“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
We heard this first beatitude along with its attendant benedictions three weeks ago in our Gospel. Today, the Lord Jesus teaches us what poverty of spirit means and how to reach its blessed dispossession.
Connecting poverty of spirit with today’s teaching on loving our enemies may seem like something of a stretch at first. Yes, those who turn the other cheek and give away their tunics along with their cloaks do indeed experience a kind of poverty. Such people lose face in the world’s sight by not fighting back and certainly lose the garments they give away, but the connection goes deeper than this.
Refusing to hate our enemies and—more than this—choosing to love them involves a much more thorough dispossession. We only begin to get a sense of this poverty after we have reckoned with just how much enmity can fill and puff up our spirit, just how much it does for us and how much we rely on it. Simply put, the grudges we nurse and hostilities we hold make us feel driven and powerful. They have a way of lending a perversely keen focus and purpose to our lives. This is no small thing.
On top of this, when we brood on all the ways someone has wronged us, we instantly feel superior to that person. With every accusation we aim at our enemy, we reaffirm our righteousness and our innocent victimhood. This is why we can waste hours ruminating on all the ways we’ve been mistreated. This is why the failings of those we hate absorb our attention so easily and completely.
Tallying the ways others have wronged us also makes us feel rich. When people hurt us, we tend to hold them in debt to ourselves. It’s as if we compose a certificate of what they owe to us and then guard it along with our stocks and bonds. When the opportunity arises, we like to wave the certificate in our debtor’s face or, if we’re more subtle, we give them hints that we have not forgotten what they’ve done to us. It gives us leverage over them. What others owe us becomes part of our portfolio.
This is what having enemies and nursing grudges gives us. This is why it’s so hard to let go of our resentments. We’d be empty without them. Not having them would make us poor. Yet, this is exactly what poverty of spirit is. It’s being emptied of the perverse purpose, superiority, and leverage our hostilities provide for us. Only then will there be room for the Kingdom in us.
How do we begin this emptying? Christ’s answer in today’s Gospel is clear: forgive and give yet more. Forgiving means canceling the debts we hold against others. It means laying down the weaponized superiority of victimhood. It means abandoning our daydreams of getting even.
It can’t stop there, however. After all of that, the Lord Jesus calls us to go further. After forgiving, He calls us to give yet more. It’s not enough not to hate those who wrong us. He calls us to will their good and to do good for them.
At every Mass, the Lord Jesus gives Himself completely away to us. We are the ones who, by our sins, strike Him on His cheek. We force Him to walk to Golgotha carrying our burdens on His back. We demand this and that of Him in a never-ending torrent of complaint. Yet He continues to forgive us. He forgives and gives yet more, laying down His Body and pouring out His Blood. He shows us how to be poor in spirit. He shows us how to love those who do wrong by loving us.