At an age when most little girls stayed inside to play princesses, my three sisters and I were heading into the backyard to play “orphans.” I remember gingerly placing my most treasured possessions—diary, Polly Pocket, and a few other trinkets—into my Barbie toolbox before heading out the back door. Together, the four of us would make our way along the fence, traversing imaginary miles through make-believe towns towards some ambiguous yet glorious destination. Inspired by stories like A Little Princess and The Boxcar Children, we were wandering in a foreign land with nothing but the things we carried. At dusk, we ended our long journey knocking on the door of a kind-hearted stranger (our mother) who’d invite us inside to eat the meal she had prepared.
When we are told to come like a child into the kingdom, I think back to that make-believe game. Only a child would think their most important possessions are few enough and light enough to be carried in their arms. Children are born into the world with nothing but a host of needs that can be met only by others. As a result, they possess a natural poverty of spirit—an innate dependency that, over time, gives way to the self-sufficiency of adulthood.
Of the Beatitudes, the call to be “poor in spirit” seems the most paradoxical. Aren’t we, as joint-heirs with Christ and children of God, supposed to be rich in spirit? A missionary friend once told me the Thai translation of this passage: “Blessed are those who feel a lack in their spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” To acknowledge a deep lack within ourselves, it seems, is a prerequisite for entering, or even recognizing, Christ’s upside-down kingdom.
When Jesus asked the rich young ruler to sell everything he owned and donate the proceeds to the poor, I wonder what kind of objections were going through his mind. I have a feeling he wasn’t just unwilling to forsake his fancy clothes or part with his favorite chariot. I think he was counting the cost of following a new Ruler—one whose economy would allow for all he had to be given away to people who neither earned nor deserved it. Jesus tried to awaken spiritual poverty in someone who had never known physical lack, and in the end, the man walked away in sorrow.
When I was in my early twenties, I took an extended trip through Europe with my younger sister. One day, we were on the metro rail headed towards the Eiffel Tower, and though it should have felt like a dream coming true, it was fraught with anxiety. It was the fifth day of our poorly planned trip, and we had no idea where we were going to sleep that night. Our Airbnb reservation fell through and every hostel we had called was full. Clutching a dead phone and feeling the rumblings of an empty stomach, I remember staring out the train window that night in sulky silence, mentally facing the possibility of having to sleep outside. The frustration subsided and in its place a seething anger bubbled up inside of me. This is unacceptable, I thought bitterly, as hot tears filled my eyes.
It was the fifth day of our poorly planned trip, and we had no idea where we were going to sleep that night.
When we pulled into the metro station, I saw a human form cocooned in a bundle of blankets beneath a metal bench on the trash-strewn concrete. I had seen plenty of people experiencing homelessness before, but at that moment, a question fell gently upon my subconscious, like a leaf on the surface of water: What is the difference between you and him?
My sister and I ended up staying in the only available room at a seedy motel, and as I laid in bed, forcing the muscles in my neck to relax, I thought about that question. Both the man and I had woken up not knowing where we would make our beds that night. Why did I assume I would find a place to sleep, but not that man? Transcending far beyond the simple and obvious, this question became a loftier, more philosophical one. It was as if I stood next to God, and we looked down together at the man living in homelessness from His heavenly perch—and every answer I presented to Him sounded thin and hollow. I try harder. I make more money than him. I’ve made better choices in life. I have a loving family back home. I don’t belong on the streets. Each and every response came to the same conclusion: I felt that I deserved, or had at least earned, a better fate in life than this man.
It’s harder for a “rich man” to enter God’s kingdom because the more power, property, and privilege we possess, the more difficult it will be to count it all as loss before the cross. And yet Christ’s call to discipleship is an invitation to surrender everything—to “unpossess” our possessions in light of His sacrifice. Regardless of how much we do or don’t have, we are each that “rich man” in some way, and we should be equally challenged and confounded by this upside-down kingdom. We are the subject of Revelation 3:17: “Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’, and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” Or as Brennan Manning puts it, “We are all, equally, privileged but unentitled beggars at the door of God's mercy!”
I felt that I deserved, or had at least earned, a better fate in life than this man.
If I played that childhood game now, I wonder what items I would place in the box for a journey without a return. My cell phone? Wallet and keys? Important paperwork? Priceless memorabilia? It was easy to imagine myself an orphan when my world was small and my life was simple. But today I have a husband, a dog, a car, and a house—and insurance policies to protect me from the loss of all but the dog. And while I’ve taken countless measures to preserve my physical wealth, what provisions am I willing to make to avoid becoming rich in spirit?
What treasured thoughts of self-regard am I storing up in the high places of my heart—ones so precious I might be unwilling to forsake if the Son of God were to bid me go and follow Him? You see, it’s far easier to number ourselves among the good, the righteous, and the holy and say, “Thank God I am not like that sinner,” than to count ourselves their chief. Yet we must decide once and for all whether we really believe Christ has come for the hopelessly ill and not for the self-medicated or the well-insured—for those who’ve raised their white flag in complete and utter humiliation, not those who’ve placed their welcome mat before a whitewashed tomb.
If anything, Jesus’ ministry on earth should tell us something about the kind of people to whom God opens His door—and those for whom the door will remain shut. Christ’s salvation leaves not one ounce of our own self-respect to be salvaged. And if there is no way to lessen the scandal of His grace towards us, then there is no yardstick to measure the distance it can stretch to cover the sins of another. We must be careful, then, not to act as gate-keepers of His kingdom, beautiful in all our forms of godliness yet denying the power made perfect in weakness. And once we stop standing by the door like guards, we can finally sit down at the table as guests of His wedding feast.