#1:  Blessed are the Poor in Spirit…”

The Beatitudes Sermon Series: “The Life God Blesses”

#1:  Blessed are the Poor in Spirit…”

Isaiah 57:14-15 (TEV);  Matthew 5:3 and Luke 6:20b (PNT – JBPhillips)

Why did you come to worship this morning?  That may seem like a silly question – but it’s not!  Why DID you come to worship today?

People come to church for all sorts of reasons, some of them, not too noble:  Some come out of habit, or because “being seen in church” is good for business. Others, because the weather isn’t good enough to go golfing or fishing.  And there are always those who are here only because their spouse or a parent forced them to come.

All across our community, there are lots of people in worship services who are NOT there for noble reasons – but, of course, none in THIS church!

But I believe that most people who come to worship, come for the right reasons:  they have a desire for fulfillment and meaning in their life – a need for healing and restoration – they are hungry for love and fellowship – they long to experience the joy that seems to elude them.  In short, every one of us has come “looking for happiness,” and we HOPE Jesus is the answer.  Isn’t that really why you are here this morning?

Long ago, another crowd assembled. But, instead of sitting in pews, they gathered on the side of a mountain to hear Jesus preach – We call it:  “The Sermon on the Mount.”

I’m sure they were there on that hillside that day for the same reasons you are here in worship today – Just like you, they were looking for meaning and happiness in their lives, and they hoped that Jesus might be the answer.  Times haven’t changed all that much, have they?  We all long to be happy.

Sometimes I feel like the three couples I heard about one time.  It seems that these three couples went out one evening to treat themselves to a steak dinner.  They arrived at the restaurant where they were given one of those vibrating pagers, and then sent into the bar to wait for their table.

As they waited, a cocktail waitress came up to them and said, “Welcome to Happy Hour,…” and offered to get them a drink.  –  The couples declined.  A few minutes later another waitress came up to take their drink order, and once again they said “No, thank you.”

Then one of the men commented to his friends that their table was probably being delayed on purpose in the hopes that they would order something from the bar first.

Well, it wasn’t long before a third waitress came by and said, “Welcome to Happy Hour…”  At that, one of the wives responded, “Young lady, we’re Methodists, and this is as ‘happy’ as were going to get – so tell them to get us a table!”

If we’re honest, most of us are not as “happy” as we want to be.  Sure, we might “seem” happy to others, but deep down, we know we are not. So, consciously or sub-consciously, we come to church week after week, hoping to learn the secret of happiness.

The crowd that came to hear Jesus that day must have gotten really excited, because when Jesus stood up to speak, one of the very first words out of His mouth was the word “Happy.”  As we read a few moments ago:  “How happy are the humble-minded, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs!”

Of course, that’s not the way we usually quote this verse.  In most of our Bibles, we find the verse translated the way it is printed on the front of the bulletin: “Blessed – blessed are the poor in spirit…”   After all, that is what the word “Beatitude” means – “blessed.”

You know, “blessed” is a word we seldom use.  We may refer to the birth of a baby as a “blessed event,” or, in a eulogy say that the dearly-departed was “blessed with a long life,” but beyond that, we rarely utter the word.   I guess that’s why some translations opt for the word, “Happy.”

The Greek word the Gospel-writer uses here can be translated either “blessed” or “happy.”  But the truth is that the word “happy” just it doesn’t carry the full-richness of the Greek word it is attempting to translate.  “Happiness” can be a very superficial and fleeting emotion. Happiness depends on our circumstances – and when circumstances turn against us, then our “happiness” can disappear!  The Greek word used by Matthew in this passage implies so much more than simple “happiness.”

The Amplified Bible describes the meaning of the Greek word used here this way: it’s the state of being “happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous–with life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of (our) outward conditions.”

And, isn’t that the kind of happiness we all are seeking?  We don’t want just to be happy.  We want to experience “life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of our outward conditions.”  What we really want is a” life of blessedness.”

It’s no wonder that, when Jesus launched his sermon with the word “blessed,” he had the rapt attention of his audience.  He was about to give them the secrets to happiness, joy, and fulfillment in life!  You can almost see the crowd lean forward, straining their ears, and standing on their tip-toes in anticipation!

But, you know, I think what they heard next must have disappointed them.  Jesus’ prescription for happiness seems odd, even bizarre – out of sync with life.  The eight beatitudes he outlines sound more like bad news than good news – because they fly in the face of what we have always assumed.

