READ : Matthew 5:1-12
Poverty and happiness are not two things that we normally associate with each other. But Jesus says the good life begins with being poor – in one particular sense.
These are the opening words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven….”
Matthew 5:1-12, NIV
Jesus begins by pronouncing eight blessings upon different groups of people. These sayings are known collectively as “The Beatitudes” because of the opening words of each one in Latin (
beati sunt, meaning “Blessed are they”). Before considering the first of them more carefully, I need to say something about the Beatitudes in general.
First, these eight statements of Jesus listing the characteristics of the people he calls blessed collectively describe all Christians. Jesus is not saying that there are eight different kinds of people, each of which can earn God’s approval by exhibiting a different sort of behavior. These qualities the Beatitudes describe are comprehensive. Every Christian must exhibit all of them.
On the one hand, they are not just for an elite group of super-Christians. Nor, on the other hand, can an individual Christian pick and choose, saying, “Well, I’m not very meek, and as for peacemaking, let’s leave that for the pacifists, but I think I can hunger and thirst after righteousness. I’ll try for the blessing that way.” No, the Beatitudes together spell out what all disciples of Jesus ought to be and to do.
I was watching my wife make a dress for one of our daughters once and I noticed that the first thing she did was to take out the pattern, consisting of several pieces of tissue paper, each corresponding to one part of the dress, which she pinned to the cloth and then cut out to be stitched together. The Beatitudes are something like that dress pattern. Each piece can be studied and considered by itself; and that is a useful exercise. But they all need to be stitched together into a single life in order to show what the complete Christian looks like.
A second important point is to understand the nature of the blessing Jesus is talking about. What does it mean when God says someone is blessed? The word Jesus used is sometimes translated “happy.” This is the way to be happy, some people say. If you try to develop certain attitudes, certain ways of looking at things, then you’ll end up being a lot healthier and happier person. And of course, there is some truth in that. We would all feel a lot better if we were humbler and purer and more peaceable. But being blessed is not the same as being happy. Jesus isn’t talking about our emotional state or frame of mind. He is describing our spiritual condition.
Nor does being blessed mean to be fortunate or well off. “Fortunate” is just a fancy word for “lucky,” and biblical Christians don’t really believe in luck, either good or bad. That concept is part of a profoundly non-Christian world view, a view that sees whatever happens as a random procession of chance events, where the best you can hope for in life is that the good things that happen to you outweigh the bad in other words, that you are lucky.
Christians, on the contrary, believe that the things that happen to us come not by chance, but from the fatherly hand of the God who superintends all of life. So what being “blessed” means is to be favored by God. It is a word that not only expresses but also conveys God’s approval. When God pronounces a blessing on someone, the very act blesses that person. When Jesus says, “Blessed are. . .” eight times over, what he means is: “these are the attitudes and the actions of the kind of person who is pleasing to God and upon whom God bestows his favor.”
Finally, just as the Beatitudes actually describe one person with eight qualities, so the rewards offered all add up to the same thing in the end. Not eight different blessings for eight different kinds of people, but one tremendous, multifaceted, glorious, joyful, eternal experience of the reality of God for the person he favors.
The one who is humble in spirit, who is sorrowful and repentant, who is gentle, who longs for God and the good, who shows mercy, who is both pure by faith and in practice, who gives himself or herself to the ministry of reconciliation, and who suffers for Christ’s sake that person will be saved, will inherit the kingdom, experience God’s healing, dwell in the new creation, find every need and want satisfied, be forgiven, live eternally in the presence of God as the child of God; in short will be blessed beyond imagining.
THE POOR IN SPIRIT
Let’s think now about the first of Jesus’ blessings. It is for those he calls “the poor in spirit.”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Here’s an odd combination of words: “blessed are the poor.” We’re not used to hearing the word poor used with any kind of positive or favorable meaning. We don’t generally write “the poor” under the column of things labeled “Blessed are.” The idea that the good life as defined by Jesus begins with poverty of any kind is utterly alien to us. We’re much more used to associating wealth and success with blessing. For us, poor is bad, a word we link with failure. When we apply it to people, it’s usually a term of sympathy or even reproach. “Poor old Joe,” we say. “Oh, that poor woman!” “You’re a poor excuse for a man.”
