Blessed are the Poor in spirit?! (A sermon on Matthew 5:1-13)

“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 the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

We have as our Gospel reading this morning what is certainly one of the best known and best loved portions of the Bible.  Along with ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ and ‘For God so love the world …’, these verses from the beginning of Matthew Chapter 5 must be amongst the most frequently quoted words in the entire Bible.

They are traditionally known as ‘The Beatitudes’, and I suspect that most of us know them (and the other four blessings that accompany them) pretty well.  They are amongst the most celebrated words Jesus ever spoke, though I’m not at all sure why?

I think that for many people these words appear as being a beautiful (almost poetic) description of the sorts of qualities that God looks for in people? I used to have a poster on my study wall with the Beatitudes printed on them and it had an image of a beautiful landscape in the background, making the Beatitudes appear almost as a work of art.

I can remember too hearing these Beatitudes read out on TV more than once by a man with a deep, soothing voice, and with similar beautiful images running in the background, again reflecting the perception people have of these words as inspirational.

I have an immediate problem with this though. I’ve never been able to see that there is anything inspiring about having a poor spirit!  I’m not sure I even know what it means to be poor in spirit, but it’s not something that sounds intuitively attractive!

Being a ‘peace-maker’ or having ‘purity of heart’ indeed depict admirable qualities of character, but I’ve never heard anybody say of their child, for instance, “Oh, he’s such a lovely boy. He has such poverty of spirit.”

What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Does it mean that you’re humble or does it mean that you lack confidence or does it mean something else again?

I looked at the different New Testament translations for some assistance here but I didn’t find anything helpful. One translation read “Blessed are the spiritually destitute”, but that sounds even worse! Surely there’s nothing admirable about spiritual destitution, is there? We admire people who are spirited (ie. full of spirit) but not those who are spiritually bereft!

If the first Beatitude is difficult, the second is even more confusing. To say ‘blessed are those who mourn’ is pretty much the equivalent of saying ‘Happy are those who are sad’. It seems to be just plain self-contradictory!

Of course if these words are intended as poetry we shouldn’t be trying to dissect them and scrutinize them as if they were logical syllogisms and yet I’m not convinced that the Beatitudes of Jesus were ever intended to be poetry or any such work of art or beautiful in any sense of the word.

I remember Kierkegaard saying that admiring Jesus for His beautiful language is like admiring St Paul for his tent-making skills. Our concern should not be with the beauty of Jesus’ words but with their meaning and their relevance!

Jesus didn’t give us these aphorisms so that we could admire them but so that we might live them out!  And this introduces us to a second approach to the Beatitudes, which sees in them words to live by.

I have a friend who refers to herself as a ‘Christian of the Beatitudes’ by which she means that while she may not accept all the traditional Christian dogmas about Christ, the cross, the forgiveness of sins and the coming of the Kingdom, here, in the Beatitudes, she finds not only inspiration but direction!

Blessed are the poor in spirit
Blessed are the meek
Blessed are the peacemakers …

And this woman (while I wouldn’t say she was poor in spirit by any stretch of the imagination) certainly does strive to be a peace-maker – devoting herself more or less full-time to the struggle for peace in Israel/Palestine.

Seeing the Beatitudes as a list of mini-commandments makes sense too from the point of view of the composition of the Gospel According to St Matthew where Jesus is sometimes depicted as being some kind of second Moses, come to lead His people to freedom! And just as Moses climbed the mountain to deliver the commandments of God to his people, so Jesus climbs the mountain and delivers these commandments in this very memorable form!

And if this interpretation of the Beatitudes sounds attractive to you let me cap things off by pointing out that it actually sits very comfortably with the Islamic view of our Lord, where Jesus is seen as a prophet whose Gospel was fundamentally a new list of laws and commandments!

Let me say though that from my reading of the New Testament I do not see Jesus as a law-giver (in the Mosaic sense of the world) at all. In fact I think the Beatitudes well exemplify the problems with seeing Jesus as a law-giver as a lot of these Beatitudes just don’t make sense as commandments!

As with the ‘work of art’ approach, seeing the Beatitudes as laws might help to make sense of some of them but certainly not all of them. It might make sense for Jesus to urge us to be peace-makers and to be merciful but it makes a lot less sense to have Him urging us to mourn and to get ourselves persecuted!  And once again, I’m not sure at all sure what it would mean to command someone to achieve greater destitution of spirit!

