The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE BEATITUDES: THE POOR IN SPIRIT

Delivered 7/20/08
Text: Matthew 5:1-12; Luke 18:9-14
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Familiar words. Words that will become even more familiar in the coming weeks. The Beatitudes. "Beatitude," as you scholars all know, is a word that comes from the Latin, derived from a root that means "blessed." The church has called this series of Jesus' sayings "The Beatitudes" simply because of all these "Blessed are's" that we find here.

But if I may, I would like to play with that word a bit. The Beatitudes can be described as what life in God's Kingdom is like. They are ATTITUDES which believers share. As we noted last week, they are not so much descriptions of attitudes that SHOULD be. Rather, I prefer to call them WILL-BE attitudes that will characterize the lives of God's faithful people.

With that in mind, we consider the first one on the list: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

Let us spend a moment with this word "Blessed." As we know, in our day and age, when people hear or see BLESSED, they tend to think of something holy, set apart and other-worldly. That is not Jesus' connotation here. Actually, BLESSED is just another word for HAPPY. Or it could also be translated CONGRATULATIONS to you when this or that. In my Spanish Bible, each of the Beatitudes begins BIENAVENTURADOS or FORTUNATE. Get the idea?

When Jesus says, "Blessed are you when..." he does not mean that suddenly those who do this or feel that or have something done to them without complaining will be wearing halos. He is simply saying that life will take on a new look, and, in Martha Stewart's words, "That's a good thing." No wonder he can call us happy.

But why happy about being "poor in spirit?" This is where things can get dicey. I have heard some really strange preaching on this. One famous evangelist was expounding on this passage and began fulminating against "spiritual poverty" and what an awful condition that is and in need of immediate correction or hellfire and damnation would be waiting at the end of this earthly road. Somehow or other he had quickly forgotten that Jesus, just a word or two before, had said this condition deserved congratulations. Houston, we have a problem.

So what condition is Jesus congratulating? Obviously not the condition of spiritual impoverishment that is shared by so many in our day (or any day, for that matter) who have absolutely no interest in spiritual things until disaster strikes - "Lord, deliver me, and I'll be good." No! When Jesus speaks of "poor in spirit," he simply means the opposite of proud in spirit, the kind of spirit or attitude that, in the extreme, becomes rather haughty.

I like the way Eugene Peterson's wonderful paraphrase of scripture renders it: "You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and [God's] rule." (1)

But wait a minute. Don't people say we need to take a certain pride in ourselves? If we are not proud, does that not show that we do not care? Is not pride the basis for self-esteem? Don't things go downhill when people stop taking pride in themselves and what they do? Don't we hear, "That's what is wrong with our country today...not enough PRIDE?"

In Ruddigore, Gilbert and Sullivan' wonderful comic opera, we get some advice which, though intended to be humorous, most of us take rather seriously:

If you wish in the world to advance
Your merits you're bound to enhance,
You must stir it and stump it,
And blow your own trumpet,
Or, trust me, you haven't a chance! (2)

What does the scripture say?
  • The Psalms: "May the LORD cut off all flattering lips and every boastful tongue." (3)
  • Proverbs: "Everyone that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord." (4)
  • Proverbs again: "Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall." (5)
  • The Epistle of James: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." (6)


GULP! And we could go on and on. It is obvious that God does not appreciate human pride.

The Church fathers took note of that. Last week we recalled that list which was developed in the seventh century when Gregory the Great was Pope called the Seven Deadly Sins. It tried to summarize all the things that could come between us and God, all the things that could destroy the relationship between earth and heaven. The first one on the list? You guessed it: PRIDE.

Dr. Ralph Sockman, that grand old preacher of an earlier generation, once told of a questionnaire that was put out among some school children in a New Jersey town. The teachers were apparently trying to discover which students needed help in developing their social attitudes. One question was, "Which student in the class brags about him- or herself the least?" One little girl put down her own name. Sockman noted, "That somehow smacks of what St. Jerome said: 'Beware of the pride of humility.'" (7)

Truth be told, in our way of thinking, pride and humility are not necessarily opposite sides of the same coin. Anything we would hold up for the world to see as a particular personal accomplishment - even humility - is opposed to what Jesus means by "poor in spirit."

As we said before, pride is something we consider essential to the proper living of our lives. If you want to be a good in sales, you have to give your customers an air of confidence and assurance that indicates a pride in what you have for them. If you want to be successful in a profession, you have to exude an air of success. After all, success breeds success. If we would move ahead in life, if we would grab for the brass ring, if we would "go for the gusto," we have to take pride in ourselves! It is only natural.

But that means "poor in spirit" is UNnatural. Bingo. As we noted last week, these Beatitudes are counter-intuitive. Upside-down, inside-out. They are foreign to our make-up, particularly as self-reliant, independent, strong-willed Americans. That puts us between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

This is not the only thing in life like that. This week, the sports world has its attention turned to Great Britain and the British Open Golf Championship - one of the most prestigious tournaments in the world. Golf is counter-intuitive. Think about it. What score wins in most every game we play? The highest, of course. Not golf.

As you know, I love golf - I am no good at it. I describe my game as Golf according to Romans, chapter 7. I am convinced that St. Paul himself must have been a golfer too because only a golfer can appreciate what the apostle wrote in verse 15: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." Well, golfers, does that sound like the game we all know and love? The point I want to make here is that there are things about golf that are most assuredly counter-intuitive.

