This program is part of a series on the Beatitudes of Jesus. In this episode, we will look at what Jesus meant when He taught, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” This teaching will be illustrated by the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States of America. “Poverty of spirit” is the first and most foundational of the Beatitudes. When we live humbly before God, we will live humbly before others. The heart of God will be our heart too, and we will pour out our lives in compassion and empathy for those who are oppressed and who suffer.
Do you recognise who these well-known quotes are from: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people” and “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”? And what about “Friendship with oneself is all-important, because without it, one cannot be friends with anyone else in the world.” These all come from one of the most revered and influential women of the twentieth century. Discover her amazing story in our brand-new program called, Blessed are the Poor in Spirit.
As the Cold War super-powers were lining up against each other, tensions were brewing over Cuba, and as the Palestinian issue was taking shape, one lone woman was asked by the President of the United States to achieve the impossible. She did more than that. She changed the world forever. And she did it in a most unassuming way. And you probably don’t know much about her. That’s why you should make sure you catch our next exciting program, called Beatitudes: Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, and discover her incredible story.
On 10 December 1948, the 58 member-countries of the United Nations agreed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted by the United Nations. This was a milestone moment in the history of the world. This document set out, for the first time, the fundamental human rights that are to be universally protected.
Article 1 starts with the words: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and human rights.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets out a vision of a world of freedom and dignity for every person. There never was, nor has there been since, a global agreement as positive and far-reaching as this. Since then, it’s been criticised for falling far short of its ideals, because of the corruption and hypocrisy of some of the governments of this world. Yet, it has still inspired and paved the way for more than seventy human rights treaties at both global and regional levels. It has still protected countless millions of people around the world, and exposed crimes and abuses against the vulnerable internationally.
What most people don’t know is that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was based on Christian principles. That’s because the chief architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a deeply committed Christian.
Not only that, but she was a woman, who, in a man’s world, wielded influence and power with grace and dignity on the international stage. Her name? Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt. Join me as we follow her story and how she illustrates some of the most important teachings of Jesus.
On a hillside by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus gave us the Beatitudes. The centre of Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God is the Sermon on the Mount. And the very heart of the Sermon on the Mount are the Beatitudes. So, if we want to really know what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of God, then we must understand Christ’s teaching in the Beatitudes. But the Beatitudes aren’t just spiritual principles for Christians. They are arguably the body of principles that has been most influential in shaping western civilisation as we know it today.
The word “Beatitude” might sound like it is an old-fashioned, religious-sounding word and one that not many people will recognise today. But it refers to being blissfully happy.
When Jesus calls people “blessed” in the Beatitudes, that’s literally what he means. He means that if you display these qualities, you will be blissfully happy. This is a happiness that belongs only to God and that can come only from God.
And among the Beatitudes Jesus said, in Matthew 5:3: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (NIV). What a strange way for Jesus to start the Beatitudes, in this first part of the Sermon on the Mount! Most people associate happiness with being rich, but instead Jesus says that it is the poor in spirit who are blessed.
Many Americans look to their First Ladies, the wives of presidents, as icons of style and grace. Eleanor Roosevelt was the First Lady from 1933–1945, and she was so much more.
Eleanor’s childhood was traumatic. She dramatically survived a disaster at sea when a ship she was travelling on sunk at sea. She lost both her parents as a child. Her mother and younger brother died from diphtheria in 1892. Her father, who was an alcoholic, died two years later after jumping from a window while delirious. Before his death, her father asked young Eleanor to care for her remaining younger brother, Hall, who sadly also followed his father’s drinking habits.
All of these things meant that she grew up amid loneliness and loss and starved of love. That’s why she was left prone to depression for the rest of her life. And it didn’t help that Eleanor was raised by a rather severe grandmother. Although Eleanor abandoned the religion of her grandmother, she kept her habits of regular prayer and church attendance. She also retained from her upbringing a stern sense of duty. The reality was that despite the tragedies she experienced, Eleanor knew that she had been born into a very privileged family.
Eleanor’s own personal losses gave her a deep sense of empathy for the suffering of others. Her sense that much is expected of those to whom much is given, as Jesus had taught, made her passionately committed to helping the disadvantaged. From her youth, Eleanor developed a deep knowledge of Scripture. In fact, she memorised large parts of the New Testament. Eleanor’s faith was grounded in two key passages. One of them was the question asked by the Hebrew prophet Micah:
…what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8
The other key passage on which she based her life were the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:40: Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
It is this humble walk with God that was to characterise Eleanor’s life. It came naturally to her to recognise, in any circumstance, who “the least of these” were: those who needed to receive mercy and justice in their lives.
