TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 26: Modes of Christian Response

Question D: What mode of Christian response corresponds to the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5.3)?

1. People whose primary love is charity are disposed to divine goodness before all else. Perceiving God’s goodness as real quite apart from their own effort and action, they understand that their undertakings and achievements are only a share, given freely and generously by God, in his fullness. Thus, the basic Christian mode of response is to expect and accept all good, including the good fruits of one’s own work, as God’s gift. This way of acting is faith’s specification and charity’s fulfillment of the first mode of responsibility: One should not be deterred by felt inertia from acting for intelligible goods.

“Poverty in spirit” was most often understood by the Fathers, and is still understood by many scholars, to mean humility of mind and will, which disposes one to recognize one’s need for God’s gifts, as a poor person is aware of his or her need; to ask for them without being deterred by the implied acknowledgement of one’s lowly status and dependence; and to be grateful, as a self-confident and proud person cannot be, for everything received.13

In the fallen human condition, the lack of confidence that action for good will make much difference is the primary obstacle to fulfillment of the first mode of responsibility. An important aspect of the discouraging situation is that one realizes that even if one does act for good, others are unlikely to do so; hence, the good which might be achieved with their cooperation and cannot be achieved without it will hardly be realized no matter how hard one tries. Even before Jesus, divine revelation deepens the mode of responsibility and provides some hope, which encourages people to pursue the good (8‑A).

However, many people who lack humility are energetic and ambitious. How do they manage to display such dispositions? The answer usually is that they are motivated by a desire for personal satisfaction or some particular goal. These motives are at least dangerous; they are likely to lead to unfairness, excessive attachment, and the expedient use of questionable methods; in extreme cases the energetic and ambitious person becomes a zealot or a fanatic. So in this fallen world the merely lazy person does not seem vicious; most of the actual alternatives to laziness are worse. The energetic often are oppressors.

Christian revelation, accepted with living faith, changes this prospect. One has grounds for a much greater hope, one which transcends death and all evil. Good acts will last forever. But there is a point in pursuing goods in this way only if one avoids all the usual, questionable motives for doing so, for the heavenly fulfillment certainly will not be available unless one is fair to others, detached, and unwilling to use bad means. The success of one’s undertakings is guaranteed, instead, by divine power and love. God will give success as he did to Jesus by raising him from the dead.

2. A person who responds in this way will not violate the first mode of responsibility; he or she will not be a lazy and unprofitable servant but an industrious and diligent one. As a servant, however, the Christian can be energetic without falling into the vices which often mark a person of energetic disposition: devoted to the coming of the kingdom without zealotry and fanaticism, counting on God for success and crediting successes to him.

3. The virtuous disposition present in this mode of Christian response is most often called “humility.” Childlike simplicity, which recognizes need, asks, and willingly receives, is an aspect of humility. So is thankfulness, the basic Christian attitude of gratitude, for in humility one recognizes that everything good comes from God and one’s whole life must be a eucharistic return to him of all he has given. The Christian vice opposed to humility is called “pride.” However, the Christian vice referred to by “pride” must not be identified with haughtiness nor limited to the status seeking by which it is manifested toward others. It is best understood as Pelagian self-reliance, the presumptuous assertion of autonomy, and a disposition of ingratitude toward God.

4. In excoriating the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus prefaces a series of woes with criticism of their various forms of status seeking, expressions of their pride, and concludes: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Mt 23.12). The poor in spirit do not seek status. They recognize this as a delusory activity which falsifies a Christian’s relationship to God and other human beings.

5. The Magnificat, Mary’s triumphant song of fulfillment, illustrates Christian humility. God has looked upon his lowly handmaid and lifted her up; thus, “All generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me” (Lk 1.48–49). Paul similarly expresses Christian humility in declaring that he is what he is by God’s grace, which has not been fruitless (1 Cor 15.10).

6. According to St. Augustine, the gift of the Spirit corresponding to the first Beatitude is fear of the Lord: that is, childlike reverence toward him.14 St. Thomas teaches that this fear is related to the virtue of hope, for by it we are open to the Spirit and unwilling to withdraw ourselves from the help of him on whom we totally and utterly depend (see S.t., 2–2, q. 19, aa. 1, 9).

