The Poor in Spirit?
The Poor in Spirit? (Beatitudes #3)
Someone once said that the “secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending - and to have the two as close together as possible.” (George Burns)
Humor is important. Especially when we can laugh at ourselves. It’s a sign (a very good sign), that we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
But having a “truly” good sense of humor - also means knowing when not to laugh!
Of course, when it comes to the Beatitudes... I suppose it’s hard to keep a straight face, at times. I mean, how often to we consider hunger and thirst, blessings? Happy are those who are meek... is laughable to most! Blessed are the poor (even if it is balanced by the words “in spirit”)... we don’t usually associate such words with blessings or happiness. So it becomes easy to just laugh it all off (so-to-speak).
I think most people in church on Sundays know that Jesus was a great preacher. Large crowds were gathering to hear him preach and teach (we’re even told in Matthew 7:29 that Jesus taught as one with authority, unlike the Scribes and Pharisees).
So, early on in his ministry, Jesus gave some instructions to those who were called to be part of the Kingdom. We call those instructions, that sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Beatitudes are part of that sermon. It’s basically a training course for those who’d dare follow Christ, by choosing to live the way of the Kingdom of God.
Of course, the only problem is - that what Jesus teaches (and how he calls us to live) is challenging, to say the least. It may be what we expect to hear from our Lord... but not necessarily what we want to hear.
And to make matters more serious (for us)... Jesus wasn’t joking. He was being 100% serious: don’t hate... don’t lust... don’t swear... love your enemies... turn the other cheek... go the extra mile... forgive those who repeatedly hurt you! Those are all challenging commands... they’re difficult, if not down right impossible!
In fact... some say that these ethical standards of Jesus are just too hard! They’re impossibly high... so they must be goals... aspirations... targets to shoot for, but never to be realistically achieved. They’re just intended to point us in the right direction!
Others argue, that the lofty teachings of Jesus are meant for another time and place... after the Kingdom comes in fullness. They argue that we can’t really afford to follow such difficult teachings, because no one else is held to such a standard, and it’s too costly for us. In other words, “turning the other cheek” may work - one day - in a perfect world... but not now.
After all, there are bad people “out there” - and sometimes we have to do unto others before they do unto us! So some argue that Jesus’ teachings just aren’t practical for our time and life. They’ll agree that if everyone lived out Jesus’ teachings, the world would be a much better place... but everyone doesn’t follow Christ... so there’s no way we can hold ourselves to such a high standard, not now.
Of course, I’ll be the first to admit... the calling of Christ... the commands of Jesus are tough - they’re as tough for me, as they are for you. And figuring out what Jesus is getting at can be difficult, too. But the Sermon of the Mount (and the Beatitudes) are at the heart of Jesus’ teachings! And honestly, I can’t imagine Jesus would ever have spent the time or wasted the energy teaching things that don’t apply to life... your life, and my life. Now. Today.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is, Jesus’ words were never intended to just be good advice or lofty goals, or hopeful aspirations. These Words are prescriptions for life, as it IS lived in the Kingdom of God. The Beatitudes are expressions of what it’s like to get caught up in the Kingdom of God and to start living life from a new perspective.
And it all begins, with, “Bless-ed are the poor in spirit.”
Let’s understand: the word translated “poor” in the New Testament, is a word that means desperate poverty. Poverty so deep, so chronic, that it seems hopeless.
Of course, we see chronic poverty in the faces of children on our televisions... when anti-hunger organizations are pulling at our heart strings to help feed the starving in underdeveloped places around the globe. We can also see it, in our own backyards... that’s why we support multiple food closets... and little free pantries... and it’s why I have a list of service organizations to refer people to, when they need assistance that’s beyond what we can provide. Jesus himself even said, “the poor will always be with you.” There will always be work to do when it comes to the needy.
So what’s Jesus trying to say, when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit?”
Well if you’re rich, you like to stress the whole “poor in spirit” part right? Jesus was talking about spiritual poverty. But in Luke’s Gospel, the “in spirit” part isn’t there. Jesus simply says, “blessed are the poor.” Which if you’re poor, you’re more likely to relate to those words. So, in other words, both the rich and the poor, the “haves and the have nots” like to think Jesus was talking about them!
But... chances are... he wasn’t referring to either group. Jesus was talking about humility before God.
I have a pastor friend, who says that his personal take on the difference between being “poor“ and “poor in spirit“ could be expressed in the way he lived back during his seminary days. He served a small church and he and his wife never seemed to have enough money to make the car payment, pay the insurance, rent, take care of medical expenses might come along. It was a constant balancing act, trying to stay one step ahead of the bills. Looking back, he realized that they were in fact poor, but it was OK! Because they knew it was only temporary. They knew they’d never be rich! But he and his wife believed that they would someday have enough.
Maybe that helps us, to relate at least. Maybe you can look back on your own life to a time when you had a similar experience. Or maybe you’re in that situation now. There will always be plenty of people, not just in far away places, but all around us… who’ve been poor for a very long time… Some more poor now than they used to be. And some have even lost hope that things will ever get better, for them, right?
But not us. We know, we have the assurance that something better is coming!
That’s kind of what it means to be poor in spirit. It’s a poverty (a longing, a need) that’s so deep that if someone ask you who you are... if they asked you to define yourself, one of your first responses… Whether you said it out loud or not… Would be I’m poor. I needy... but, I’m hopeful!
Of course, being poor in spirit, implies an awareness of our poverty before the Lord. The good news Bible translates this verse, “happy are those who know they are spiritually poor.” Another translation reads, “the spiritually humble are God’s people.” Still another reads, “God blesses those who depend only on him.”
The point is spiritual humility... knowing that we all owe a debt we simply cannot repay. Understanding that we’re absolutely destitute without God! That you and I desperately need Christ. That’s what it means to be poor in spirit.
And knowing our need for God, is a blessing. Understanding that on our own, in and of our own power, and efforts… Our situation is lost, it’s hopeless. The Psalmist even conveyed that kind of attitude toward God… “Oh God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirst for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).
So many people (maybe even some of us) have bought into the world’s way of thinking - and we’ve come to believe that being “blessed” means having lots of money - after all, the rich have no worries... no problems. Life’s perfect after you win the lottery... right?
French philosopher Gabriel Marcel said that the tables always get turned - because in our efforts to feel “blessed” the things we own, end up owning us! We find ourselves possessed by our possessions!
That’s why Jesus told the rich young ruler to go sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. Jesus was trying to teach this man (and us), that true blessings do not come from things.
Jesus’ words are for those who’ve responded to his voice... for those who’ve committed their lives to him. He’s saying to us, “you’ll find happiness in me... you’ll be blessed when you realize you need me. Bless-ed are those who acknowledge that everything they have is a gift of God.”
Everything: Your wealth, your possessions, your abilities, your time, your family, your relationships, your future, your salvation... everything you & I have and everything we are - comes from God.
If you and I live our lives in that truth... we will, in fact, be blessed.
May it be. Amen.