Who are the poor in spirit?
Several common misunderstandings can block our comprehension of the first Beatitude. For example, (1) some people take the phrase “poor in spirit” as analogous with language like “the soil is poor in nitrogen”—as if the condition of being relatively spirit-less were being used. This misunderstanding springs from an unfortunate accident of language.
Then there is (2) the reading that takes the first Beatitude as a consolation of the destitute, as if Jesus were saying to the economically deprived, “Don't worry: you are suffering now in your poverty, but your present suffering will be amply recompensed in the next life, after you die.” But “kingdom of heaven” is simply Matthew's Jewish way of referring to what is elsewhere in the Gospels called “the kingdom of God,” or God's reign, already inaugurated in the life of Jesus and accessible even before death.
The case can be made that both Luke and Matthew are faithful to the teaching of Jesus, which draws its meaning of “the poor” from Isaiah. In a number of places, Isaiah describes Israel in exile as poor, hungry, mourning as they await God's response to their need for rescue from exile. In this context, to be poor is to know your need for God.
Once we are in touch with the biblical home base of “the poor,” we can see why Matthew introduced the phrase “in spirit,” for knowing one's need for God is a disposition of the heart, not an economic state.
At the same time, however, those who know the pinch of actual poverty have the edge in knowing their need for God. In this respect, the economically secure can more easily succumb to the delusion that they are self-sufficient.
How, then, do those of us who are relatively secure economically qualify for the blessing of the “poor in spirit”? Some have found that poverty of spirit by discovering their helplessness in the experience of addiction or in the loss of a loved one. Others have learned to recover their need for God by standing in solidarity with the economically deprived and seeing the world anew through their eyes.