Humility is a virtue praised throughout the Bible. Jacob exemplifies it in his recognition of his own unworthiness, his dependence upon God, and God’s generous gifts (see Gn 32.8–13). In the wisdom literature and prophetic writings of the Old Testament, the poor and oppressed are seen to stand in special need of God’s intervention. Incapable of providing for themselves, they have, for the most part, been abandoned by the rich and powerful. God’s intervention is promised repeatedly, and all who suffer injustice look forward to the day of salvation (see Ps 72; Is 11.4). This hope at least partly explains the affinity in the New Testament between the gospel and the poor, weak, afflicted, and outcast—including sinners who recognize themselves to be such. All these persons realize their need for God’s intervention, and so they are ready to receive the gospel of Jesus. Thus, his message is especially directed to them (see Mt 11.5; Lk 4.18–21).15

There are intrinsic, even if not absolutely necessary, connections between wealth and pride, poverty and humility. The wealthy can afford to be proud. Their resources give them power, and power gives a sense of control and independence. But the seer tells the wealthy: “You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rv 3.17). When St. Paul teaches a lesson in humility, he stresses that those to whom he writes have nothing they have not received, and so they have nothing to boast about, yet they are utterly complacent because, as he says ironically, “Already you have become rich!” (1 Cor 4.8). The poor, by contrast, realize their own powerlessness. Thus the poor are disposed to be humble—poor in spirit as well as in material things; they are ready to accept the gift of the kingdom. Since this gift is given freely to those open to it, the poor are blessed, for the kingdom is theirs (see Lk 6.20).

Since humility is characteristic of those who are poor, who are lowly—that is, in the lower stratum of society—the voluntary lowering of oneself in status suggests an understanding that wealth and superiority really are poverty and weakness. To lower oneself is a condition of or an expression of making oneself open and receptive, and receptivity is a condition of fulfillment by God’s gifts. Hence, those who humble themselves are exalted.

This feature of humility—self-abasement—has been stressed so much in Christian thought that what is even more central, namely the disposition of receptivity toward God, often is overlooked. This is unfortunate, since some Christian preaching and catechetics encourages self-abasement as if it were a value in itself, whereas it is only morally significant if it means accepting one’s total dependence upon God (see S.t., 2–2, q. 161, aa. 2–3).

The centurion who realizes his unworthiness that Jesus enter his home shows humility not by this realization alone but by his recognition of his need for help: “Only say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Mt 8.8). The passage in which Paul speaks of Jesus’ self-emptying, so that he might humble himself to the extent of accepting death, makes the point that this was the way to God’s exalting act; by emptying himself Jesus put himself in position to be made Lord (see Phil 2.6–11). From this Paul draws the conclusion: “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2.13). The point is the same in Paul’s account of his humiliating and mysterious thorn in the flesh. It led him to beg relief, and his prayer was answered with the assurance: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12.9). Paul adds that he boasts of his weakness, so that the power of Christ might rest on him.

Jesus teaches that a childlike attitude of humility is a necessary condition for entering the kingdom. The children are to be welcomed, for the kingdom belongs to them, since only those who accept God’s reign like little children can share in it (see Mt 19.13–15; Mk 10.13–16; Lk 18.15–17). The wise and prudent, prophets and kings, desired the revelation of God in Jesus, but it was hidden from them. It is reserved for mere children and for the humble disciples of Jesus; it comes as a gift from the Father through him (see Mt 11.25–27; Lk 10.21–22).

When the apostles begin to worry about status, Jesus warns them that they must become as children and be prepared to serve children and the childlike (see Mt 18.1–5; Mk 9.33–37; Lk 9.46–48). Goods are attained only by being accepted as God’s gifts, and they can be passed on only to others who are similarly willing to accept them.

The inculcation of humility as a necessary disposition of Christian life, not as an optional extra, is a standard part of New Testament catechesis (see Rom 12.16; 1 Cor 13.4; Eph 4.1–2; Col 3.12; Jas 4.6, 10). Christians are urged to be eager for the milk of the Spirit like newborn babes (see 1 Pt 2.2), and to be humble toward one another (see 1 Pt 3.8; 5.5).

13. See Jacques Dupont, Les Béatitudes, tome III, Les Evangélistes, 2d ed. (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1973), 399–411, 458–71. Mary’s Magnificat perfectly exemplifies humility. Some deny that it should be attributed to Mary. However, see the powerful exegetical argument in defense of the historicity of Luke’s narrative on this point (and of the infancy narratives generally): René Laurentin, Les Evangiles de l’Enfance du Christ: Vérité de Noël au-delà des mythes (Paris: Desclée, 1982), 13–22, 445–49, 451.

14. St. Augustine, The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Ancient Christian Writers, 5; trans. John J. Jepson, S.S. (New York: Newman Press, 1948), 19.

15. See Léon Roy, “Poor,” Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 2d. ed., 436–38; John L. McKenzie, S.J., Dictionary of the Bible, 681–84.