Poor in Spirit

Matthew 5:1-12

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said:

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

4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The Beatitudes. What a beautiful and unexpected opening to the Sermon on the Mount. Here is the one proclaimed by John to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the one the Magi understood to be the king of the Jews. And he opens what is probably his most influential sermon by pronouncing blessings upon an unexpected group of people. Not the rich, not the powerful, but the poor in spirit and the meek. In my studies this week I came across a commentary that said that there is probably no greater argument against the Prosperity Gospel than the Beatitudes. While our world wants to associate blessings with faster cars, bigger houses, and better health, how does Jesus begin his most famous sermon? By blessing the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.

So you think you know who God favors? God surely favors those who have it all together, who never doubt, who are always too blessed to be stressed. No, Jesus pronounces blessings on those who don’t have it all together, those who struggle to make ends meet. Jesus pronounces blessings upon people like you and me.

I’m going to try something a little different for the month of February (and start a week early). I want to take this familiar passage of scripture and walk through it for several weeks, looking at two verses or two beatitudes each week. We will have a five-week-long sermon series on the Beatitudes. And because there are an odd number of beatitudes, I want to spend half of our time today as an introduction to the Beatitudes and the other half addressing the first beatitude.

The first thing that I want to do by way of introduction to the Beatitudes is simply to admit that I have been wrong in the past. I know, that may come as a surprise to some of you as you are not too familiar with people standing up on a Sunday morning and telling you that they have made mistakes. Well I have, and I’ll surely make more.

Specifically, I remember a time when I spoke about the Sermon on the Mount and described it as beginning with a large group and claiming that people likely walked away when he started challenging them and their firmly-held convictions. “Blessed are the who? I’m out of here!” “You say unto me to love my enemy and go the extra mile? I’m going to go a mile away from you right now!”

But if we look at how the Sermon on the Mount starts and ends, we find a different story. Verses 1-2 say, “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.”

Jesus started with a crowd, down at the foot of the mountain. In the previous chapter, Jesus gave his first sermon, which nearly got him killed, he called some disciples, and then he goes on preaching, teaching, and healing. People are coming out to hear what he has to say, to see if he really is the Lamb of God that John was proclaiming. But when Jesus goes up the mountain, only his disciples come to hear what he has to say. And according to Matthew’s gospel, there are only four disciples at this point.

So Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount starts out with a really small crowd of four. But when we get to the end of his sermon in chapter 7, we read this: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him.” (7:28-8:1).

The thing that amazes me is that I assumed that as Jesus offers what is arguably his most difficult teaching on how we are to live as his followers that people would leave. Just the opposite is true. Even though this teaching is difficult, upside down, and backwards, the small group of four quickly grows to a large crowd.

And it all begins with blessings.

But just what is a blessing? We have maybe overused the phrase in our day and age to the point that we really don’t know. When someone sneezes, we say, “Bless you.” We offer our blessing when people get married or when they celebrate a birthday. We even say things like “Children are a blessing.”

The Greek word we translate as “blessed” is makarios. When the Greek Bible was translated into Latin, makarios was translated with the Latin word beatus, which we further Anglicize to get the word beatitude. Makarios and beatus are really challenging words to put into English. They literally mean happy, fortunate, or blissful. There is even a common translation of the Beatitudes that says “Happy are those who…”

Happy are those who mourn? That doesn’t make any sense. Fortunate are you when you are persecuted. Yeah, I don’t think we are quite there yet.

Instead, I like to think of makarios and blessing as a sign that God is with you, God has your back, or as a former pastor[1] liked to say, “God is on your side.”

Who wouldn’t want that?

Mary famously sings in her Magnificat, “From now on all generations will call me blessed.” Abraham was blessed so that he could to be a blessing to all nations. Makarios, beatus, blessed-ness. This is the state of God being with you, not because of anything that you have done or earned. A blessing is a gift, it is grace. It is the very presence of God with you, not because of what you have done, but often in spite of what you have done.

But notice that the Beatitudes aren’t necessarily things that you should strive for. Yes, it is good to be a peacemaker and it is good to be merciful. But are we supposed to be poor in spirit? Are we supposed to try to be persecuted? To mourn? Surely this is not some sort of formula where all we have to do is follow these teachings and we will be blessed.

One of the confusing things about the Greek language is that it has what is called a mood (kind of like some four year olds I know). The beatitudes are in the indicative mood, not the imperative. This isn’t Jesus telling people that they should be poor in spirit or to be persecuted. That would be the imperative, it would be a command. The Ten Commandments are imperative. Thou shalt not…, and Honor your father and mother. But the indicative mood explains what is already happening. It is descriptive, not prescriptive.

I’ve probably played around with the name “beatitude” before, making it into words like the “be attitudes,” or even the “how-to-be attitudes.” But these aren’t commandments. Jesus isn’t saying that we should be poor in spirit and then God will be with us, have our back, or be on our side. No, Jesus is describing the reality that when we are poor in spirit, God is with us and we are blessed.

