poor and take from him exactions of wheat, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate” (Amos 5:11–12).
Later Jesus says that, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, he is the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests, the one whom the Lord has anointed to preach good news to the poor (Lk 4:16–21).19 In our own time we tend to distinguish between spiritual and material poverty. But in the Bible, these concepts are tightly linked. The rich have wealth, but they become overly proud and ignore or oppress others. They use their money to buy influence and exploit the needy. They forget their dependence on God. The poor man, by contrast, is always reminded of his dependence. He will be humble and trust in the Lord.
We see this clearly in Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man had elegant clothes and ate sumptuously. But he ignored Lazarus, who sat right at his gate, covered in sores that the dogs licked. Every time he entered or left his house the rich man would pass Lazarus, yet he did nothing to ease his needs. When the rich man died, he ended up in Hades. Now he suffered, while Lazarus sat in the bosom of Abraham.
The story underscores a simple fact: If we don’t love the poor, we will go to hell. If we let our possessions blind us to our dependence on God, we will go to hell. If we let food and clothes and all the other distractions of modern life keep us from seeing the needs of our neighbors, we will go to hell.
We might assume that Scripture condemns the wealthy. But that’s not the case. As the early Church Fathers noted, the Lazarus parable is really a tale of two rich men: an unnamed callous one, and the patriarch Abraham. Abraham was a rich man who never forgot his dependence on God. Whereas the wealthy sinner let Lazarus wallow in squalor, Abraham welcomed the three strangers in the Old Testament who visited him, and he fed them with rich food. Abraham was generous and shared his abundance, always remembering that everything he owned was a gift from God. The lesson is obvious: Possession is really about service. When it’s not, we become slaves to our goods instead of living in a culture of interior freedom.
Poverty comes in many forms, and Father Pinckaers names some that are familiar: illness, loneliness, age, failure, ignorance, and sin. All of these come back to the poverty at the heart of our very being: We didn’t create ourselves, and someday everything we have will be taken away by death. Even our body will turn to dust. Our poverty, in turn, puts us at a crossroads. We can either rebel against God, or let ourselves be shaped by suffering and become more open to God and others.
For believers, then, the poverty we experience purifies us. It keeps us from getting weighed down by excess baggage on the road to heaven. The first Beatitude is addressed to all of us.22 It asks us how we will respond to the blessings and sufferings of life. Even if we don’t embrace the complete poverty of a Dorothy Day, the principle of her life still speaks to us. In giving away our treasure and our very selves, we find life and freedom. Only if our hearts are open can we receive the kingdom of heaven, which is the richest gift of all.
“If we don’t love the poor, we will go to hell. If we let our possessions blind us to our dependence on God, we will go to hell. If we let food and clothes and all the other distractions of modern life keep us from seeing the needs of our neighbors, we will go to hell.” A frightening, but necessary, call for perpetual conversion of heart that hits me in a deep way.