Jean’s Gospel: Blessed Are the Poor In Spirit
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3)
As the first words of the Sermon on the Mount, resolving the meaning of the first Beatitude may provide the key for understanding all the Beatitudes. I agree with those interpreters who see the nine Beatitudes as all linked together, flowing from the first Beatitude. The first Beatitude may even establish the theme not just for the Sermon on the Mount but for the entire gospel.
Disciples of Jesus are Blessed
Jesus opens his Sermon with authority, declaring his disciples blessed. When Christ claims you and what is yours as His own, and gives Himself and what is His to you as your own, you have by faith entered into a one flesh union with the Son of God – a uniquely blessed union. Blessedness is your privileged position or state of being under the reign of your King whereby you receive not just His gracious reign in your life, but also His gifts for you, present and future. Blessedness conveys the notes of happiness, wholeness, prosperity, flourishing and well off.
Disciples of Jesus are Poor in Spirit
Disciples of Jesus are poor in spirit because they are needy and entirely dependent on the grace of God for their existence. Jesus taught this dependency, using little children as an example to us: “Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’ ” (Matt 19:13-14)
Disciples of Jesus are poor in spirit in the same way that little children are dependent for survival on their parents. Little children have nothing their parents need or require from them; they cannot survive on their own; they trust in the goodness of their parents; and they trust their parents with their lives. Jesus affirms the goodness of the parent/child relationship, even though it is sometimes dimly experienced in this fallen world: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11) Little children are not perfect by any means, but their gracious parents do not expect perfection and are quick to forgive their child’s transgressions.
However, sometimes a disciple’s spiritual poverty also coincides with external poverty, which the disciple experiences externally in unhappiness, brokenness, financial poverty, sickness and/or disease. Jesus teaches this side of poorness of spirit in the eighth Beatitude: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:10)
The world, the devil and our own flesh often tempt, injure, deceive, slander, murder and otherwise war against the disciples of Jesus. Disciples, who have been enlightened by the Word of God, should be particularly sensitive to the presence of evil, sin and injustice in the world, in their neighbors, and in their very own hearts, and, therefore, may often experience life in great poverty of spirit. Does external poverty or other troubles contradict or overrule the blessings of God? Certainly not!
“for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”
The poor in spirit, the little children, and those who are persecuted for righteousness sake all share in common one and the same promise, which Jesus bestows in the present tense: for theirs is (or to such belongs) the kingdom of heaven.
This second half of the first Beatitudes elicits two important thoughts: First, Jesus teaches us to trust Him and His Word despite our feelings and external circumstances. A disciple of Jesus is in a position of blessedness, vouchsafed by the words of Jesus. His authoritative Word transcends all temporary and external circumstances of daily life in this fallen world. As it is written: “Let God be true though every one were a liar” (Rom 3:4).
Second, although a disciple may and often does suffer external and temporary poverty of spirit in countless ways during this life, Jesus has added the promise of His kingdom to strengthen our faith and grant us consolation, that we might fix our hope in Him and His eternal kingdom and learn to see with eyes of faith the true nature of our existence as children of our Father who is in heaven.
“And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching” (Matt 7:28)
Although the Sermon on the Mount was addressed to His disciples, Jesus preached publically, astonishing the crowds who had gathered to hear Him. By including the crowds in the audience, Jesus preaches to all of us and invites all of us to find our places within His sermon. Are you poor in spirit? Are you a pious man or woman who expects to be rewarded with wealth and honor in this life? Are you suffering injustice or persecution, expecting Jesus to bring you temporal justice and equity?
These questions are the same basic questions that were on the minds of the crowds who first heard Jesus preach the gospel of the kingdom. They were important questions then, and they remain important questions today. I imagine that our individual places within the story are more fluid than we might initially think as our faith is constantly tested by the circumstances (good and bad) of everyday life.
Perhaps we might even add a couple questions of a more contemporary nature: Is the message of Jesus simply the opium of the people? Or, slightly less inflammatory: Is the message of Jesus a purely spiritual gospel, without any relevance to the mundane lives of Christian people living in a diverse and increasingly secular society?
I am persuaded that the vitality of Christianity in America depends on how our churches teach the gospel of the kingdom and how we as individual disciples of Jesus answer these questions. Amen.