What do you and I assume brings happiness?  Money – Possessions – Power – Prestige – Relationships – Pleasures.  In short, we think our happiness, our “blessedness,” comes from the outside influences in our life.  We believe it’s “who we know” and “what we have” that will make us happy.

But Jesus would have none of that! In giving us these eight Beatitudes, Jesus turns the world’s wisdom on its head!  And, when we stop long-enough to listen to what he actually said, it strikes us as extremely odd, just as it did to those on that hillside that day.

The world says, “Blessed (happy) are the successful, the powerful, the rich, the victors…”  But Jesus says, “Blessed (happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous) are the poor . . . the grieving . . . the hungry . . . the meek . . . the persecuted!”  Does that sound reasonable to you?  It doesn’t to me!

These Beatitudes have become so familiar to our ears that they have lost their power.  We’ve heard them for so long we have stopped listening. We don’t realize just how shocking and counter-cultural they really are.

With these Beatitudes, Jesus introduces his Sermon on the Mount by telling us that the way we usually think about trying to achieve happiness – is all wrong.  In fact, He says, the keys that open the door to happiness are exactly the opposite of what we would expect!

And get this – not only are those things the world tells us will bring us happiness going to fail, Jesus is saying that, in fact, they will produce the exact opposite effect from what we expect – disappointment, disillusionment, sorrow, and destruction.

Years ago, there was a popular song that lamented that people are always “looking for love in all the wrong places.”  Well the same can be said for happiness.  Jesus is telling us that we look in all the wrong places for that, too.

This is why we are going to be devoting eight weeks to a sermon series on the Beatitudes of Jesus, considering the type of “life God blesses.”

That “door to our happiness” has eight locks on it, and right here at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us eight keys.  These eight keys are not easy to acquire, but they are well worth the effort.

Jesus promises that, if we take these eight Beatitudes seriously and apply them to our lives, then, by the end of our series, you and I will know the secret to true happiness.  So, let’s look at the first key to happiness:

#1:  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Right off the bat, Jesus shocks us.  “Blessed (happy) are those who are – poor.”  Do you believe that?  Go ask your boss to “bless” you by cutting your pay!  Or try sending back your pension or Social Security check!

Could Jesus be talking about “the poor” the way you and I usually think of “the poor?” – those without resources?  “Blessed are the poor?” No, that can’t be right!

“Jesus, you must be crazy!” It doesn’t compute.  Doesn’t everybody KNOW that the rich have it made – that money and possessions are the secret to happiness?  Most of us will do anything to avoid being poor! We’ll resort to lying, cheating, even stealing to avoid the curse of poverty.  But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor…”  Come on!  He MUST NOT mean what he says here!  Or does he?

For this sermon series, we will primarily be reflecting on the Beatitudes of Jesus as they are recorded in the Gospel of Matthew – the version of The Beatitudes we are most familiar with.  But the Beatitudes appear twice in scripture – They also appear in the Gospel of Luke. While these two versions are quite similar, they are not identical – and sometimes the differences alter the meaning somewhat.  So, as we look at this first Beatitude, it is helpful to reflect on the way each Gospel-writer reports it:

According to Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Luke has Jesus say simply, “Blessed are the poor.”  (period). Which is right?  Well, I think both are right.  Let me explain:

Throughout the New Testament there two different Greek words that are translated with the English word, “poor.” One word describes those we might call, “the working poor” – those who struggle day-to-day, working hard, and yet they still have trouble making ends meet.  That’s NOT the word used here.

The other Greek word translated ‘poor’ – the one found in this verse, means, “the grinding poverty of the very poorest – the beggar beaten-down.”  The root of the word means “to crouch or to cower,” as in “a poverty which beats us to our knees.”  If we simply go by the meaning of this Greek word used by both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is saying, “Blessed is the person who is abjectly and complete poverty-stricken – those who are absolutely destitute.”  Blessed are the poorest of the poor.

Is that what Jesus is saying? Certainly, throughout the Gospels we see that Jesus had special compassion on the poor, and often warned about the dangers of being rich.  In Luke, as soon as Jesus completes reciting the eight Beatitudes, Jesus says this: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”  You may also recall that Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  And so, it would be consistent if Jesus were to begin his teachings with “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”  In fact, that is exactly what Luke tells us Jesus said.

But according to Matthew’s telling, Jesus used the phrase “poor in spirit.”  What on earth does that mean?  And why might he have put those words on the lips of Jesus?

I believe the explanation is made clear when we consider the translation that lies behind the translation!  Let me explain.

