“ 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” (Matt 4:23 – 25).5 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”” (Matt 4:23- 5:3)
Contrary to our usual ways of thinking about Jesus he was mostly a simple living person. He grew up in a typical peasant home, spoke with a Galilean accent, sweated at the carpenter’s bench, ate, joked and went to the toilet like everybody else. And because he “is the same yesterday and today and forever.”(Heb 13:8) Jesus is still that sort of person. He has never been “envious or boastful or arrogantor rude” (1 Cor 13:4), this makes him the perfect example of the virtues spelled out in the beatitudes and especially the first one- “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Exegesis – Exposition
5:1- 2 Context
Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount corresponds to the O.T. giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Moses and Jesus both ascend mountains to deliver God’s word to his covenant people.[– but in the case of Jesus God’s words come directly from his mouth. Jesus sits down = official position of authoritative teacher. 5:2 is literally, “he opened his mouth and began to teach them” “’One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matt 4:4)]
The Sermon on the Mount is a dynamic summary of the way God calls us to live as followers of his Son. [Messianic Torah cf. Gal 6:2]. .
The nine so – called “beatitudes” (from a Latin word that roughly means “blessed”) each hold a promise for the followers of Jesus.
[These blessings are not shared with the general population. They are spoken to those who have gathered from all over the land of Palestine because they have been meaningfully impacted by Jesus’ words and acts of grace and power. They are promises for the community of Christ.]
The OT word “Blessed” (Heb ’ashre Ps 1:1; 32:1 -2; 40:4; 119:1- 2; 128:1) means a person’s ultimate good. E.g. Psalm 31:1- 2 reads, “Blessed are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.Blessed are those to whom the Lord reckons no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” If you are “poor in spirit” sort of person Jesus is saying you are “to be congratulated”; you are a privileged person for God is pleased with you. Jesus is not teaching that the “poor in spirit” are “happy”, happiness is an emotion that can change with circumstances – weather, money, health, age.
Who are these “poor” whom God’s own Son congratulates? It is the sort of people who in the O.T. cry out to God because of their suffering,“17 As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God.” (Ps 40:17). They are usually poor materially and economically; the emotional and spiritually vulnerable are included among the poor providing they cry out to God.
In Jesus’ day it was usually the wealthy, like the tax collectors and the Sadducees, who turned their backs on God’s Law by cooperating with the Greeks and Romans. Jesus’ own followers were mostly deprived people – peasants, tenant farmers, shepherds, trades people and labourers. In the Jewish society of Jesus day it was the wealthy who were considered blessed by God e.g. rich young ruler (Luke 18:24- 26).This means the beatitudes were as counter- cultural in Jesus time as they are today.
Jesus’ words directly contradict our society’s search for happiness. A large newspaper ad ask us the question, “Imagine yourself in ten years. Are you happy?” (It is of course about financial investment – money is the key to happiness.) American researchers claim that the happiest people of all are those 6% of the population who have sex more than four times a week, and the unhappiest are the 22% who didn’t have it at all in the last year. (U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research cited in Week End Australian 12 -13/6/04 p.19). On a more “spiritual” level a pamphlet tells us “You deserve to be happy! – the publicity is for Scientology. Jesus however is saying the real source of contentment is not to be found in money, sex or religion but in poverty of spirit.
In understanding what poor “in spirit” means the O.T. background is again our best clue: “Thus says the Lord: Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is my resting place? 2 All these things my hand has made, so all these things are mine, says the Lord. But this is the one to whom my eyes are drawn, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word.” (Isa 66:1 -2)
In this remarkable scripture, God tells us he is too great to live in any human construction but is attracted to those who are lowly in spirit and fear him deeply. In the Bible, the “spirit” is a person’s deepest inner life, it’s what’s going on in a person’s heart. Paul says “When we cry, “Abba!Father!” 16 it is the Spirit (of God) himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (Rom 8:15 -16 ).
Our culture teaches us that it’s what’s on the outside that counts – how you look, where you live, what you wear, the car you drive, the job you have are all meant to foster an image that creates an impression of success.
This is totally the opposite of what it means to be “poor in spirit”. Jesus never promoted himself but always spoke of the kingdom of his Father. Paul could say, “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Cor 4:5).
This does not mean being poor in spirit is about being fearful, retiring or shy. I remember exactly where I was and what I was reading when God rebuked me about my shyness. Basically, he said that being shy was a strategy I had adopted to keep a safe distance from people– it was the opposite of trusting him in my relationships.
Being “poor in spirit” is also not what some people call a “spirit of poverty” – deep down believing that your state in life – your finances, health, relationships, emotions, will always be a problem and will never improve. Some people are persuaded that others will never like them , others believe they will never have a satisfying job, or nothing good will ever happen to them.
To be poor in spirit is to trust in God and nothing else. One version translates “poor in spirit” as “Blessed are those who know their need for God” (NEB). Only God is our true means of support. Jesus said, “ none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”(Luke 14:33). This includes not only surrendering our trust in material possessions but possessions of intelligence, personality and family as sources of security. Luke 5:11 and 28 tells us that when the first disciples followed Jesus they left everything behind; it was this put them in a position of blessedness.
I remember praying for a certain missionary who was having trouble in his work with Africans. They were more interested in the white man’s money than who he was or what he was saying. As I prayed for him I sensed how human beings relate to one another through a sort of grid – wealth, race, gender, education, looks, athletic ability etc. (“Points total”.) Basically we relate to what people have rather than what is in their spirit. I prayed that this man would have a deeper “poverty of spirit” than the Africans in their physical poverty. I knew that if this happened God would connect him with them at a great depth and they could relate directly– spirit to spirit. This was how Jesus related to everyone – rich or poor – and it was why ordinary people flocked to him.
