Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit – SOM Part 5

The beatitudes are the best known part of the Sermon on the Mount, each beginning with a “blessing” for those who meet the qualification that is paired with the “blessing.” Since many people have no trouble identifying themselves as “poor in spirit” or “meek” or a “peacemaker”, or even perhaps “persecuted”, it is natural to think of this part of the Sermon on the Mount as a wonderfully positive expression of God’s benevolence. A perfect fit for one's own righteousness. That is a false comfort as some of our further studies will show. But even if one gets through all the beatitudes feeling unscathed, that which follows – and that which makes up the greatest part of the sermon – is anything but comforting if one takes seriously the words of Jesus.

Those listening to Jesus that day came believing that, if only Jesus, or some other Messiah, would shake them free from the shackles of Rome, they would be living in the idyllic kingdom which God promised to David and his descendents in perpetuity. However, that day they heard Jesus use a term that meant something very different. He would speak of a kingdom of (from) heaven. In other words, a kingdom among men in which the will of the Father would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Over and over the phrase filled the sermon, emphasizing that the manner of living he was describing was the order of the day in the kingdom he proclaimed. Jesus would spend the next three years describing the character of that kingdom using one parable after another. They must repent of living in the old ways; the kingdom of heaven was at hand (in their midst) and they must learn how to live in that kingdom, with its new expectations.

It was a kingdom for the “poor in spirit.” All the kingdoms of this world are for the haughty in spirit. The winners in the kingdoms of this world are those with the largest egos, the greatest ambitions, the most self-confidence, the least concern for others. They are also those with the greatest sense of pique when their talents go unrewarded. Anyone foolish enough to defer to another’s interest, another’s wellbeing, to recognize another’s rights, will go nowhere in the kingdoms of this world. If anyone, poor in spirit, is elevated it is only to serve as a pawn in the game of the haughty in spirit.

But Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdoms of this world will come and go, and some day they will go forever. But the kingdom of heaven is an eternal kingdom. The haughty in spirit have no place in that kingdom, nor do they want any place in it. The poor in spirit are comfortable there, thrive in it, and have the assurance that their investments in that kingdom are being stored as treasures that will not rust or fade or be taken away.

I believe Jesus started the Sermon on the Mount with this beatitude because it presents the essential character of the citizen of the kingdom of heaven. None of what follows in the Sermon on the Mount can be realized by one who does not possess – or is not possessed by – a poverty of spirit, a willingness to be last in all things, servant of all. Jesus says, here and elsewhere, that such a person will be first in the kingdom of heaven, not because they hope to be, or strive to be, or believe they have a right to be, but because God wills that they be.

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