“The foundation of all is poverty of spirit,” according to John Wesley. This is the first step to living in God’s kingdom.
Bonhoeffer seems to see it, if not as a first step, as a sort of first reality. It is the first way to describe the new reality into which Jesus’ band of disciples have entered. Here, it seems to me, emerges one of the ways in which the historical context of the expositor of the text influences their commentary on the scriptural text. Both Bonhoeffer and Wesley seem to envision a dual audience for the Sermon–the original one composed of disciples and crowds in Matthew’s gospel, and the one they picture reading or hearing their words in their own day. For Bonhoeffer, this undoubtedly includes young pastors in his underground seminary, men who have left safety and security behind to pursue a calling to live an authentic Christian life and proclaim the gospel of Christ in the midst of an overtly hostile society.
So, while Wesley’s explanation of “poor in spirit” is clearly that of an evangelist calling people to conviction and conversion, Bonhoeffer reflects with solemnity on the weightiness of the calling to which the disciples have answered, “yes.” Both of these interpretations yield important insights.
Concerning Jesus’ use of the term “blessed” in these eight sayings, Bonhoeffer says that the self-denial and sacrifices “they have made… are not blessed in themselves. Only the call and the promise, for the sake of which [the disciples] are ready to suffer poverty and renunciation, can justify the beatitudes.” The call to Christ and the promise of God’s kingdom are the only sufficient reason to enter the life described in the beatitudes.
On the first beatitude, regarding poverty of spirit, Bonhoeffer comes across almost as favoring Luke’s rendering (Luke 6:20, “blessed are the poor”). He writes, describing the disciples, “For his sake they have lost all. In following him they lost even their own selves, and everything that could make them rich. Now they are poor… they have no other hope but him who called them.” Connecting this insight into the original disciples’ situation with the particular relevance to the young pastors under Bonhoeffer’s tutelage at the underground seminary at Finkenwalde is no difficult task. Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ comparison of the kingdom of heaven to a pearl of great value is illustrative here (Matthew 13:45-46). The one who finds the pearl sells everything he has in order to possess it. He impoverishes himself in every other way in order to gain that which he considers most valuable. Disciples of Jesus will do the same, sometimes literally.
John Wesley, pressing for evangelistic revival, emphasizes the spirit of a person as the location needing a palpable sense of poverty. This is the first step. We cannot understand, engage, or enter God’s kingdom without a deep awareness and conviction that we come before God with nothing to merit acceptance. Wesley insists that we need not pursue material poverty in order to gain poverty of spirit. This could become a pitfall for self-righteousness. Instead, the poor in spirit are the truly humble and the helpless, those who know they fall far short of the glory and will of God and who acknowledge that they are powerless to remedy their situation.
Wesley observes, therefore, “that Christianity begins just where heathen morality ends; poverty of spirit, conviction of sin, the renouncing ourselves, the not having our own righteousness (the very first point in the religion of Jesus Christ), leaving all pagan religion behind.” Other religions teach salvation—life-giving connection to God—through moral performance or religious observance. Christianity teaches receiving salvation when we know we are morally and religiously insufficient before God. Against this backdrop, the amazing love of God in Christ stands in beautiful contrast. This is why poverty of spirit is blessed and the first step to the kingdom of God.