This was my short spoken word last night at Beresheth kicking off our study in worship of the Beatitudes...
The Beatitudes. Truthfully, I don’t know much about them. I managed to remember they were at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, but that was about it. Upon reading it, I discovered there were 8 beatitudes – perfect. That will finish out 8 weeks in October and November for Beresheth and lead us straight into Advent. However, then I discovered they were in Luke too and that in Luke there are only four beatitudes and three woes. Didn’t fit my schedule. Not nicely nestled in the Sermon on the Mount. Sticking with Matthew’s version.
Of course, Matthew’s is different than Luke’s. Whereas Matthew says blessed are the poor in Spirit, Luke just says blessed are you who are poor. Matthew says to the poor in spirit belongs the Kingdom of Heaven. Luke says the poor have the kingdom of God. Are these differences theologically substantial, or are they just different ways of talking about the same thing?
So I looked at what “poor in spirit” meant. According to Song of Solomon the poor in spirit are those “who live in humble acknowledgment of their impoverishment before God and who lift up hopeful prayers.” David Garland juxtaposes the proud with the poor in spirit who “throw pride and caution to the wind in desperate appeals for help.” Likewise, Dom Crossan notes that the Greek word used denotes a desolate situation. And as the quote read states, Jesus called blessed “not the poor but the destitute, not poverty but beggary.” So is that different from Luke’s plain old “blessed are the poor?” N. T. Wright says no. He states, “I do not think there is much actual difference between Matthew and Luke at this point. The contrast upon which we should focus is not between material and spiritual poverty, but between the way of the powerful and the way of the powerless – who are likely to be the poor in all the senses, certainly in first-century Israel.”
And Israel was oppressed. They were all around destitute.
Quite different from the state you and I live in today.
We live in a mostly free country with a mostly ethical sense of morality. My religion isn’t suppressed, my civil liberties aren’t oppressed. In general, politically, we’re doing alright. Not well mind you, but compared to first-century Israel, or to 21st century Palestinians, we’re doing okay. Even the poorest of our poor in America can usually locate a soup kitchen.
But Matthew isn’t talking about money in this passage, he’s talking about spirituality.
Humility, some would say. Beggars before God. One scholar notes that in Aramaic the word poor in Matthew means bent down, afflicted, miserable. Juxtapose that with the word for meek in verse 4 which means bending oneself down, humble and gentle and I get a sense that poor in spirit has very little to do with how we choose to be spiritually. It seems imposed. Spiritually impoverished because we have no choice to be anything but. If I am meek, I move my body into the submission of bowing down, but if I am afflicted, I bend down due to external weight.
And that I get. And that I almost like.
Because it’s nothing I can control.
Many scholars call the Beatitudes the New Testament’s Ten Commandments. Matthew makes many references to Moses with regard to Jesus and there are many similarities. Dreams about their births, the slaughtering of male children by a ruler, people fleeing into exile, both fast for forty days and nights and both ascend a mountain.
There are distinctions too though. Matthew is careful to note these. Whereas Moses is taught by God, Jesus does his own teaching. Moses speaks in the name of God; Jesus speaks in his own name. Moses’ face shines with God’s glory, Jesus is transfigured. And the list goes on and on.
And of course whereas Moses brings Commandments, Jesus brings congratulations.
Congratulations to the poor in spirit! Beatitudes speak of happiness acquired by someone. In the Greco-Roman world it was a lovely bride, excellent children, moral stature, wisdom, wealth, honor, etc. Needless to say, poverty, humility and suffering didn’t generally make their list. But Jesus offers congratulations on these states of being and for what will come as a result.
A new way of being Israel. A new way of being the children of God.
And again Jesus calls to examine our hearts. For a rich old man may be just as spiritually estranged as a poor young boy because external circumstances do not determine the status of our spirituality. They may encourage or hinder it, granted, but what lies inside… hurt by the church, hurt by people, confused by evil, longing to be accepted and made whole… the status of our spiritual health is what Jesus congratulates here.
Congratulations Ann, you can’t make yourself whole so quit trying. Only God can accomplish that.
Congratulations Ann, you alone cannot fill up what is empty, so stop trying.
You cannot make your spirit light, you cannot make yourself powerful, you cannot heal what has been broken, free what was oppressed.
Only God can do that.
Enter the kingdom of heaven. Enter the reign of grace. Enter the policy of compassion.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.