Blessed are the spiritually poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
This is a fine, sweet, and friendly beginning for His instruction and preaching. He does not come like Moses or a teacher of the Law, with demands, threats, and terrors, but in a very friendly way, with enticements, allurements, and pleasant promises. In fact, if it were not for this report which has preserved for us all the first dear words that the Lord Christ preached, curiosity would drive and impel everyone to run all the way to Jerusalem, or even to the end of the world, just to hear one word of it. You would find plenty of money to build such a road well! And everyone would proudly boast that he had heard or read the very word that the Lord Christ had preached. How wonderfully happy the man would seem who succeeded in this! That is exactly how it would really be if we had none of this in written form, even though there might be a great deal written by others. Everyone would say: “Yes, I hear what St. Paul and His other apostles have taught, but I would much rather hear what He Himself spoke and preached.”
But now since it is so common that everyone has it written in a book and can read it every day, no one thinks of it as anything special or precious. Yes, we grow sated and neglect it, as if it had been spoken by some shoemaker rather than the High Majesty of heaven. Therefore it is in punishment for our ingratitude and neglect that we get so little out of it and never feel nor taste what a treasure, power, and might there is in the words of Christ. But whoever has the grace to recognize it as the Word of God rather than the word of man, will also think of it more highly and dearly, and will never grow sick and tired of it.
Friendly and sweet as this sermon is for Christians, who are His disciples, just so irksome and unbearable it is for the Jews and their great saints. From the very beginning He hits them hard with these words, rejecting and condemning their teaching, preaching the exact opposite, yes, pronouncing woe upon their life and teaching, as Luke 6:24–26 shows. The essence of their teaching was this: “If a man is successful here on earth, he is blessed and well off.” That was all they aimed for, that if they were pious and served God, He should give them plenty upon earth and deprive them of nothing. Thus David says of them in Psalm 144:13–15: “This is their teaching, that all their corners and garners should be full of grain and their fields full of sheep that bear often and much, and of cattle that labor much, with no harm or failure or mischance or distress coming upon them. Happy are such people!”
In opposition to this, Christ opens His mouth here and says that something is necessary other than the possession of enough on earth; as if He were to say: “My dear disciples, when you come to preach among the people, you will find out that this is their teaching and belief: ‘Whoever is rich or powerful is completely blessed; on the other hand, whoever is poor and miserable is rejected and condemned before God.’ ” The Jews were firmly persuaded that if a man was successful, this was a sign that he had a gracious God, and vice versa. The reason for this was the fact that they had many great promises from God regarding the temporal, physical goods that He would grant to the pious. They counted upon these, in the opinion that if they had this, they were right with Him. The Book of Job is addressed to this theory. His friends argue and dispute with him about this and insist that he is being punished this way because of some great sin he must have knowingly committed against God. Therefore he ought to admit it, be converted, and become pious, that God might lift the punishment from him.
At the outset, therefore, it was necessary for His sermon to overthrow this delusion and to tear it out of their hearts as one of the greatest obstacles to faith and a great support for the idol Mammon in their heart. Such a doctrine could have no other consequence than to make people greedy, so that everyone would be interested only in amassing plenty and in having a good time, without need or trouble. And everyone would have to conclude: “If that man is blessed who succeeds and has plenty, I must see to it that I do not fall behind.”
This is still what the whole world believes today, especially the Turks, who draw their reliance and strength from it, coming to the conclusion that they could not have had so much success and victory if they had not been the people of God to whom He was gracious in preference to all others. Among us, too, the whole papacy believes this. Their doctrine and life are founded only upon their having enough; and therefore they have assembled all the goods of the world, as everyone can see. In short, this is the greatest and most universal belief or religion on earth. On it all men depend according to their flesh and blood, and they cannot regard anything else as blessedness. That is why He preaches a totally new sermon here for the Christians: If they are a failure, if they have to suffer poverty and do without riches, power, honor, and good days, they will still be blessed and have not a temporal reward, but a different, eternal one; they will have enough in the kingdom of heaven.
But you say: “What? Must all Christians, then, be poor? Dare none of them have money, property, popularity, power, and the like? What are the rich to do, people like princes, lords, and kings? Must they surrender all their property and honor, or buy the kingdom of heaven from the poor, as some have taught?” Answer: No. It does not say that whoever wants to have the kingdom of heaven must buy it from the poor, but that he must be poor himself and be found among the poor. It is put clearly and candidly, “Blessed are the poor.” Yet the little word “spiritually” is added, so that nothing is accomplished when someone is physically poor and has no money or goods. Having money, property, land, and retinue outwardly is not wrong in itself. It is God’s gift and ordinance. No one is blessed, therefore, because he is a beggar and owns nothing of his own. The command is to be “spiritually poor.” I said at the very beginning that Christ is not dealing here at all with the secular realm and order, but that He wants to discuss only the spiritual—how to live before God, above and beyond the external.
Having money, property, honor, power, land, and servants belongs to the secular realm; without these it could not endure. Therefore a lord or prince should not and cannot be poor, because for his office and station he must have all sorts of goods like these. This does not mean, therefore, that one must be poor in the sense of having nothing at all of his own. The world could not endure if we were all to be beggars and to have nothing. The head of a household could not support his household and servants if he himself had nothing at all. In short, physical poverty is not the answer. There is many a beggar getting bread at our door more arrogant and wicked than any rich man, and many a miserly, stingy peasant who is harder to get along with than any lord or prince.
So be poor or rich physically and externally, as it is granted to you—God does not ask about this—and know that before God, in his heart, everyone must be spiritually poor. That is, he must not set his confidence, comfort, and trust on temporal goods, nor hang his heart upon them and make Mammon his idol. David was an outstanding king, and he really had his wallet and treasury full of money, his barns full of grain, his land full of all kinds of goods and provisions. In spite of all this he had to be a poor beggar spiritually, as he sings of himself (Ps. 39:12): “I am poor, and a guest in the land, like all my fathers.” Look at the king, sitting amid such possessions, a lord over land and people; yet he does not dare to call himself anything but a guest or a pilgrim, one who walks around on the street because he has no place to stay. This is truly a heart that does not tie itself to property and riches; but though it has, it behaves as if it had nothing, as St. Paul boasts of the Christians (2 Cor. 6:10): “As poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
All this is intended to say that while we live here, we should use all temporal goods and physical necessities, the way a guest does in a strange place, where he stays overnight and leaves in the morning. He needs no more than bed and board and dare not say: “This is mine, here I will stay.” Nor dare he take possession of the property as though it belonged to him by right; otherwise he would soon hear the host say to him: “My friend, don’t you know that you are a guest here? Go back where you belong.” That is the way it is here, too. The temporal goods you have, God has given to you for this life. He does permit you to use them and with them to fill the bag of worms3 that you wear around your neck. But you should not fasten or hang your heart on them as though you were going to live forever. You should always go on and consider another, higher, and better treasure, which is your own and which will last forever.
This is said coarsely for the common man. Thus he will learn to understand what it means in Scriptural language to be “spiritually poor” or poor before God. We should not evaluate things externally, on the basis of money and property or of deficits and surpluses. For, as we have said above, we see that the poorest and most miserable beggars are the worst and most desperate rascals and clare to commit every kind of mischief and evil tricks, which fine, upstanding people, rich citizens or lords and princes, do not do. On the other hand, many saintly people who had plenty of money and property, honor, land, and retinue, still were poor amid all this property. We should evaluate things on the basis of the heart. We must not be overconcerned whether we have something or nothing, much or little. And whatever we do have in the way of possessions, we should always treat it as though we did not have it, being ready at any time to lose it and always keeping our hearts set on the kingdom of heaven (Col. 3:2).
Then, too, a man is called “rich” in Scripture, even though he does not have any money or property, if he scrambles and scratches for them and can never get enough of them. These are the very ones whom the Gospel calls “rich bellies,”4 who in the midst of great wealth have the very least and are never satisfied with what God grants them. That is so because the Gospel looks into the heart, which is crammed full of money and property, and evaluates on the basis of this, though there may be nothing in the wallet or the treasury. On the other hand, it also calls a man “poor” according to the condition of his heart, though he may have his treasury, house, and hearth full. Thus the Christian faith goes straight ahead. It looks at neither poverty nor riches, but only at the condition of the heart. If there is a greedy belly there, the man is called “spiritually rich”; on the other hand, he is called “spiritually poor” if he does not depend upon these things and can empty his heart of them. As Christ says elsewhere (Matt. 19:29): “He who forsakes houses, land, children, or wife, will receive a hundredfold, and besides he will inherit eternal life.” By this He seeks to rescue their hearts from regarding property as their treasure, and to comfort His own who must forsake it; even in this life they will receive more than they leave behind.