It’s important, of course, to understand what Jesus isn’t saying. He’s not saying that poverty per se is a wonderful thing or that it’s good to be poor in a literal sense. You notice it is spiritual poverty about which he speaks: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
It is true that the Bible shows God being on the side of the poor, including the financially poor. He has a special regard for those who don’t have much of what the world considers valuable. He is the special friend of the lowly, the dispossessed, the alien, the widow and the fatherless, the outcast and the stranger. In fact, God so much prefers these people that when he became a man he chose to become one of them, a poor man.
But this doesn’t mean that the poor are naturally good in themselves, any more than it means that suffering and want are naturally good. God is on the side of the poor because the poor are so much likelier to see their need of him. They depend on God because they don’t have any alternative. By contrast, God has no use for the rich precisely because they usually have no use for him. (Of course, God can always make an exception for the unusual man or woman of wealth who is also genuinely poor in spirit.)
The key issue is how we approach God. Do we recognize our poverty, our emptiness, our abject need? “He only who is reduced to nothing in himself and relies on the mercy of God is poor in spirit,” said John Calvin. Do we recognize that we can only come to God empty-handed? That’s what it means to be poor in spirit.
Several years ago a group of people of various ages was asked to contribute to a collection of practical wisdom for schoolchildren entitled simply, “What I Have Learned.” One of them responded with this: “I’ve learned that to reach success you can’t take the elevator [or the lift, as our British friends would say]. You have to take the stairs.” That’s pretty good advice, and it is true of most things in life. There is no easy way to succeed at anything worthwhile. The only way is plain hard work. But it isn’t true of the most important thing of all in life, the gift of salvation. There it’s just the opposite. You can’t get to heaven by taking the stairs. It’s the elevator or nothing. The kingdom of heaven is given only to those who are poor in spirit.
TWO MEN PRAYING
Jesus told a story about two men who went to the temple one day to pray. One was a Pharisee, a very religious and respectable man, someone whom all observers would have judged to be righteous. He prayed like this,
“God, I thank you that I’m not like other people the unrighteous ones. I keep all the rules, I fast and pray, I tithe, I always make sure I give what I’m supposed to. I’m so glad that I’m better than most, for example, better than that sinful man praying over there.”
The Pharisee was referring to the other man in the story, who was a tax-collector. In Jesus’ day tax-collectors really were bad people. They collaborated with the hated Roman occupation government. They used their position and power to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary folks. Tax-collectors were viewed then the way decent people today would look at a drug lord or a mafia henchman. But this man too had come seeking God, and when he prayed he did not stand to draw attention to himself; he did not lift himself up proudly; he neither claimed any merits nor made any excuses for himself. He bowed his head, and he said simply and from his heart, “God, please have mercy on me, I am a sinner.” When Jesus finished telling his story, he drove the point home with a question: “Which of these two men do you think went home justified before God? Which one’s prayer was heard and answered? Which one found favor and acceptance with the Lord?” To ask the question is to answer it.
Poverty of spirit grows only in a humble heart. The kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God which is gospel shorthand for all the blessing of God’s presence and rule over our lives can be experienced only by those who have learned to see themselves honestly, as God sees them, and who recognize that they really have nothing to offer him except their desperate need of his mercy, forgiveness and love. “Nothing in my hands I bring,” goes the old hymn, “simply to Thy cross I cling.”
Do you know how to sing that? The only way is to empty yourself, to humble yourself, to stand before God and look away from all your weaknesses and all your strengths and see only your need of him, to let go of all your pride, to empty your hands of the possessions and accomplishments and achievements that make you feel so important and to turn your palms upward to God, asking for his mercy, his help, himself.
I love a little poem written three hundred years ago by Sir Thomas Browne, an English physician who knew as much about curing souls as healing bodies.
If thou couldst empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf,
And say, ‘This is not dead.’
And fill thee with Himself instead.
But thou art all replete with very thou,
and hast such shrewd activity,
That when He comes He says ‘This is enow
Unto itself – ‘Twere better let it be,
It is so small and full, there is no room for Me.’
Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682)
I hope this will not happen to you. I hope that God does not leave you to yourself because when he comes to fill you with his life, he finds you so small and full of yourself there isn’t any room for him. I hope instead you know the blessedness that comes from being poor in spirit. I hope I do too.