I don’t want to knock those who want to take the Beatitudes as a guide to life.  Indeed, I believe that Gandhi found guidance in Jesus’ blessing of the meek, and that’s fantastic. Even so, I am personally not convinced that the Beatitudes were ever intended to be read as a list of guidelines for life any more than they are to be seen as a list of admirable qualities worth acquiring.

Thankfully, there is another way of looking at these Beatitudes, and it’s a way that I think makes sense of all of the Beatitudes and not just some of them, and it involves looking at them as de-scriptive rather than as pre-scriptive.

These two words – descriptive and prescriptive – sound very similar, don’t they, but they actually lead us in very different directions!  If Jesus’ words here are descriptive rather than prescriptive then these Beatitudes are not a list of qualities Jesus is urging us to acquire nor are they any condensed set of commandments, but rather simply a description of the people Jesus was with at the time.  When we see it this way I think it all makes sense.

For we know the types of people that Jesus chose to hang around with, don’t we – the weak, the marginalized, the destitute, the oppressed, the sinful, the sorrowing, the mournful and (no doubt) the poor in spirit?  These were His people, and I imagine that this would have been a pretty good description of the crowd that had gathered around Jesus that day on the mountain.

These were the people Jesus chose to hang with – the poor, the weak, and the marginalized – and so these were the people Jesus chose to bless.  And amongst them too of course were His chosen twelve – themselves a poor and marginalized little group, displaying plenty of poverty of spirit, I am sure.

Mind you, I’m not pretending to now have some authoritative understanding of what it means to be ‘poor in spirit’ but I am saying that we don’t need to assume that it’s a quality to be admired or sought after either.  The point is that if you are poor in spirit (or sorrowful or persecuted) be assured that the blessing of God is being extended to you in Jesus, just as it is to the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and to all who are in the crowd around Him.

This blessing is prophetic of course (we must be clear about that) and as such these blessings are simply an extension of Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom.

Those who weep are blessed not because there is anything blessed about weeping but because soon the Kingdom of God will come where every tear will be wiped away.  Likewise those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed because they will be satisfied when the Kingdom finally comes.

The blessed state that Jesus promises to His disciples lies in the future when that day comes such that ‘the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’. (Isaiah 11:9)  Even so, our sure and certain knowledge of the coming victory of God gives us hope and strength in the present such that we can experience life in abundance here and now.

Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are those who mourn.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Times may be hard now, but blessing awaits!  The wicked may seem to have the upper hand in this world, but the Kingdom of God is coming!  And when that Kingdom comes, we who have been hungering and thirsting for justice shall be satisfied!

Blessing is coming, says Jesus, and these blessings are being parceled out to the poor and the struggling and the marginalized, and to all the people who were hanging around with Jesus that day – people who despite their many differences all had one essential thing in common. They turned up!

This is the group that Jesus blesses! The group that turns up! The group that happens to be there!

And so we turn up to experience the blessing of Jesus today, and we do so with every confidence that we have all the qualifications that are required to receive the blessings of Jesus because what these Beatitudes show us is that there are in fact no qualifications!

Jesus blessed those who were there!  A motley group they were but He blessed them nonetheless! And Jesus is ready to bless us this morning too, even though we be a slightly motlier crew than the original group that gathered around the mount!

Come, you who are mourning and persecuted. Come, you who are destitute in spirit. Jesus is ready to bless us, along with the peace-makers, the pure in heart and the persecuted. There is room for us all!

Now I hope I haven’t destroyed anybody’s cherished view of the Beatitudes today. If you have that same beautiful poster in your room that I used to have, or if perhaps you have been trying to use the Beatitudes as your rule of life for some years I’m sorry if I’ve burst your bubble.

If you’re one of those persons who finds rules and commandments comforting and even empowering then you can be assured that there are plenty of moral exhortations and commandments still to come in Jesus’ sermon on the mount, but the essential thing to realise is that it begins here.

It doesn’t begin with law and it doesn’t begin with threats! It doesn’t even begin with us! It begins with God and it begins with the blessing of God –

Blessed are you poor in spirit ….
Blessed are you who mourn ….
Blessed are you meek

Yes, there is work to be done and, yes, it is going to be costly and difficult, but before any hard work can begin we need to be blessed.

This is the foundation upon which Christian discipleship is built! It isn’t built on rules and regulations, let alone threats and fear. It’s built on grace!

Yes, there is hard work and there is sacrifice and there is suffering, but before any of these things there is love and there is blessing and there is promise and there is hope!

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 2nd of February, 2014.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four. www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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