We are not to run away from property, house, home, wife, and children, wandering around the countryside as a burden to other people. This is what the Anabaptist sect does, and they accuse us of not preaching the Gospel rightly because we keep house and home and stay with wife and children. No, He does not want such crazy saints! This is what it means: In our heart we should be able to leave house and home, wife and children. Even though we continue to live among them, eating with them and serving them out of love, as God has commanded, still we should be able, if necessary, to give them up at any time for God’s sake. If you are able to do this, you have forsaken everything, in the sense that your heart is not taken captive but remains pure of greed and of dependence, trust, and confidence in anything. A rich man may properly be called “spiritually poor” without discarding his possessions. But when the necessity arises, then let him do so in God’s name, not because he would like to get away from wife and children, house and home, but because, as long as God wills it, he would rather keep them and serve Him thereby, yet is also willing to let Him take them back.
So you see what it means to be “poor” spiritually and before God, to have nothing spiritually and to forsake everything. Now look at the promise which Christ appends when He says, “For of such is the kingdom of heaven.” This is certainly a great, wonderful, and glorious promise. Because we are willing to be poor here and pay no attention to temporal goods, we are to have a beautiful, glorious, great, and eternal possession in heaven. And because you have given up a crumb, which you still may use as long and as much as you can have it, you are to receive a crown, to be a citizen and a lord in heaven. This would stir us if we really wanted to be Christians and if we believed that His words are true. But no one cares who is saying this, much less what He is saying. They let it go in one ear and out the other, so that no one troubles himself about it or takes it to heart.
With these words He shows that no one can understand this unless he is already a real Christian. This point and all the rest that follow are purely fruits of faith, which the Holy Spirit Himself must create in the heart. Where there is no faith, there the kingdom of heaven also will remain outside; nor will spiritual poverty, meekness, and the like follow, but there will remain only scratching and scraping, quarrels and riots over temporal goods. Therefore it is all over for such worldly hearts, so that they never learn or experience what spiritual poverty is, and neither believe nor care what He says and promises about the kingdom of heaven.
Yet for their sakes He so arranges and orders things that whoever is not willing to be spiritually poor in God’s name and for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, must still be poor in the devil’s name and not have any thanks for it. God has so hung the greedy to their bellies that they are never satisfied or happy with their greedily gained goods. Sir Greed is such a jolly guest that he does not let anyone rest. He seeks, pushes, and hunts without stopping, so that he cannot enjoy his precious property for a single hour. Thus Solomon the preacher wonders and says (Eccl. 6:2): “Is it not a sore affliction that God gives a man wealth and possessions, land and retinue, and yet he is not capable of enjoying them?” He must always be afraid, troubled, and concerned about how he is going to keep it and expand it, lest it disappear or diminish. He is so completely its prisoner that he cannot enjoy spending a heller of it. But if there were a heart that could be content and satisfied, it would have rest and the kingdom of heaven besides. Otherwise, amid great possessions and with its greed, it must have purgatory here and hell-fire hereafter. As they say: “Here you travel in a wheelbarrow, but there on one wheel”;5 that is, you have trouble and anxiety here, but bitter grief hereafter.
Look, this is the way God always works, so that His Word remains true and no one is saved or satisfied except the Christian. Though the others have everything, their lot is never any better; indeed, it is never as good, and they must still remain poor beggars as far as their heart is concerned. The difference is that the former are glad to be poor and depend upon an imperishable, eternal possession, that is, upon the kingdom of heaven, and are the blessed children of God; but the latter are greedy for temporal goods, and yet they never get what they want, but must eternally be the victims of the devil’s tortures besides. In short, there is no difference between a beggar before the door and such a miserable belly, except that the one has nothing and lets himself be put off with a crust of bread, while the other, the more he has, the less satisfied he is, even though he were to get all the goods and money in the world in one pile.
As I have said, therefore, this sermon does the world no good and accomplishes nothing for it. The world stubbornly insists upon being right. It refuses to believe a thing, but must have it before its very eyes and hold it in its hand, saying, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”6 Therefore Christ also lets them go. He does not want to force anyone or drag him in by the hair. But He gives His faithful advice to all who will let Him advise them, and He holds before us the dearest promises. If you want it, you have peace and quiet in your heart here, and hereafter whatever your heart desires forever. If you do not want it, have your own way, and rather have sorrow and misfortune both here and hereafter. For we see and experience that everything depends upon being content and not clinging to temporal goods. There are many people whose heart God can fill so that they may have only a morsel of bread and yet are cheerful and more content than any prince or king. In brief, such a person is a rich lord and emperor, and he need have no worry, trouble, or sorrow. This is the first point of this sermon: Whoever wants to have enough here and hereafter, let him see to it that he is not greedy or grasping. Let him accept and use what God gives him, and live by his labor in faith. Then he will have Paradise and even the kingdom of heaven here, as St. Paul also says (1 Tim. 4:8): “"Godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:10). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.