Thursday, July 03, 2008

Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit...

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 5:3)

Someone once described Christian evangelism as "one beggar telling another beggar where to find some bread." To be poor in spirit is to be aware that we don't have it all together. In fact, we realize that we have little, if anything, to offer God. When we are good and kind and compassionate and unselfish, God is--I'm sure--pleased, but not impressed. He knows how quickly we can switch to being wicked, rude, uncaring and selfish. God isn't freaked out by our sin, just as He isn't amazed by our saintliness. He knows us completely and yet loves us completely. I believe it was Philip Yancey (or maybe Brennan Manning) who wrote, "There is nothing you can do to make God love you more than He already does. And there is nothing you can do to make God love you less than He already does." God's love is perfect, which means that it isn't about us. It's all about Him.

To be poor in spirit is to have a realistic understanding of who we are, in relation to God. We are the objects of God's love, simply because we are His creations and He has chosen to love us unfailingly. This ought to make us humble.

There are a few different Greek words which translate as poor. One of the most commonly used is penei, which refers to the working poor--those who are able to earn just enough to make it through the day. This is not the word used in this Beatitude. The word used here is ptochos. Ptochos refers to those who are utterly destitute and unable to help themselves--they are completely dependent upon the kindness and compassion of others.

Jesus tells a parable in Luke 18:9-14 which paints a beautiful picture of someone who is poor in spirit:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: '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.'

"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'

"I tell you that this man, 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."

In the Beatitude, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven belongs to these ones who are destitute in spirit. Historically, many have misunderstood Him to be speaking of Heaven (as in, the place you go when you die). But Jesus is not referring to the afterlife.

The Greek word translated here as kingdom is basileia. Basileia refers to the rule and reign. If I lived in England right now, I would be living in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. But does Queen Elizabeth rule? Not really. She's more of a ceremonial figure and her monarchy is mainly titular. She doesn't call the shots.

When I am in the jail, I sometimes describe the kingdom of God like this: "Inside of this jail, we are in the kingdom of the County Corrections Department. What they say goes. We are within the realm of their reign and their rule. Their basileia. Their will be done."

Jesus taught His disciples to pray to the Father, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done." (Matthew 6:10). Jesus actually talked more about the kingdom than almost anything else. In the Gospels, he is constantly saying "the kingdom of heaven is like..." or "the kingdom of God is..." (Luke's, Mark's and John's Gospels use the term "kingdom of God", whereas Matthew's uses "kingdom of heaven". This is because Matthew's Gospel was originally written to a Jewish audience. In deference to the third commandment--Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain--devout Jews would not say, speak or write God's name. To this day, devout Jews will write the word God as G-d. The circumlocution in Matthew's Gospel of "kingdom of heaven" for "kingdom of God" was just a way of not offending Jewish sensibilities.)

What is the kingdom of heaven then? It is God's rule and reign in our lives. It is God's will made manifest. What is God's will? To restore. To reconcile. To comfort. To heal. To enfold. To bring peace. To feed the hungry. To free the enslaved. To advocate for the marginalized. To stand up for the oppressed. To forgive. To love.

Many of the Jews of Jesus's time were anxiously awaiting the coming of God's kingdom. They imagined it as a Jerusalem-based theocracy in which God would drive out the Romans, judge the Gentile nations and vindicate the Jews as his chosen people, for all the world to see. Many Christians today hold to a remarkably similar set of expectations.

But Jesus kept saying, in essence, "No, the kingdom isn't like that. It's like this..." When He would heal someone, or cast out an evil spirit or restore someone to life, He would say "The kingdom of heaven is at hand". In Luke 17:20-21, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come. They are thinking in terms of a temporal empire and their position within it. Jesus answers their question by saying, "The kingdom of God does not come with careful observation, nor will people say 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you."

Jesus said that He came to show us what God is like. "If you have seen Me," He said, "you have seen the Father." (John 14:9, 12:45, 10:30, etc.). What Jesus showed us was not a distant God or a vengeful God or a God of rules and regulations. Rather, He showed us a God who rolls up His sleeves and (literally) gets down into the muck with us. Jesus showed us a God of compassion and forgiveness who is relentlessly committed to loving and restoring us. When we begin to grasp and encounter this God, we realize that in the face of such Love, we are indeed beggars. We can do little more than gratefully receive the goodness He pours out upon us.

As we open up to allow His love to flow into us, we are changed from the inside. And not through anything that we can really take credit for. His love fills us and begins to leak out from us onto those we come into contact with. Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun; just as Jesus reflected God; so we begin to reflect Jesus. We begin to see the rule and reign of God occurring in our own little worlds. We find ourselves, in these moments, in the midst of the kingdom of heaven. Beggars all.


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