For example, you would think that if you want the ball to go a long way, you have to give it a mighty whack. Wrong. Ken Holtz (8) and I played in a golf outing the other day. One of our playing partners was, to be kind, not much of a golfer. He would stand on the tee, address the ball, then flail away at it, then watch it dribble a few feet forward or to one side or the other, if he hit the ball at all. We explained to him that one must swing easily if one wants to hit the ball far. Too much pressure in the grip, too much effort in the swing, work against a successful shot. If you want to play decent golf, you have to be able to give up your conventional ideas about power. I would love to report that, by the time we finished play, he had internalized the concept, but... I would love to someday report that I have internalized the concept, but... Anyway, success at golf is an upside-down affair. Perhaps that is why I find it so fascinating. But when someone figures it out - a Tiger Woods, perhaps - it is glorious to behold!

Another intriguing illustration of the point comes from an Anglican priest in New Zealand by the name of Charmaine Braatvedt who offers this insight:
The other day a bird flew into our lounge. It was a baby thrush and the minute it flew into the lounge it knew it was in trouble and it started to panic. Now this bird could fly and had some intelligence. It knew it had to get out of the lounge and so it made a desperate attempt to do so. Perhaps because it was so very frightened it was not able to find its way out of the door or windows. We were all the more concerned for its safety because our cat was sitting in the lounge licking its chops and looking very interested in this bird. I suspect she thought it would make a tasty snack! So, we tried to help it, but the bird did not trust us, so it wouldn't let us help it, preferring to try to get out on its own. What a mess it made! Feathers everywhere and flying into bits of furniture, etc. It even bit Julian when he nearly succeeded in catching it. Man, was this one determined bird. It fought against us and desperately tried to get out on its own steam.

Finally Julian hit on a clever plan. He grabbed a cloth and threw it over the bird's head so that it couldn't see anything. Only then did the bird accept that it couldn't save itself. Only then did the bird realise that it was poor in its ability to negotiate its way out of the predicament it found itself in. Suddenly the bird became very still and quiet. So Julian was able to pick it up and take it outside and release it to safety and freedom. In this way [it] allowed us to bless it with freedom. (9)
You know the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (or the Pharisee and the Publican, in the language of the old King James Version). Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was the cream of society, upstanding, respected, and religious to a fair-thee-well. He obeyed the letter of the Law. No missteps! He thought he was pretty neat, and in his prayer, he told God so: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get...I AM WONDERFUL!"

But over on the other side of the room there was another man, this tax-collector. His own people hated him: they considered him a traitor for working for the Romans. Somehow he had come to realize the spiritual bankruptcy of his own life, and now apparently he wanted to change. Too embarrassed to even lift his eyes toward heaven, he just hung his head and prayed, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

What did Jesus have to say about those two? "I tell you that this man...this low-life...rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." We hear no more about that tax-collector, but if we believe Jesus' words, we can assume that things went well for him after that, that he was "blessed." The stories of a couple of other tax-collectors, Zaccheus and Matthew, tell the same tale. Even society's worst outcasts can be blessed - happy, fortunate, worthy of congratulation - once they come to the place of seeing their true condition before God.

What kind of blessing is it? Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them. We are not talking about pie-in-the-sky, bye-and-bye. The Kingdom of Heaven is more than just some celestial gathering place for the faithful. It is right here, right now! As the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh likes to say, "The Kingdom of God is now or never." The Kingdom of Heaven (or Kingdom of God) is simply the place where God is King, where God controls, where God rules. Those who are "poor in spirit," or who are at the end of their rope, in Gene Peterson's phrasing, are now in a position to experience God being in control of their lives in a way they never could when they were convinced that they themselves were in charge.

As we noted last week, we in America may be in as good a moment to hear these words right now as we have been in years: two wars going with threat of a third, $4-a-gallon gas, food prices through the roof, American jobs headed to Beijing and New Delhi, a horrible stock market and a worse housing market, and so on and so forth. Who is in charge? Yes, we are ready for new leadership in our nation. Perhaps we are ready for some new leadership for our lives, divine leadership even. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

Again, this blessed experience of the kingdom is not something we set as a goal for ourselves. This is too unnatural, upside-down, inside-out. Instead, this will be purely and simply a gift of God's grace. As Paul says, "Not I, but Christ in me." It is when we truly sing with the hymnwriter, "Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling." (10)

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven" - the first of the Beatitudes. Not an attitude that SHOULD be; rather the WILL-BE attitude for the Lord's faithful people.

A blessed life, a happy life, is one which keeps things in proper perspective. This can be your mantra for the week - when you look in your morning mirror, get your day started as you look at the image and repeat, "God is God and I am not...God is God and I am not...God is God and I am not." Perspective.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit (is that us?), for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."

Amen!

1. Eugene Peterson, The Message, (Colorado Springs : NavPress, 2002)

2. Quoted by Roger Shinn, "The Sermon on the Mount," http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=1113&C=1181

3. Psalm 12:3

4. Proverbs 16:5

5. Proverbs 16:18

6. James 4:6

7. Ralph Sockman, The Higher Happiness, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1950), p. 38

8. A long-time FPC member.

9. "Blessed are the Poor in Spirit," sermon preached at Holy Trinity Parish, Devonport, New Zealand, 1/1/06, http://www.holytrinity.gen.nz/Pages/sermons/BlessedAreThePoor.htm

10. Augustus Montague Toplady, "Rock of Ages"

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