Eleanor also especially loved the Sermon on the Mount, and in particular the Beatitudes. She internalised them so that they naturally became the guiding principles of her life. All her life, Eleanor Roosevelt used to carry a quote in her purse which said to “think seldom of your enemies, often of your friends, and every day of Christ.” Her aim was to live out the teachings of Jesus as fully as possible.
On the 17th March 1905, Eleanor married Franklin D. Roosevelt who entered politics and became the 32nd and longest serving president of the United States of America. He’s the only American President to serve more than 2 terms.
Eleanor never missed church and was the spiritual rock of her family. She insisted on taking her children to church even though their father didn’t go. Eleanor had a compassionate empathy for all who were disadvantaged. Despite being First Lady, she would often be seen privately distributing food and gifts in the alleys of the slums of Washington.
Although Eleanor was a deeply devout Christian, people remember her for what she did for others rather than for her religion. And that’s how it should be. She lived what she believed. She always said that it was not a question of what one believed, but how one lived out one’s beliefs.
But it was indeed her public achievements that most distinguished her. Eleanor lived in a time when it was unusual for women to be prominent in public life. This, combined with her own humility, meant that she was self-effacing about her own achievements. However, Eleanor developed her own gentle but powerful leadership style, and she was highly respected for her diplomacy and advocacy, both within the United States and across the international community.
Long before Martin Luther King Jr, Eleanor Roosevelt was a leader for civil rights on behalf of whomever were oppressed, whether African-Americans or Jews or women.
The issues of immigrants and refugees today aren’t new to the United States. On these issues, Eleanor took as her reference point the story of Jesus, how he was born to poor parents, how he himself became an immigrant, in peril for his life.
Not only did Eleanor go through the Great Depression and the First World War, but her husband Franklin Roosevelt contracted polio in the prime of his life. Yet, Eleanor stood alongside Franklin, and together they helped to guide America through the dark days of World War II. Through all of this, Eleanor lived a life of happiness and purpose for the sake of others.
But we have still not mentioned what was perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt’s greatest achievement, which was that she led the drafting of the Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, which has brought incalculable good for those who suffer in this world.
As you might imagine, just after the Second World War, the launch of the United Nations was a difficult and complicated process. There were simmering tensions between the Americans, the Russians, and the Chinese. So it was only natural that President Harry S. Truman chose the greatest diplomatic heavyweights he could find. And he also chose Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt.
When Eleanor received the news, she was dumbfounded. She initially reacted by saying that she had other things to do and knew nothing at all about international law anyway. However, her secretary, Malvina Thompson, said to her, “Mrs. Roosevelt, I believe I would be hesitant to say ‘No’ to the President of the United States.” Fortunately, Eleanor said “Yes” to the appointment and in January 1946, she sailed for London.
Of course, the US diplomatic delegation comprised of government officials, and they weren’t exactly thrilled to have a woman as part of their team. So, they decided to get her out of the way by putting her on a committee that would be insignificant and basically irrelevant.
That’s why they put Eleanor on the Human Rights Committee, which was expected to achieve nothing. But how wrong they were! At the first meeting of the committee, despite strenuous Russian objections, Eleanor was appointed chair and set a goal of drafting a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In a time when women weren’t often leaders, Eleanor had developed a very understated yet effective leadership style. She would sit back and let everyone have their say and then she would steer the discussion toward her desired outcome. Eleanor recalled one conversation during the drafting of the Charter of Human Rights of which she wrote that the conversation became so philosophical and “so lofty” that, as she told it, she couldn’t even follow along. She later said, “I simply filled the teacups again and sat back to be entertained by the talk of these learned gentlemen.”
But no-one there would have taken this modest account at face value. They were already familiar with Eleanor’s style of chairmanship, and they had the greatest respect for her leadership. She knew what she wanted and she made sure she got it. She was absolutely no pushover! But Eleanor’s own accounts of these meetings hugely understated her own fundamental contribution. She downplayed her own achievements. That was just her modest way.
It has taken more recent historians to recognise that she was indeed the driving force of the whole project. Her role was critical in creating what had been deemed impossible: the creation of the UN Charter of Human Rights.
There are few American women who have been so universally admired as Eleanor Roosevelt. There are few who have left behind such an illustrious record of service to others.
When she died in 1962, she was described as “more involved in the minds and hearts and aspirations of people than any other First Lady in history” and as “one of the most esteemed women in the world” by the New York Times. At her funeral, President Truman honoured Eleanor Roosevelt by calling her the “First Lady of the World.”
When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he wasn’t talking about financial poverty. There have been some Christians throughout the centuries who have thought that Jesus was encouraging his followers to be poor. It’s true that the word “poor” in the original languages means to be utterly destitute. Being materially poor, starving and living with endemic diseases in slums is a very difficult situation. In fact, the Christian message calls us to help people out of these situations. But Jesus was talking about poverty in a different sense. Neither was Jesus saying that those who think poorly of themselves are blessed, for thinking that you are of no worth cripples you in every aspect of your life. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes on to talk about how infinitely valuable every person is to God.