So let’s look at this first beatitude. Verse 3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

To be poor in spirit suggests that you are lacking something. To be poor in anything means that you have an insufficient amount of it. If you are financially poor, you don’t have enough money. If you say that I am a poor preacher, you are saying that I lack the necessary skills required to be a good communicator.

Insufficient. Inadequate. You are below average. You simply don’t add up.

Surely, we all know that feeling. I don’t always feel like I’m good enough at being a father, a husband, a pastor. But this isn’t just any old kind of poverty. Jesus specifically says poor in spirit.

What does that even mean? What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Jesus uses the word pneuma, which is word that we translate as breath, wind, and spirit. This could be a reference to the Holy Spirit, but the day of Pentecost has not yet happened, so Jesus probably wasn’t thinking about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as we often talk about in the church.

Instead, I think of cheerleaders who are abounding in spirit…team spirit! Kurt Cobain, I am told, “Smells like teen spirit.” Or around the holidays, we talk about being in the Christmas spirit. The Grinch’s heart grew three sizes, and he was filled with the Christmas spirit. Is Jesus talking about not having the energy to cheer for your favorite team or to put up the Christmas lights? No, I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus is talking about. But we are getting there.

When you see someone moping around, depressed, and defeated, you might say that they have a broken spirit. If a cheerleader is bubbling over with team spirit, and the Grinch is bubbling over with Christmas spirit, some people’s cups overflow with a spirit for life. They are vivacious. They are fun to be around. They are the life of the party. It’s the people on the other end of the spectrum whom Jesus blesses.

It is the destitute. The down and out. Those people who feel like they have been kicked in the teeth and seemingly have no purpose, those are the ones who Jesus comes and says to them, “God is with you. God is on your side. Blessed are you.”

These are the people who are experiencing a spiritual bankruptcy. These are the people that Jesus blesses. These are the people to whom Jesus promises the kingdom of heaven.

In Luke 18, Jesus tells a story about two men who went to the Temple to pray. One man was a Pharisee, an upright man who seemed to have it all together. The other was a tax collector. He worked for the enemy, and likely made a profit by cheating his own neighbors out of their hard-earned money. The Pharisee prays first, thanking God that he is not like this tax collector. This Pharisee keeps the Law. He fasts twice a week. He tithes 10% of all he has.

The tax collector, however, doesn’t provide some sort of list of his accomplishments for God to admire. Instead, he recites a simple phrase: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

It is the tax collector who realizes that he needs God. The Pharisee has it all together. The tax collector is poor in spirit. And it was the tax collector who went home in a right relationship with God. It is the tax collector who will inherit the kingdom of heaven.

But that doesn’t make any sense. Why are the poor in spirit inheriting the kingdom, while those who have it all together seem to be missing out? Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 14, Jesus tells the story about a man who was preparing a great banquet. He invites many people, and they all seem to have excuses. One man has just purchased property, another a team of oxen. A third person has just married a lovely woman, so he is a little busy right now. All of these people seem to be doing okay. You need finances to purchase land; you need money to buy oxen, and you probably already own land if you buy a team of oxen. Even getting married was an investment back in those days. These may not have been the richest of the rich, but things were going well for them.

And they chose not to go to the banquet.

So the master sends his servants out to invite a different demographic. Luke 14:21b, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” When these people came to the banquet, there was still room at the table. So the master sends his servant out once more. This time he tells him to go to the streets, he sends him to the gutters, and invite anyone he finds there to join him at the table. And it is these people who accept the invitation. They, you might say, inherit the kingdom of heaven.

These are the poor in spirit. These are society’s rejects. These are the down and outs. They aren’t the perky cheerleaders or the redeemed Grinch. They are the ones who seem to hate life because life seems to hate them. These are the ones upon whom Jesus proclaims blessings.

No, we aren’t supposed to strive to be poor in spirit; to be poor in spirit is not the goal. Don’t try to be poor in spirit so that God will bless you.

But if you are broken. If you have been hurt. If you have made bad decisions or if bad things have happened to you at no fault of your own, know this: God is on your side.

If you have been trying to start a family and it just isn’t happening. If you gotten pregnant and not wanted to be. If you have cheated on your spouse. If you have lied to your best friend. If you have a debilitating disease or a crippling injury. God is on your side.

God, the creator of heaven and earth, so loved this world that he came to us as one of us. God entered into this broken world and lived among us broken people. And he did so not to condemn this world and all of us broken people. He came to save us. When God in Christ Jesus began his most influential sermon, he didn’t start by congratulating the religious folks who had it all together. Maybe he would have if there was such a thing, but there’s not. Nobody has it all together, some just do a better job of looking as if they do.

No, when the creator of heaven and earth came to live among us and to save us, he started by proclaiming blessings upon the lowly, the downtrodden, the broken, the forgotten. To the poor in spirit, Jesus proclaimed, “God is on your side.”


[1] I structured much of this sermon on Rob Bell’s sermon from several years back at Mars Hill.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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