Since I started my resolution to read through the Sermon on the Mount properly and start putting it into practice, I’ve been moving pretty slowly – it’s taken me a week and a half to get through the the first 8 verses. But I thought it was time to write up my first few thoughts all the same. So here they are:
“Now when he saw the crowds…” (Matt 5:1)
Firstly, I wondered why there were crowds. When I walk around, there’s not (usually) a crowd following me and hanging on my every word. So why, so early in Jesus’ public ministry, had he gathered such a following? Reading back a few verses I saw that Jesus had been doing two things as he travelled through the area – speaking and healing. Those are the two things that made Jesus so captivating that people from all over the place want to follow him. I think the two must be linked – he was speaking about the good news of the kingdom and he was demonstrating it with his actions. Whatever this good news of the kingdom is, it seems to have dramatic implications for life right here on earth, specifically for sickness and disorder. Jesus is so captivating because his message is captivating, and because he practices what he preaches. The crowds don’t just hear about this kingdom, they see it.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (Matt 5:3)
Here the theologian in me wanted to start examining the various meanings of makarios, translated here as ‘blessed are’, but by others as ‘happy are’, or in my Greek tutor’s own translation, ‘congratulations to’. Discussing those meanings does shed some light on the ways we might think about the purpose of the beatitudes as a statement of blessing more than a to-do list and so on, but that’s the easy part for a theologian. The bit I tend to miss is looking at the content – what does it mean to be poor in spirit or to mourn or be meek? Why is it that these things in particular constitute success and blessedness, according to the values of this kingdom that Jesus keeps talking about? What kind of kingdom values the poor in spirit?
I couldn’t straight away imagine what Jesus might have meant by poor in spirit, so I tried to imagine the opposite, rich in spirit. For me, that conjures up images of “successful” Christians. Not necessarily the ones who fake it and only want to make their faith look good from the outside, but those who seem to ‘get’ Christian life. It makes me think of people who lead worship, and actually mean all of the words they sing most of the time. Those who are happy to stay behind and wash up or put tables away after a Bible study, because they’re pleased for an opportunity to serve. Those whose instinct is to turn to God in difficult situations and who share their faith naturally with friends and strangers and who are patient with irritating people because they love them as brothers and sisters. Successful Christians, you know? Obviously, those things are the aim, I don’t think Jesus is at all condemning those who are getting on with faith well, who are living out their relationship with God successfully! But perhaps those aren’t the people who need reassuring that they’re blessed. They’re already secure in the knowledge of their acceptance by God through his grace.
Maybe it’s the poor in spirit who need to know they’re blessed. The poor in spirit, those who find themselves almost weekly fighting grumpiness on the way to Church; who have to grab their friend to pray against their own cynicism when surrounded by chirpy Christians for too long; who struggle with the same struggles for year after year, until they just talk about it less so others think it’s ‘progress’; who can think of a hundred reasons to excuse themselves from practically serving and only feel slightly guilty about leaving others to do the work; who spend the majority of their prayer times apologising to God for wandering thoughts or falling asleep… (I hope you’ve got by now that this is a self-description!) Poor in spirit. Those who don’t seem to be very good at being Christians, and know it every day.
Jesus says they’re blessed, and theirs is the kingdom of heaven. It’s not that ‘successful’ Christians aren’t blessed and aren’t part of the kingdom. But for the poor in spirit, this is the ultimate reassurance that it doesn’t depend on me. If we really believe in the gospel of grace, that the kingdom of heaven is open to all, that Jesus death was enough to bring me back to God, that his resurrection really guarantees life for all who come to him, that his Spirit is a seal marking me out for God’s kingdom… then it makes no difference how often I have to try again. The value of achievement and success is so ingrained into our culture (and it’s the air we breathe at Oxford) that its so easy to carry that across to Christian life too. Even if we remember that life isn’t about being materially successful, that God won’t judge us on the size of our business or the growth of our investments, we can all too easily measure our success at Christian life too, and create the same kind of hierarchy. We can get our self esteem from how well we’re doing at prayer, evangelism, service and humility. We can think we’re less loved, less valuable, less blessed when we’re not doing well at those things. But in God’s kingdom, take heart – blessed are the poor in spirit.
[[Note: Think I’ve completely missed the point here? Think Jesus was saying something entirely different? I’d love to hear other thoughts on what it means to be poor in spirit, or what it means to be blessed…]]