"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Matthew’s first beatitude forms in inclusion with the last, as seen by the dual grounding of the blessing, “Theirs is the kingdom of Heaven”. Both reflect the same reality, framed quite differently. In the first, “the poor in spirit” are best understood as those who are poor with respect to their mental and spiritual position. In this regard, Matthew’s “the poor in spirit” is by no means a spiritualisation of the Lucan parallel, “the poor”, since by this time “the poor” was virtually a short hand for pious believers who were in fact generally marginalised and thus literally poor. Thus Matthew draws attention not away from their literal poverty, but to the spiritual and associated psychological dimension of their poverty – those whose only hope is in the Lord. The radical fact of the inclusion formed with 5:10 is that the poor are persecuted, which is not surprising in itself, but in its extension in v11, persecuted on the basis of identification with Jesus. Right from the start of the Sermon on the Mount, the idea that the will of God can only be fulfilled through Jesus and allegiance to him, is being expressed.
“Theirs” is placed in an emphatic position in the second clause, and draws attention to the possession of the Kingdom. This is not so much a hidden imperative, “be poor (in spirit), and you will have the kingdom”, but a profound statement of the present realisation of eschatological promises, such as those of Isaiah 40, 42, 62. The poor now do possess the kingdom of heaven, precisely on the basis of their faithful allegiance to God, now expressed through and in Jesus. In the coming of the King, the Kingdom too has come.
The close association of the disciples with Jesus throughout Matthew’s gospel leads me to the suggestion that the sense in which the kingdom of heaven is present is precisely in the new community that is formed by Jesus and around Jesus. Those “poor in spirit” are in fact the ones living in allegiance to the King of the heavenly Kingdom, and so possessing the Kingdom. This by no means exhausts the eschatological promises to be consummated at the second coming, but does offer a powerful challenge that the reality of the Kingdom is far more present than some Christians are willing to express.