The following is the sermon I preached for my Pulpit Ministry class here at Portland Bible College

I wanted to turn your attention to the words of Jesus today. In an age when self-reliance and the common adage of ‘standing on your own two feet’ are preached and practiced, in an age when our religion and philosophy focus our attention to self-help and personal growth, in an era of individualism and the self-made man, the words of Jesus ring loud and true.

Blessed1 are the poor2 in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.3
Matthew 5:3

Our first thought in looking at this verse might be an incredulity to the implications Jesus makes. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit?’ Why the poor? Is Jesus against the rich? Is there a poverty-mentality in Christ’s message? Why does Jesus have to say this the way he says it?

We might think that Jesus should have said something else entirely. We might have expected Jesus to say something like:

Blessed are the self-confident, or Blessed are the competent, or Blessed are the self-reliant…for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Some of us might even say that Jesus is only stating paradox, where the truth is merely a perspective shift in our reality, but not actual life change.

Some of us might think that Jesus wants us to actually be poor with regards to our finances, where our lives daily are a desperate plea to God for help and provision.

I believe this verse is poignant and relevant to our context. Let us now spend some time and try and understand this verse.

Cultural Context

See, at this point in Jewish history, at this point in their struggle, they find themselves under subservience and oppression. Long gone are the stories of a people delivered out of slavery to the Egyptians by a charismatic leader in Moses; long gone are the stories of a righteous nation under the leadership of a man after God’s own heart in David; long gone are the stories of the prophets of old like Elijah and Isaiah bringing the word of God to the people. This is a nation that has experienced economic, political, and social upheaval. From the time of the Assyrian exile to the Babylonian captivity, from the remnant returning under the Persian king Cyrus and the Hellenistic influence under the Greek Empire, from the faint hope that came under the Maccabbean rule to their current subservience to the Caesar of Rome, from the puppet kings put in place by the Romans in the Herods to the religious legalism of the Pharisees and Priests. This was a nation that was a far cry from its revolutionary and glorious past. There was a residual pain that remained in the hearts and minds of the Judean people. In their current state they were taxed by the government, oppressed under the religious system, and caught in the constant struggle between their Jewish identity and the pervading Greco-Roman influence. They were a people ignored and forgotten. Their hope remained in their religious tradition and messianic promise.

Jesus spoke to a people who lived in this constant upheaval. These were people who were hopeless and destitute. The religious leaders, the political rulers, and the rich…they wallowed in their fulfillment, and were satiated by power, money, pleasure, and influence. The majority of the people were weary of oppression, and we will call them ‘the poor’.

Supremely Favored, Immensely Blessed

The word that is used throughout the Beatitudes by Jesus, is the Greek word μακάριος (markarios), which has the implications of a favor or promised blessing. It speaks to a people who are experiencing difficult times and are powerless to change their condition. When Jesus says, ‘Blessed are,’ he speaks to the hopes and longings of a people who are hopeless and indifferent.

We know the heart of Jesus because in another passage he says:

Compassion is to feel sympathy, to be moved with compassion.
Sheep without a shepherd denotes a lack of spiritual guidance.
And disembarking, He saw a great multitude, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
Mark 6:34

Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount has gathered his disciples unto himself and is now teaching them the Gospel of Kingdom. They have left their lives, their families, their jobs, and have responded to the call of Jesus. They have discarded everything they have because, now as disciples, they follow their rabbi Jesus.4 They have begun the journey of discipleship.

This blessing that Jesus speaks of, is both an understanding of the present human condition, and a futuring hope that is coming to pass. God is watching, and God is listening. In the face of trials of many kinds, the He is not silent, and He is not blind.

Poor In Spirit, Powerless & Oppressed

The focus of this verse is the phrase ‘poor in spirit’, which in the Greek is the word πτωχός (ptochos), which has a literal of meaning of those without financial or material means, and evokes a sense of powerlessness. It has the implications that this vulnerable state must lead to a total dependence upon God. In Luke’s account of the Beatitudes, he forgoes ‘poor in spirit’ and just states ‘the poor’.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full.
Luke 6:20,24

In an upside-down fashion, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” It conveys a sense of divine irony. That the poor and downtrodden, that the oppressed of society, that those who are powerless to change their human condition, were blessed. While those who are rich and fat in their earthly blessing, have already received their comfort in full. Now that’s a revolutionary thought.

For Theirs Is The Kingdom

The last phrase Jesus uses here in this verse is ‘for theirs is the kingdom’, which in the Greek is αύτων έστιν ή βασιλεία (auton estin eh basileaia). It evokes a sense of belonging and covering. Jesus here speaks of his Father’s kingdom. Compared to the earthly kingdoms his disciples were a part of, with the undercurrent of mistrust and revolution, where oppression and subservience were the currency of authority, where the ones in authority sought to further their cause and ignore the cries of the hurting; Jesus’ kingdom stands at a juxtaposition.