So, what did Jesus mean when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”? To understand this, we must look at its opposite. In the Bible, poverty of spirit is contrasted with being haughty in spirit. A good passage to look at is Proverbs 16:18–19, which says, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. Better to be lowly in spirit along with the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud.”
Notice here that those with a haughty spirit take from others and exploit them. Also notice a very important thing about those who are “lowly in spirit” which is the same as being “poor in spirit.” Instead of oppressing others, they sit with the oppressed. They have a spirit of empathy and compassion for others, particularly for those who are downtrodden and suffer.
This is the key to understanding what it means to be poor in spirit. Those with a haughty spirit are so full of their own self-importance that they have no time for God. As a result, they will also have no time for others. They will, knowingly or unknowingly, hurt others and oppress them.
The “poor in spirit” refers to those who recognize that without God they are helpless, so that they put their full trust in God alone. The result of this kind of inner humility before God will be manifested in a life of external care and concern for others and for their suffering, looking for ways to right what is wrong in the world around us.
There is a very good reason why this is the first of the Beatitudes. It’s because poverty of spirit is the foundation of everything else in the kingdom of God. Without poverty of spirit, you will never experience the blessedness of the other Beatitudes in your life.
None of the other blessings in the Beatitudes can be achieved in your own strength. We have to be reliant on God. That’s what poverty of spirit means. Poverty of spirit is the foundation of everything, because God must be first. When you are truly poor in spirit, things will mean nothing to you, and God will mean everything. The spiritual takes precedence over the material in our lives.
The difference between those with a haughty spirit and those who are poor in spirit is powerfully illustrated by Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector that he told in Luke 18. Let’s read it,
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
In this parable, Jesus is talking about a person’s view of their own spiritual assets. He isn’t talking about money, but about the heart. The Pharisee considered himself spiritually superior, and so he stood apart from others and focused on the good things that he did.
However, the tax collector, whom everybody despised, acknowledged his spiritual bankruptcy before God. And he was the one, said Jesus, who went home justified before God, and not the Pharisee. The Pharisee puts himself first, however the tax collector puts God first. Jesus says that tax collector went home justified. In this way, the promise of the Beatitude is fulfilled: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
When we are poor in spirit, we have space in our hearts for God. Only those who are poor in spirit can have the heart of Jesus. And when you have the heart of Jesus, His priorities become your priorities. Self will mean less and others will mean more to us.
Jesus came to live among us, to seek and to save the lost. When you are poor in spirit, you will naturally identify with the downtrodden, the abused, and the suffering in the world. You will want for it to be on this earth as it is in the kingdom of heaven. That is why you’ll be able to wholeheartedly pray, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).
But you won’t only pray it. You will dedicate your life to the cause of the kingdom. That’s what Eleanor Roosevelt did, and that’s why she changed our world for the better. This is the first of the Beatitudes, and it is possibly the most challenging, because it confronts us in the most radical way possible.
All of us are naturally so full of our own self-importance that we have no space in our lives for God. And because of that, we have little or no space in our lives for the suffering of others and therefore for righting the wrongs in our society.
If you want to do a quick check of how you stand with regard to this, then simply ask yourself, “How am I spending the hours that God is giving me every day?” That will probably give you a rough idea of where your priorities are right now.
You see, if you have a humble attitude before God, you will have a humble heart before others. You will always, always have a compassionate, merciful, and empathetic heart towards those who are oppressed, downtrodden, abused, and suffering in this world.
This Beatitude is challenging! None of the blessings of the other Beatitudes which follow will be ours if we don’t possess poverty of spirit.
It’s a tragedy that for so many the pursuit of the material consumes them and crowds out the pursuit of the spiritual. Just a little later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was talking about our material needs when he said, “seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matt 6:33
Nothing captures the imagination quite like a story. And this is true of the enthralling stories Jesus told in the Gospels, known as parables. If you would like to find out more about these parables and understand their deeper meaning, if you would like to find out the reason Jesus used parables and how they can apply to our lives, then I’d like to recommend the amazing free gift we have for all our Incredible Journey viewers today.
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If you have enjoyed our journey with Eleanor Roosevelt and the Declaration of Human Rights and our reflections on the meaning of the first Beatitude, then be sure to join us again next week, when we will share another of life’s journeys together. Until then, let’s pray and ask God to guide us and help us get our priorities right.
Dear Heavenly Father, we thank You for that we are all created equal in Your eyes, that you love each one of us. Help us to see the world around us with eyes of dignity, compassion and mercy. And Father, may we always remember to make You first and foremost in our lives. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.