Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

The Beatitudes: the Poor in Spirit
A Message on Matthew 5:1-3
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Jan. 9, 2022
By Doug Wintermute

Matthew 5:1-3 (NRSV)

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

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Today we are beginning a sermon series that will take us up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. This series will be on some teachings from Jesus that are called “The Beatitudes.”

The term “beatitude” comes from a Latin word, beati, which is the first word in the series of teachings. The word means “blessed,” “happy,” or even “rich.” And because it is repeated so often, these teachings have become known as the “beatitudes.”

We find the beatitudes in the 5th chapter of Matthew as part of what is known as the “Sermon on the Mount.”

Today we will be looking at the first of the beatitudes and exploring what Jesus means when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Now one of the strange things about the beatitudes is just how upside down and backwards they seem to us. Jesus says that these things, which by the world’s terms are weaknesses, are actually blessings, or good things.

Today we are exploring the “poor in spirit,” but the others are those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.

So let’s start by figuring out just exactly what is meant by the poor in spirit.

Now on the surface we usually think of the word “poor” as someone who has very little or none. For example, we think in terms of money, that someone who is “poor” is someone who has no or very little money. And using that thought process we might be led to think that someone who is “poor in spirit” is someone who has little–or no–faith.

But I don’t think that’s what it means here. And after doing a little research I discovered that I’m not the only one that believes that.

To be “poor in spirit” means to have an utter, complete reliance on God, to know that we are sinners unable to save ourselves. It is the acknowledgement that we need a savior.

One of the best examples of this, in my opinion, is found in the 18th chapter of Luke where Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (also called the publican).

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14

I think this is a great illustration of the poor in spirit. The Pharisees were the religious leaders of the day and at the top of the Jewish social order. They lived in the best houses, wore the nicest clothes, and ate the best food. When they walked down the street people would move aside to make way for them. They were the celebrities of the day. They were somebody, and they wanted everyone to know it.

Then you have the tax collector. These were usually Jewish people who worked for the occupying Roman forces to collect taxes for the Romans. The Jewish people viewed them as traitors for working for the Romans. They also were viewed in a very negative light because they were known for charging the Jewish people more than the Romans required, keeping the extra for themselves. So they were crooks and thieves as well.

And yet in the parable Jesus paints the Pharisee in a very negative light, but the tax collector he paints in a very positive light. This is the complete opposite of how most of society viewed them at the time. And why does Jesus do this?

It’s because of their hearts.

The Pharisee was smug in his spirituality and considered himself to be above others. He considered himself more religious and therefore more righteous than others. His heart was smug and full of himself.

The tax collector’s heart, however, was what I think of to be “poor in spirit.” He earnestly, honestly, humbly repented of his sins, saying “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

I have been re-reading The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a really, really wonderful and insightful book, written by the great German theologian that opposed Adolf Hitler and paid for it with his life. (I highly recommend you read it.)

Bonhoeffer, in a chapter titled, “The Hidden Righteousness,” discusses the danger of being religious in order to impress others. We are to live our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ in ways that are visible to the world, but if we do it for the purpose of being visible then we are no longer righteous.

“We are therefore confronted with a paradox” Bonhoeffer writes. “Our activity must be visible, but never be done for the sake of making it visible.”

He goes on to point out, “We have to take heed that we do not take heed of our own righteousness. Otherwise the ‘extraordinary’ which we achieve will not be that which comes from following Christ, but that which springs from our own will and desire.”

I am also currently reading Jesus the Stranger by Kenneth J. Collins, and he also points out the danger of having pride in our religiosity. “Indeed, the forces of self-love are so strong that even taking up a cross can be filled with a self-preoccupation (‘See what a good disciple I am! Oh, how I have suffered!’) that can become morbid in its misdirection, in its turn toward self and negativity. This, too, must die.”

I think that’s the point Jesus is talking about when he refers to the “poor in spirit.”

I think it is a matter of perception and power. If we forget that grace is unmerited favor from God given to us out of love, we somehow convince ourselves that we have a quid pro quo with God and that we can earn our way to heaven. We view God as an old-time accountant sitting up in heaven with one of those green, transparent visors on, keeping track of the good things we do and the bad things we do, and when we die if the number of marks on the “good” side of the ledger are more than on the “bad” side we get to go to heaven. No. God doesn’t work that way.

I believe we like to think that way because that perception gives us power, power to think that we have the ability to work our way to heaven, developing a sorta-smug attitude that those who aren’t as religious as me aren’t going to make it. We turn religion into a competition and we want to win. We perceive ourselves as better than others who aren’t as religious, as having power over them.

What Jesus tells us in the first beatitude on the poor in spirit, though, blows all that out of the water. God has the power, we don’t. And when we recognize that, when we see that each person, regardless of class, wealth, power, or even religious standing is a sinner in need of grace, then we are poor in spirit.

So my challenge for you today is to be poor in spirit. Now by that I don’t mean not practicing the spiritual disciplines of daily Bible reading, prayer, sacrificial giving, fasting, or any of those things. No. It is through practicing those that we come to a better understanding of our full and complete reliance on God, and actually become poor in spirit.

Jesus came to earth, walked among us, and taught us this through the first beatitude. And he believed it so much himself that he willingly went to the cross so that we can be reconciled with God, not through our own power but purely through the power of God’s love.

Be humble. Be poor in spirit. And if you do, yours is the kingdom of heaven.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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