It is not a kingdom of force or violence5:

My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered up to the Jews; but as it is, my kingdom is not of this realm.
John 18:36

It is not a kingdom of oppression or subservience6:

Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Matthew 11:28-30

It is not a kingdom of fairness and retaliation7:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist him who his evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone wants to sue you, and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.
Matthew 5:38-44

The kingdom of God is something else entirely.

Christ’s kingdom is breaking forth and will continue to break forth until the end of time and the fulfillment of all things. Jesus is calling forth his disciples into a kingdom that began in the mind of God, and now calls people into living according to that kingdom.

When Jesus says, “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven”, he is saying that it is now possible to live in a completely different reality. There is something greater, better, more beautiful, and altogether lovely. He is inviting his disciples into an alternative existence, and he is saying that they can be a part of that kingdom.

So once again, let us read Jesus’ words:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:3

We must now seek to apply these words into our very lives. What is the Holy Spirit trying to say to us in our context?

Embrace Our Soul Poverty

In our humanity, we find a ‘false richness’ in the many things that surround us. We find our fulfillment in the words of encouragement from our friends; we lust for pleasure and comfort; we run after things that we think really matter; we find ourselves in the secular game of being fashionable and relevant and ‘well-put-together’.

In his words Jesus asks us to embrace our Poverty. We are the frail and worn, the weak and needy, the sick and wanting, the hidden and poor. Through our unique walks of life, we encounter our own poverty.

We are the poor, not the rich. When Jesus speaks of poverty, He does so to imply that on our own we are capable of little. We are vulnerable to weaknesses in our flesh, weakened by the gross sinfulness of the world, and powerless to fight the attacks of the enemy. On our own we do not amount to much. We are sheep without a shepherd; easily led astray. At the end of the day, we are possessors of nothing.

The other day i was thinking about how fragile life is. We come with nothing into this world, and we honestly leave with nothing. I was thinking about how the only things that keep us alive is an involuntary muscle that continually pumps blood into our bodies. There’s not much that separates us from eternity.

Live In The Riches Of God

Why does Jesus say that only the poor in spirit inherit the kingdom of heaven? Because it is a reality shift in the Christ-follower’s mind. Only those who accept their own poverty, can come to accept the riches of God.

People struggle with accepting God’s riches in their lives for two reasons.

They think they are capable of living life without Him, and they let their pride drive them away from an all-providing God. They fail to see the riches of God because they believe their riches to be adequate.

They fail to live in the riches of God because they are never able to fully accept it. They find themselves doubting the sheer goodness of God in their lives. They fail to live in the life God has for them because of their fear and doubt. They let their inability to trust in God drive them away from God’s riches.

To live in the riches of God, means we understand our spiritual poverty and allow and all-providing God to be the Lord of our lives.

The way to deeper knowledge of God is through the lonely valleys of soul poverty and abnegation of all things. The blessed ones who possess the kingdom are they who have repudiated every external thing and have rooted from their hearts all sense of possessing. They are the “poor in spirit.” They have reached an inward state paralleling the outward circumstances of the common beggar in the streets of Jerusalem. These blessed poor are no longer slaves to the tyranny of things. They have broken the yoke of the oppressor; and this they have done not by fighting but by surrendering. Though free from all sense of possessing, they yet possess all things. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
A.W. Tozer8

Our Poverty Helps Us See Other’s Poverty

Jesus says something quite powerful later on in this chapter:

For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:20

In the time Jesus says this, it was believed that the Pharisees were the most righteous people. They were treated with the highest honor, and their ‘perceived righteousness’ was known in every part of society. They kept the Mosaic Law down to a ‘t’, they made up their own law, and expected all to follow in their footsteps of righteousness.9 They believed that their righteousness is what saves them; contrast that with what Jesus says in this verse. For it is not those who think they are rich in spirit, but those who realize that as people we are poor in spirit; only such as these can lay claim on the kingdom of heaven.

The Pharisees looked upon the world through a lens of, “I am righteous, and honor me for my righteousness.” They dwelt on the praise and adulation of a people who idealized righteousness, piety, and obedience to a higher power.

The Pharisees had a peculiar perspective on the world. They judged the world through the lens of their own self-righteousness. When they saw a hurting and dying world, their first emotion was not compassion, but rather disdain.

