Why does Jesus think that being poor in spirit is the life that is #blessed?
This morning we begin our preparation for Easter in five weeks. We are going up a mountain and we will be standing on holy ground. We have just finished looking at the central creed of following Jesus: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Now we turn our minds to the Sermon on the Mount. These words express the heart and will of Jesus for our lives so let us pray that we might hear his voice today.
Transition: The Sermon on the Mount continues Jesus’ teaching about living well as his people. And I think we will find that Jesus’ vision of life differs a bit from what people would write on Facebook or Twitter. Let me show you what I mean …
The Sermon on the Mount in general and the Beatitudes in particular describe the life of the believer
Jesus had called Peter and Andrew, James and John saying come and follow me and I will send you out to fish for people. Then Matthew tells us that Jesus engaged in a tour of the area of Galilee. He preached to crowds, taught in synagogues, and healed people. News about him spread and crowds of people began to follow him.
Chapter 5 starts this way:
When he saw them he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him and he began to teach them.
Everything in that sentence is important. He saw that there were crowds of people interested in him. They had been attracted by his teaching and his miracles. The religious leaders were suspicious because Jesus did not teach as they did and people were interested. He went up on a mountain. Mountains are important in scripture. Moses had gone up on a mountain when the people left Egypt, he met with God and came down to tell the people how to live as the nation of Israel. Now Jesus had a crowd. But he is not talking directly to the crowd. He is talking with his disciples. He is saying, here is how life in my Kingdom will work. Those who follow me will be characterized by these things. He is teaching his disciples. This is very important to notice. But the crowd is listening and Jesus will call people from the crowd to be his followers not unlike how he calls you and I to leave the watching crowd to follow him.
He starts with the beatitudes which means fortunate in God’s eyes
Jesus starts with the beatitudes, eight saying about what kind of life is blessed. Isn’t it interesting that a statement of blessing is both very ancient and very modern. To say someone is blessed is one of the oldest statement in the Bible. It is fairly standard OT language –
Psalm 1 says
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
But it is also a contemporary preoccupation because #blessed is one of the most popular tags on Twitter so much so that it has been mocked of late. But what does “blessed” mean when Jesus uses it?
The term blessed means fortunate, to be admired, favored, in a good spot. Some say happy, but it is deeper than happy because that is an emotion that can come and go. This is a good state of being from the vantage point of God. These are people who are in a place where God will act on their behalf. The nature of the blessing they receive is embedded in each proverb or beatitude. The opposite of blessed would be “cursed” or “woe to you.”
The beatitudes describe the believer as he should be and the blessing that comes from God because of that behavior.
Blessed are the Poor in Spirit means those who know their spiritual need will find the Kingdom of God
What it means:
Jesus says “blessed are the poor in Spirit. What does this mean?
We know what it means to be poor economically. It is to be in need and Luke uses this word in a similar beatitude because in the OT it is often the poor who are faithful and the rich who are corrupt. To be poor is to be in want, to not have enough, to not have any resources. When you are poor you don’t belong and you have nothing to negotiate with. If a rich person misses a bill they can call and say it was a mistake. Their wealth carries clout; people make allowances for those with wealth. When you are poor no one trusts you and you feel even more helpless.
So what does it mean to be “poor in spirit?” This means that you sense unworthiness before God. To be “poor” spiritually means you feel spiritually bankrupt, unable to do anything to earn favor with God or deserve anything from God. A good example of this is the parable of the prodigal son or in the story of Zacchaeus or Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. It is the tax collector who is poor in spirit and says “have mercy on me a sinner.”
This is not what we brag about with our hashtags.
When someone ends a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram post with “#blessed” it is usually not because they feel poor in spirit. Rather they feel rich, fortunate even lucky. Most of the time when someone says #blessed, they are “humble-bragging” that their life is better than yours. This is the gist of an article about the hashtag in the NY Times last May entitled “They feel blessed.”
Transition: so how can Jesus think we are blessed when we are poor in spirit when we think we are blessed when our life works out perfectly?
Why Jesus thinks we are blessed
It is only when we are spiritually empty, when we are poor in spirit that we are open to receiving the Kingdom. Jesus has come to forgive us and restore us and welcome us into the kingdom. But we can only enter if we understand our need. We can only be forgiven if we understand that we are sinful. We can only receive adoption into God’s family if we realize that spiritually we are orphans. Jesus wants to fill us with new life, but he can only do that if we empty ourselves of what we thought would keep us going. We must let go of our guilt and shame rather than covering it up. We must be honest about the lies we have told ourselves, lies that we relied on for propping up our fragile egos. This can be a scary thing. But when we realize that we are confessing our lies, our sin and our shame to one who promises us forgiveness and the whole Kingdom of God, we realize that it is the only rational thing to do. We don’t have to lower ourselves to be poor in spirit; we only have to elevate God.
This also shows that the Sermon on the Mount is not a new set of laws. You enter the kingdom by being poor and having nothing with which to negotiate, nothing to give. Like an empty water bottle you come ready to be filled.
So as we come to the table the communion table, this truth is being worked out. You have to receive the elements from someone else. You have to take it in and you can’t choose what you feel like eating. You must receive.