The great theme of the Sermon on the Mount, which we will work through over the next several weeks, is the Christian life, how we who follow Christ are supposed to live.
Christ introduces this long sermon on Christian living with what we just heard, the so-called beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” It is a famous and a beloved passage.
The beatitudes give us a picture of the kind of person who lives the Christian life that Jesus is about to describe in the rest of his sermon.
But like so much of the Bible, as soon as we begin to think seriously about what Jesus is saying, this passage challenges us. It challenges our assumptions about what is good and admirable, about our hopes and aspirations, about who we want to be.
Some of the beatitudes make intuitive sense. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness sounds good. So do “merciful,” and “pure in heart,” and “peacemaker.” I imagine most of us would like to be described that way.
But the first three beatitudes do not sound so good. I do not just mean that they are hard. I mean they do not sound like compliments. How would you like to hear yourself described as “poor in spirit”? Or mournful? Or meek?
Most of us are more inclined to celebrate wealth than poverty of spirit. We are more inclined to admire strength than meekness. We claim a self-evident right to pursue our happiness. And yet Christ blesses people who mourn.
Sometimes it seems as if we talk about one set of values in Church and live by an entirely different set of values in our regular lives. In Church it is OK to praise poverty of spirit and mournfulness and meekness. But in our regular lives, we praise their opposites. What we describe as good in Church on Sunday morning—things like poverty of spirit—sound bad anywhere else.
We need to sit with that tension if we are going to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. Too often, we just read over difficult passages in the Bible as if they are not relevant to our lives as we actually want to live them. Our Church values and our life values do not really align.
And yet in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus was not preaching in the first-century equivalent of a Church on Sunday morning. When Jesus said the things we heard in our gospel reading, he was out among the people on a regular weekday. Apparently Jesus thought that the beatitudes were relevant for actual life, not just for Church.
So should we, if we want to follow Jesus.
We don’t have time to talk about all the beatitudes, so I will focus on the first one. What can the first beatitude teach us about our lives, our real lives? What would it look like for us to be poor in spirit?
Start with literal poverty—poor in money. Jesus spent most of his ministry among the poor. Jesus routinely blesses the poor. In the first sermon recorded in the gospel of Luke, the first thing Jesus says is that he has been anointed by the Spirit to bring good news to the poor (4:18). Shortly thereafter, in language closely parallel to our gospel reading, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (6:20). Jesus says a lot more like that.
It is very clear that Jesus loves poor people.
The question for someone like me, that is, someone who may not be rich but is not poor either, the question is, what can I learn from Jesus’ beloved poor about the Christian life? What would it mean for me to be poor in spirit, even if I am not literally poor?
And the lesson that I think poor people can teach someone like me is to be more honest about the human condition.
The idea that we should be rugged individuals, that we should be self-sufficient, that we should pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, runs deep in American culture. People like me can pretend to be self-sufficient, can pretend that we can go it alone, can pretend that we do not need other people, can pretend that we can meet our own needs.
But it is not true. At least it is not the whole truth. When Jesus tells us to be poor in spirit, he is telling us a hard truth about our lives, our real lives. The truth is, we are all vulnerable and needy.
Poor people know that. Poor people have to live with the insecurity of knowing that they may not be able to meet their basic needs. Poor people know that they will sometimes need help making ends meet. Poor people know that they are not totally self-sufficient, that they cannot go it alone.
Poor people know that. If we are poor in spirit, we know all of that is true of us too, no matter how much money we have.
We depend on each other for all sorts of things. Lots of people have to do lots of things to make it possible for us to worship here this morning.
But let’s stick with life outside of Church. When my car breaks down, I am helpless. When my computer breaks down, I am helpless. Other people grow my food, and make my clothes, and monitor my health, and maintain the roads I drive on and the internet systems I work with. I could not do one thing without help from lots of people.
The fact is, we need each other. And, of course, we need God. Everything that we have and everything that we are comes to us first as a gift from God. And one of God’s gifts is each other. God calls to come together, to share our gifts, to meet each other’s needs as best we can, with God’s help.
This is good news.
Trying to pretend that we are self-sufficient when we are not is exhausting. Trying to go it alone when we are created for community is lonely and scary. We cannot always be strong and assertive and happy.
And the good news in the hard truth is that we do not have to pretend anymore. When he blesses the poor in spirit, Jesus invites us to acknowledge our need.
And, having acknowledged our need, Jesus invites us to turn to Him and to rely on Him. Jesus invites us to turn to each other and to rely on each other.
If we can be poor in spirit, if we can be honest about how much we need each other and how much we need God, perhaps we can learn to share what we have and accept from others what they have. Perhaps we can participate in a community of love. If so, we will be blessed indeed. We will experience a foretaste of God’s kingdom even now.
Hard though it may be to hear, if we can be poor in spirit, ours will be the kingdom of heaven.
Thanks be to God for the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen.