Sunday, April 8, 2012

Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit

Beatitudes—Matthew 5:3

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”


 Context

 

Matthew 5:3 is the first saying in a list of short, shocking sayings commonly known as the beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-12. These sayings are called “beatitudes,” based on the Latin word for “blessings,” because they all start with the word “blessed.” The beatitudes themselves are the opening part of Jesus’ first recorded sermon, Matthew 5:3-7:27, commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount because it was delivered on a mountainside. The Sermon on the Mount is partially paralleled by Jesus’ shorter “Sermon on the Plain” (actually delivered from a boat) in Luke 6:20-49. Indeed, the beatitudes of Matthew 5 are paralleled by a similar but subtly different list of beatitudes—and corresponding woes—in Luke 6. Both sermons were delivered to Jesus’ disciples in the presence of a large crowd that had followed Jesus because he had recently been healing many people and casting out many demons. (Matthew 4:23-25; Luke 6:17-19). It is significant to the message of the two sermons, and particularly that of the beatitudes, that under these circumstances Jesus directly addressed, not the crowds that had come to receive miracles at his hands, but his disciples who had committed themselves to follow him and learn at his feet. The crowds were merely welcome to stay and listen to what Jesus taught his disciples.

The beatitudes are a list of shocking sayings that appear to have been designed to turn away people in the crowd who were merely looking to Jesus to have their needs met. Following Jesus requires looking at things in an entirely different way than the world does. For instance, the world, then and now, says “blessed are the self-confident,” who have acquired all they need and act confidently on the belief they can do everything they need to do on their own, with maybe only a little “help” from God. The first beatitude insists on just the opposite:“blessed are the poor in spirit.” (Matt. 5:3). The world says that happiness is the avoidance of mourning and anything that can cause it. Jesus says, “blessed are those who mourn.” (Matt. 5:4). The world says “blessed are the assertive,” those who know their power and aggressively use it to get what they want out of others (and also, some would say, out of God). Jesus says, “blessed are the meek.” (Matt. 5:5). The world says that showing mercy is a sign of weakness. Jesus says, “blessed are the merciful.” (Matt. 5:6). And so it is throughout the rest of the list: the world’s value of seeking self-gratification (the American “pursuit of happiness!”) is reproved by Jesus’ value of purity of heart (Matt. 5:7). The world’s norm of advancement through self-assertion and intimidation is countered by the blessing Jesus places on peacemakers (Matt. 5:8). The world’s expectation that we are to “fit in” with those around us in order to avoid making them uncomfortable about the way they are living is contradicted by Jesus’ blessing on those who are persecuted because of righteousness. (Matt. 5:9). Finally, the world’s appeal to our desire for popularity is reproved by Jesus’ blessing on those who are insulted and falsely accused because of Him. (Matt. 5:11).

With this introduction, I will now discuss Matthew 5:3 in more detail.

The Message of Matthew 5:3

The jarring message of Matthew 5:3 is that I must recognize that I am powerless, totally without resources, unable to do anything for God or, in the end, for myself, before I will enter His kingdom. This message is inescapable in the text.

Matthew 5:3 describes a group of people who are “blessed” because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. In various translations, the word “blessed” is also translated as “happy” or “fortunate.” Bauer suggests a that the Greek word involved can mean a “privileged recipient of divine favor,” an interpretation which must be close to the intended meaning in this verse, because the group of people who is described as “blessed” is not a group the world would generally describe in this way. It is not the wealthy and powerful of this world, or even the popular and highly talented, who Jesus calls “blessed.” It is beggars!

Jesus says, in this verse, “blessed are the poor in spirit.” He is even more terse in the parallel verse in Luke, “blessed are you poor,” which he contrasts a few verses later with “woe to you rich.” The word translated “poor” in both verses (πτωχος) does not refer to someone who is merely somewhat low on funds. Rather, it refers to a “beggar”—this being one of the alternate translations listed for the word in several lexicons—someone who is flat broke and hopeless. To demonstrate this usage, the word πτωχος is used three times in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19 and following) to describe the “beggar” Lazarus, who was covered with sores and longed to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. This same word is also used very pointedly as an adjective in Revelation 3:17, in which Jesus warns the complacent in the church of Laodicea, who thought they were rich and did not need anything, that they were in fact “wretched, pitiful, poor (πτωχος), blind and naked” (NIV). It is in very much this sense of a beggar, one who is absolutely dependent on others, that Jesus appears to be using the word in Matthew 5:3.

In Matthew, in contrast to Luke, Jesus does not end his description of the blessed person with the word “poor;” instead, he says “blessed are the poor in spirit.” However, the added words intensify, rather than soften, the intended message that the truly blessed person is one who is powerless and absolutely dependent. On the one hand, the limitation of the poverty of which Jesus speaks to poverty “in spirit” means that merely outwardly possessing some degree of worldly wealth will not exclude one from the blessing of possessing the kingdom of heaven, as long as that wealth does not possess us. It is, as Jesus said in another place, more difficult for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom, but with God it is possible. (Matthew 19:23-26; Mark 10:22-27). It is noteworthy, however, that when Jesus spoke of the difficulty a rich man has in entering the kingdom, he was referring directly to a rich man who had just turned away from following Him because He had asked the man to give away His wealth before becoming a disciple. So, while a person who has outward wealth is not necessarily excluded from the kingdom, it can be a hindrance, and Jesus may ask that it be given away. Those who trust in their wealth cannot enter. (Mark 10:24).

On the other hand, the limitation of the blessing to those who are poor “in spirit” also means that the blessing is not upon those who, though financially impoverished, retain their pride and independence and go on in their own way. Rather, Bauer’s lexicon appears to be correct when it states that, in Matthew 5:3, “the sense is probably those who are poor in their inner life, because they do not have a Pharisaic pride in their own spiritual riches.” What Jesus blesses here is recognizing our own need and our own powerlessness to do anything for him.

For those who are poor in spirit, the blessing is this: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Though it would have shocked Jesus’ hearers, and still shocks us today, this message actually makes sense. Whatever I believe I can do adequately by myself, I will not submit to God. It is only when I recognize my helplessness that I will bring myself under the rule of heaven. Jesus’ saying in Matthew 5:3 assures me that, when I do recognize my complete powerlessness, the kingdom (or rule, βασιλεια) from heaven belongs to me. This is a blessing I cannot obtain as long as I am trusting in my own wisdom and ability. God does not want to be my adviser. But if I let Him be King, recognizing my own inability to direct my steps, He will be King.