Blessed at the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Mt 5:3
If you knew you were giving the most important speech of your life, where would you start? A joke? A list of your qualifications, a mission statement, a well respected quote?
Jesus starts his great sermon with a shocking statement that takes our gaze to the bottom of the social pile. He says, Blessed are the bent-double ones, the extremely poor who have no other resource. Blessed are the oppressed ones, the untouchables.
What a thing to say! Unless He knows. Unless He is one. Unless even here, only 4 chapters into Matthew’s gospel Jesus, born in a borrowed stable is looking ahead to the moment he will be bent double under the weight of a Roman cross. Blessed are the poor in spirit, says Jesus and I should know.
By contrast, I am uncomfortable preaching on poverty from my wealth. And none of us is poor in the sense Jesus describes it with the word he chooses here, so we need to tread with real care. Because poverty is crushingly terrible. We rightly balk at extreme poverty when we see it and try hard to protect ourselves against. Nobody wants to be poor. Those who choose poverty do so as an act of solidarity. But most oppressed and impoverished people do not and would not choose it.
Jesus is the ultimate example of choosing poverty as He chose the poverty of the human experience over the treasure of His rightful place at the right hand of the Father in coming to live among us. Jesus has the right to talk about the blessedness of the poor in spirit.
Last week I said that the beatitudes are statements for a community and only the body of Christ together can make sense of them. So, we are not all called to be poor, but we are all called to notice and emulate the blessedness of the poor in spirit when we see it in our brothers and sisters and in Jesus.
The sense of ‘blessed’ here is ‘You’re so lucky if…’ or ‘Congratulation to those who…’ Only Jesus can say this stuff, and I have been uncomfortable all week thinking about it, but let’s start by looking at the end of the phrase ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
It’s the present tense. This is not about going to heaven in the future. The kingdom of heaven, the phrase used in Matthew’s gospel to mean the people in whom God reigns as ultimate King, is here and now, Jesus is telling people. This Kingdom of love and justice brought about by God’s goodness goes on into eternity, but it begins in the here and now of our lives.
In this passage, Jesus is saying to his listeners, don’t look up int the sky and wait for the kingdom to come down. Don’t try and buy your way in by taking sacrifices to the temple. The kingdom is here, on this very hillside. Jesus himself has brought it. Not by force or wealth but by showing the way of love is a downward journey to the cross and the grave. Showing that God is for us even when we oppose and resist God. And that God stands in solidarity with those who are at the very bottom of the heap. This love is fearless in accepting that the worst does actually happen sometimes, but that every Good Friday leads to a resurrection Sunday; the bursting out of new life, set free from the power and terror of death.
Theirs is the kingdom of heaven – right now we can live in it, if we so choose.
So who are these 'lucky ones' who are poor in spirit and thus able to live in the Kingdom right here and right now?
As I said, the word poor here is the untouchables or the bent-over ones. The very end of the line ones. And the addition of ‘in spirit’ seems to be about having the attitude of those people. The attitude of recognising I bring nothing to this. I am empty handed. I have no bargaining power. I am totally and utterly reliant on God’s mercy.
Have you ever had the feeling of coming to the end of yourself? Maybe in a major financial worry. Maybe in a time of huge emotional stretch you simply could not see how you could function anymore. Perhaps in an illness you have been faced with the prospect that there is nothing more you can do to improve a situation for yourself or another. This is how it feels to run out of bargaining power. To be empty.
When our own cleverness fails, or our body or networks or money can’t deliver. When we come to the end of ourselves and cry out to God in total brokenness. 'O,' Jesus says, 'Happy are you then! Because you get it.' You get that the props of wealth are baubles and distractions. That all life is hidden in the truth that God is for you and living in response to God's love is literally living in the Kingdom of heaven, on earth.
Jesus is encouraging us not to be afraid of the experience of being broken by disappointment, failure, sickness or any other trait that displays our mortal human nature. Be led into poverty of spirit which is brokenness by another name, and we will in that moment, know what it is to fall on God’s mercy. We will know what actually matters.
But I have an image in my mind of those refugees in Lesbos sleeping in blankets by the road. Those human beings who have travelled to escape war, made the best of an unwelcoming camp in an unwelcoming continent and survived a plague only to have their few belongings burnt to ash. Are they now experiencing the brokenness that means they are blessed because they know it is just them and God left? Truly I dare not imagine what they feel right now. But I don’t want their image to provide a hiding place for me from this thought ; my wealth – material or influential, can rob me of presence of the kingdom of heaven.
The word possessions is usually understood as the things we own. House, car, university education, dog, bus pass, books, music collection these are possessions. But might Jesus be warning us that possessions are things that own us? Blessed are the poor in spirit who have no possessions to possess them?
Would I give away my new electric car if I felt it was owning me rather than I was owning it? Would I get rid of my computer if I saw that it possessed me, and I was no longer seeking first the Kingdom of heaven because of its power over me? Would I step aside from my role here if I realised that the trappings of being the vicar was drawing me away from love of God?
If poverty of spirit, or brokenness, is not forced upon us by circumstance, we can move towards the reliance on God it creates through cultivating simplicity. Getting rid of some stuff or attitudes that are beginning to possess us.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven," and that is the greatest treasure there is.