[John the Baptist “30 Jesus must become more important, while I become less important.” (John 3:30)]
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In the O.T. the “kingdom of heaven” is associated with the rule of God; Daniel 4:26 says “Heaven rules”. The crowds that were following Jesus (Matt 4:23 -24) knew “heaven ruled” because through him they were healed, delivered from evil powers and heard the good news of God. God’s powerful presence in Jesus was destroying everything evil that takes away the quality of human life as it was intended it to be. [“The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk” said Paul “but of power. ”(1 Cor 4:20)]
The kingdom of heaven is what God and only God can do. And God delights in reversing human expectations. The psalmist says of his own experience (Ps 34:6) “This poor man cried out, and the Lord heard him, And saved him out of all his troubles.”
[“1 Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. 2 May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. 3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. 4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” (Ps 72:1 - 4)]
Jesus first public sermon focused on the kingdom of God bringing deliverance to the poor. “18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”” (Luke 4:18 – 19).
Only the “poor in spirit” experience God’s miracles because they are the only ones who make room inside of themselves for God’s kingdom. We cannot be filled unless we are first empty.
Jesus spoke with authority about the relationship between poverty of spirit and the power of the kingdom of God because he lived it in his own life. He is the one person who was always absolutely poor in spirit for this is how he as God became a human being
2 Cor 8:9 “9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” “being in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil 2:6 -7).
Because he was constantly empty of all pretentiousness and pride Jesus was continually filled with his Father’s love and the power of his Spirit: “19 “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise ” (John 5:19 cf.5:30).
Jesus’ inner “poverty of spirit” reaches its fullness at the cross. At the cross Jesus knows his need for God in a way like he has never known his need for God before. In the terror of having to take the burden of our separation from God he endures total spiritual pain, “At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice …“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34). This terrible barrenness of his inner being seems to make a lie out of his own words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Where is God now, where is his power for the poor and needy now? If ever anyone was poor and needy it was the Son of God on the cross suffering for the sin of the world and enduring the experience of the absence of the kingdom of his Father.
Does the Father betray Jesus at the cross, does he abandon him? Is Jesus experience like the experience of most of humanity that God is not powerful to deliver? No! The psalm Jesus quoted on the cross about his forsakenness goes on to say, “For he has not despised nor disregarded the poverty of the poor, he has not turned away his face, but has listened to the cry for help.” (Ps 22:24 NJB).
Having endured what it means to have an empty heart without God Jesus now senses in his spirit that the Father will deliver him, “ [Then] Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”” (Luke 23:46). In praying this he surrenders all he is into the hands of his Father. From the outside this prayer doesn’t look like very much - it is the prayer of a man who according to the prophet Isaiah “suffered until he no longer looked human” (Isa52:14)(cf. The Passion of the Christ), but on the inside it is precious beyond measure to God because it is the prayer of a man who spirit is totally emptied of everything other than his dependency on God.
“For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God.” (2 Cor 13:4). In his resurrection from the dead Jesus was raised by the full power of the kingdom of God. This was his congratulation from the Father - well done good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Father (Heb 12:2).
It is this rhythm of weakness and power, emptiness and fullness that dominates the life of the New Testament church.
Paul says “3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” (1 Cor 2:3- 5)
Martin Luther says, “Whoever has been emptied through suffering no longer regards himself as the worker but rather God, who works and does all things in him” (LW 31.55). Jesus said: “ 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Application and Conclusion
What is the relationship between the beatitudes and the sort of people who make up B.C.F.? They fit the sort of people who belong here – ordinary people, simple people, people like Jesus. To be “poor in spirit” puts you in touch with God because it makes you more like Jesus.
Jesus puts this blessing first because poverty of spirit is foundational, because without it none of the rest of the promises in the Sermon on the Mount – comfort, inheritance, fullness, mercy, seeing God, gladness…, can come true. If we lack poverty of spirit we have no future in the kingdom of God.
What a challenge- are we dependent on God or something other than God? Something is filling your spirit – is the dependency of your spirit on your husband, wife, children, your work, the government, your material possessions, your personality, natural gifts, what we know, who we know ? What is filling your spirit?
Are we people praying first and foremost that God will work on our inside or our outside, in our external circumstances or in our hearts? Are we consciously seeking to make space in our lives for God e.g. rang a Christian friend during the week to see how she was, 3 hour bath is a good place to meditate and pray.
Are you a candidate for congratulations? Is God enjoying you, is he enjoying giving you enjoyment on the inside?
Jesus was a strange combination of the ordinary and the extraordinary: “54 He came to his hometown and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? 55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” ” (Matt 13:54 – 56). My spirit longs to see this combination of ordinary human beings and God’s extraordinary power in the church today.
Whilst praying with a small group recently the following verse came to mind: “ Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Rev 3:20). Then I saw a picture of people preparing to welcome Jesus into their dining rooms/kitchens (i.e. their lives) by putting out their best dining sets and silverware. I could sense the Spirit saying, “I don’t want any pretence or defence, Jesus is just an ordinary person to be welcomed like any other.”
This is what it means to be “poor in spirit” and to welcome the kingdom of God.
The person who is poor in spirit is a “Simple channel of the power of Jesus”/kingdom of heaven (Schweitzer). Whatever your past, whatever you have or don’t have as a person, however you think of yourself, if you are poor in spirit you are precious beyond measure to God.