Let’s look once more at the story of the Good Samaritan:

But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”
Luke 10:26-37

The Levite and Priest in the story were too caught up in their fulfilled, self-righteous lives. They were too caught up in the busy-ness of life to see the poverty of their fellow man.

The Samaritan on the other hand, realized the need and accordingly moved to help this man’s situation.

It takes a man with true riches, to see the poverty of the world around him. It takes a man with true compassion to overcome the disdain and loathe of the world that overlooks the hungry, oppressed and needy.

We Christians, sometimes act too much like the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day. We spend so much time trying to be set apart and ‘righteous’, and forget that sometimes we just need to have compassion and a heart that sees the need in our fellow man.

Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don’t do, and more in the light of what they suffer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer10

As Christ-followers we must be known for more than just our standards and convictions, what we do or don’t do, what we say or don’t say. We must be known for something higher and greater altogether.

The poor in spirit are blessed by God, and as possessors of the kingdom of heaven, offer to the world the riches of heaven.

We are the blessed poor, blessed by God to be a blessing to a dying world.

In Conclusion

If we are to embrace our soul poverty, we must wrestle off the stranglehold of our false richness; which is so easy to come by in a culture of fulfilled pleasure and comfort, where we run after so many things just because we want to. We must come to embrace the poverty that is inherent in our souls.

If we are to live in the riches of God, then we must seek out things of eternal significance. We must find ourselves on our knees in prayer, in worshipful study as we look to God’s Word. We must overcome the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, the pride of life, and find ourselves so in tune and in love with God, that all we think, say, or do, pass through the filter of relationship we have with God. We must desire the riches of God, for in that do we find true blessing and true fulfillment.

If we are to recognize the poverty of humanity, the overwhelming need of those around us, then we must ask the Lord to give us eyes of compassion and hands and feet of action. We must look upon the suffering of the world and suffer with the world. We must be known for less about what we are for or against, and more for how we love the world to heaven.

As we meditate on the words of Christ, and take a careful look at our own soul, may we embrace our own poverty, may we live in the riches of God, and may we see the poverty of our fellow man.

May we be able to say, we are the poor in spirit, we are the blessed, and we are the possessors of the kingdom of heaven.

Footnotes

μακάριος – blessed, fortunate, happy, free from daily cares and worries. It conveys the idea of being especially favored: blessed, happy, or privileged. This is particularly true of the individual who receives divine favor. It is a pronouncement; that is, though the present situation of those facing trials is difficult, they are encouraged by the prospect of future consolation and reward (“blessing”) from God and thus are able to face the present with courage and hope. ↩

πτωχός – poor, poor as a beggar. It can be used both literally, and figuratively, referring to the one whose vulnerable state leads to total dependence on God. This term is frequently used in the Gospels in this literal sense: namely, those without financial or material means and thus powerless. ↩

αύτων έστιν ή βασιλεία – it belongs to them. There is an ownership that comes; there is a sense of belonging that is attached to the blessing and favor bestowed upon them. The kingdom has come in person, yet it awaits fulfillment at the end of the age. The kingdom is central to Jesus’ teaching and was the foundation to the apostles’ teaching. ↩

At this point in Jewish history many spiritual leaders had followings. John the Baptist had a loyal following of disciples; the Pharisees had disciples. Typically a disciple would voluntarily join a school or otherwise seek out a master rabbi; however in this instance Jesus has sought them out, not them seeking Jesus out. Also in the rabbinical tradition, a disciple could one day hope to be a rabbi himself, but in Christianity, Jesus would forever be the disciple’s rabbi and the disciples could hope for a lifetime of discipleship. ↩

It is amazing to see that throughout Jesus’ ministry, he stepped clear of violence and aggression, and also at the same time did not give into the evil and oppression of society. Jesus’ way is a third way, a way which critical yet convictive and restorative. ↩

In Christ’s kingdom, we are called to be sons of God, and the bride of Christ. There is an empowering and a ‘raising up’ of humanity that is seen in Christ’s work on the Cross, and the Holy Spirit’s subsequent work of transformation. ↩

There is an element of submitting completely to the will of God, and letting God be in charge. We are called to love those who are good and evil, just as God loves all. We are called to submit our awareness to a higher God-awareness. ↩

p.23, “The Blessedness Of Possessing Nothing”, The Pursuit Of God, by A.W. Tozer. ↩

Because of their elevation in Jewish society for their righteousness and piety, Jesus uses them liberally in explaining a ‘new righteousness’ and a ‘kingdom that is not of this world.’ He contrasts their piety and obedience with what he knows the Father requires in piety and obedience. ↩

Quoted in Philip Yancey, “Middle East Morass, Christianity Today (November 2006) ↩