Epiphany 4 (02-02-2020)

Blessed are…?

Read Matthew 5:1-12

“And he opened his mouth and taught them, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt.5:3)

It is quite possible that we have heard the Beatitudes so often that they no longer surprise or enlighten us, but for those first listeners, the words of Jesus would have surprised, confused,  stunned.

Jesus pronounces God’s blessing on certain groups of people. “Blessed are…”  Some translations of the Bible say “Happy are…,”  which maybe a bit closer to the Greek word; a word that was originally used for the happiness of the gods.  Jesus is referring, therefore, to a God-given happiness.

It is hard to find an English word to bring out the impact of this blessing.  Perhaps it could be translated, “How lucky are the poor, for they have won Tatts.”  This would be okay as long us we see this kind of luck, not as chance, but as coming from God’s overflowing generosity.

Maybe the word “congratulations” gets close. Like announcing a bonus from a generous boss: “Congratulations you meek, poor, pure and merciful folk! You shall inherit the earth, etc.” Whatever word we employ, the key point is that it describes the boundless joy which comes to those who follow Christ and completely trust the kingdom of God.

Imagine now a preacher in a typical middle-class Australian church just like ours. He begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” and then elaborates, “Blessed are those who are unemployed… Blessed are those who are undergoing marital distress…How fortunate those who have a terminal illness… Congratulations to those who are so behind in their mortgage payments that they will lose their house…”

It’s a strange sermon.  The congregation does a double take:  “What is this?  Blessed are the unemployed, the poor, the sick?”  In our society too many people believe that, if you work hard, you’ll never be without employment; so if you’re unemployed, it must be your fault: you’re lazy or incompetent.  

“Wait on,” says Jesus, “I wasn’t speaking of the Lucky Country, I was preaching about the kingdom of God. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, the persecuted, because the Kingdom of God is theirs.  Theirs!”

So if your credit cards are paid up, you just got a good report from your doctor, are loved by someone dearly, give generously to charity, are certain of the Christian thing to do in Syria and Afghanistan, and know where you will be this time next year, then this sermon – Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or mine here in this church – is not for you.  For Jesus says, quite simply, that God’s kingdom is for the “poor in spirit.”

Who are the poor in spirit?  To be poor is to be poor in the sense of the Hebrew anawin (spirit); those who are not only poor materially, but who have been crushed and utterly emptied as a result of their poverty.   Apart from the question of your charitable giving, material poverty is probably not an issue for most of you here today, but, of course, one can be poor in many ways.  Matthew, in emphasising the “poor in spirit”, is talking about the grieving nonbeliever, those who are empty, spiritually speaking, who have no faith to fall back upon when the ‘roof fall in’.  Jesus here tells the poor, the empty, the mournful of spirit, “I’m on your side.  I bless you.”  

Normally the Greek word used for poor in the New Testament is penes, but the word for “poor” used here in Matthew comes from a Greek verb, ptochoi, which means “to cower, to cringe.”  The choice of a different word is significant.  The author is emphasising that Jesus is not talking about the ordinary poverty of the peasants who lived on a subsistence level; rather, destitution.  He’s referring to the abysmally poor, the beggars, the homeless, the wretched, those who are at the end of their tether.  As Alcoholics Anonymous puts it:  “We were powerless over our lives…we had to reach out to some power greater than our own.”  For such people, at the end of their rope, God isn’t just some sort of intellectual problem.  God is their only hope.

In blessing the “poor in spirit,” Jesus says that for all such failures, for everyone who hasn’t got it together, spiritually speaking, God is there for them.

Unfortunately for many of us today, Jesus does not say, “Blessed are the rich in spirit.”  Here is a great paradox.  To be a person of God is to be a person of spirit.  We are here at church on a Sunday like this one to be “inspired,” i.e. filled with the Spirit.  A lot of people didn’t get out of bed and come to church today.  You did!  Belief is no small accomplishment, spiritually speaking.  And yet Jesus here blesses the spiritually empty and inept: the spiritual failures.  What else could “poor in spirit” mean but that?

Here is a great gospel mystery: Jesus blesses those who aren’t good at being spiritual, those who know their estrangement from God and feel it.  Only those who know what it’s like to be dispirited get spirit.  It is only the poor on whom God can afford to lavish riches.

Remember when Jesus was criticised for the disreputable company he kept, he said, “If you are well – full, saved, certain, content – you don’t need a doctor.  I’ve come only for the sick.  I’ve come to invite sinners.”

I’m not sure what this says to us, because most of us are successful, religiously speaking.  We are here today because we’re fairly good at singing to God, praying, believing.  But if, even amid all this fullness and beauty and belief, this Sunday finds you empty, wanting, unsteady, uncertain, silently hurting, poor in spirit, then I’ve got some good news for you. Jesus blesses you.

The way through this apparent paradox is in understanding that God doesn’t decide to bless only the spiritually poor.  God’s blessings are distributed to all, sort of like the radio waves that fill the air, needing only an antenna to pick them up.  We receive the blessings through our spiritual poverty: the antenna that is tuned to God’s blessings.  Those that have no spiritual wealth have nothing to get in the way of God’s blessing.  

Psychologist Fritz Kunkel describes the situation in terms of a graph of a persons mood.  Our sense of well-being varies up and down over time. Sometimes we are elated, sometimes sad, sometimes confident, sometimes fearful.  The highest state of well-being Kunkel calls plus-100, whereas the absolute bottom is minus-100.  At plus-100 we are fully in control of our lives, everything is tip-top, and we have no need of anyone or anything…or God.  We are not even listening for God’s voice, so we could be bombarded with God’s blessings and we would not notice, much less take them on board.  On the other hand, at minus-100, we are ‘in the gutter’, with absolutely no resources at our disposal.  We have nothing, so there is nothing to interfere with God’s blessings radiating around us; hence the stereo-typical gutter-to-glory transformation that some experience when in this awful situation.  In Kunkel’s terms, those at minus-100, the poor in spirit, are blessed because they are open to being blesses; whereas those at plus-100 miss out.

Yes, you are blessed, but the blessing comes in the back door.  God doesn’t bless you through your spiritual competency, but in spite of it.  God blesses you in the normal pain that comes with being human.  So no matter how good you are at being a disciple,  God will find your emptiness and God hopes that you find it, too, so that you may receive the blessing.  God bless your troubled souls and questioning minds, your insatiable skepticism and falls from grace, your moral bungles and failures at faith.   God bless you, all you inept believers.  God bless you, poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

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