You and I read Matthew’s Gospel in English, but Matthew wrote his Gospel in Greek.  As I already mentioned, the Greek word for “poor” here is describing beggars – those who were completely destitute.

But Jesus didn’t preach his sermon in Greek!  Jesus would have preached the Sermon on the Mount in the Aramaic language – the vernacular Hebrew dialect common-people living in Israel at that time spoke.  So, to really understand what Jesus means with this first Beatitude, we have to “reverse-engineer” the translations – from English – to Greek – to Aramaic!  And that is what I believe Matthew is attempting to do when he adds “in Spirit” to the word, “poor.”  (Are you still with me…?)

In Aramaic-Hebrew, what might Jesus have meant?  The Aramaic word for “poor” Jesus probably actually used included connotations that Greek or English cannot easily convey.  Yes, it meant “the poor,” and by extension, “those who are oppressed and down-trodden and humbled by the world”… So far, the meaning is not so different than Greek or English.

But here’s the kicker:  The Aramaic word for “poor” that Jesus actually used that day also implies that, because the poor cannot rely at all on earthly resources, they naturally must place their whole trust – in God alone!  And THAT is why Jesus says they are particularly “blessed!”

Matthew wanted to convey this deeper meaning – and so he uses the phrase “poor – in Spirit.”

Again, this is not to suggest that Luke is mistaken.  It’s clear that God has a special place in his heart for the poor!  As the Psalmist writes in Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.”  So, yes, Luke is right in his version of this Beatitude.  But Matthew is trying to say more.

Matthew’s Jesus is not telling us that we should all strive to be poor so that we can win God’s favor.  He is warning us that we must not think we can rely on ourselves or on our worldly possessions for our happiness – because they are unreliable.  We don’t have be poor to “place our whole trust in God alone.”  But Jesus is saying that those who are poor have an easier time in placing their trust in God – because they have to!

I like the way William Barclay translates this Beatitude in a way that captures the meaning of what I believe Jesus is saying:  “Blessed is the man who has realized his own utter helplessness and who has put his whole trust in God.”

This first Beatitude is reminding us to be humble in spirit – not think we are self-made men and women who don’t need God.  Jesus cautions us that wealth and possessions can easily become a spiritual anchor around our necks that can weigh us down and get in the way of our relationship with God.

In Matthew 19:16-22, a well-to-do young man came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And do you remember how Jesus replied to him?  “Go sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come follow me.”  And the young man walked away dejected.

This first Beatitude teaches the same thing:  To “inherit eternal life,” Jesus says, we have to be able to put our whole trust in God.  If our possessions are standing in the way of our relationship with God, then we need to get rid of them – because, according to Jesus, “If you put your ultimate trust in money, you cannot put your trust in God.”  That is how Jesus can declare that the poor are the most blessed of us all!  They are freed to love God completely.

In closing, let me share what Mark Hart has written about what this Beatitude is saying to us.*  He writes:

To be poor in spirit means to acknowledge our deepest human need for God and to grow in that longing and that dependence on a daily basis. It’s only when we realize how badly we need God and how we are nothing without Him that we become worthy of the Kingdom he promises us; when we realize we are the beggars, our gratitude to the Giver (of life) becomes that much greater…

So,

blessed are those who realize their constant need for God over, above and beyond everything else.

Blessed are those not chained to the material and passing pleasures and luxuries of this finite world.

Blessed are those free from anything and everything that would interfere with an ever-growing awe of God’s mercy and love.

Blessed are those who recognize that no matter how their life is going in the eyes of the world, they are successful in heaven when they are faithful on earth.

Blessed are those who need nothing more than God’s love and want nothing more than to share that love with all they encounter. 

And Mark Hart concludes: 

A soul with nothing to lose on earth is a wonderfully dangerous soul, a soul that will lead many to heaven.  Truly blessed are the poor in spirit.

So, in the final analysis, how should we read this Beatitude?  I believe Winston Pendleton got it right when he paraphrased this Beatitude like this:  Here is a test: see if this describes you:

“Happy and content and full of the joy of living are the humble, for they live every day here and now, and they have found the proper relationship between themselves and God.” (repeat)

My friends, are you happy and content, full of the joy of living?  Are you humble of spirit?  Do you live every day in the here and now?  And can you honestly say that you have found the proper relationship between you and God?

If you can honestly say that about your own life, how very blessed – you must be!

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

* Mark Hart   https://lifeteen.com/blog/blessed-the-beggar-the-meaning-of-poor-in-spirit/