Poor in spirit
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.-Matthew 5:3
Bad dad joke/priest joke alert: The young priest was told by his mentor: “Here’s the secret to a good sermon. You need a really good opening, and a really good conclusion, and not much in between.” You can try that out on your local cleric. Let me know how that goes. Thanks be to God, that secret doesn’t apply to the sermon before us, the Sermon on the Mount. But it is worth considering the way Jesus kicks off this sermon, according to Matthew.
He speaks first about the blessedness of poverty in spirit. If you ran across the phrase “poor in spirit” in some other context, what would come to mind? Maybe it suggests depression or dejection. Maybe it suggests a lack of enthusiasm, as in lack of team spirit, for which you might call Ted Lasso, not Jesus. Maybe it suggests joylessness, often associated with religious people, as in H.L.Mencken’s observation that a puritan is someone who is upset because someone somewhere is having a good time. In reflection on this first of the beatitudes over the years, I confess I haven’t always been sure what is meant by poor in spirit. I’ve heard a bunch of sermons (probably given some) that are all over the map and not entirely illuminating.
What I have found helpful is the rendering of this verse in some paraphrased versions which read something like this: Blessed are those who know their need of God. I’ll leave it to others to determine whether that’s excessively free translation, but if it’s not true, it ought to be. If we think of those in need of God, that’s something to which many people can relate.
St. Augustine and later Blaise Pascal noted that there’s a God shaped space inside each one of us. Augustine said that our hearts are restless until we rest in God’s presence. In the work we’ve done with congregations through RenewalWorks, we’ve noted the potent reality of that restlessness, an eagerness to grow in spirit driven by the sense that there is more.
And that’s a good starting point. Our liturgy knows that, as our daily services start with confession, recognizing ways we’ve fallen short, recognizing that we come together with our own spiritual deficit, not denying it or hiding it but noting it is there. Though it manifests itself in great variety, it is who we are. And the good news, is that this deficit is met with abundant grace.
In the eucharist, we come to the table after we have confessed, seeking to be reconciled to God and each other, recognizing that that is something we all need to do.
The first two steps in AA highlight a recognition of powerlessness over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable, and a coming to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
So we begin Jesus’ sermon with a statement of blessing for those who fall short in this way. Why is that a blessing? Perhaps because it is critical in stepping into the kingdom of heaven. In the coming weeks, we’ll note a variety of ways to experience blessing. When you look up the Greek word, it is translated as happy or fortunate. Maybe lucky. I’m glad the word blessed is used. It’s not always a happy moment to recognize that we are poor in spirit, that we need help. Sometimes we refer to it as a come to Jesus moment. It may not always feel fortunate.
But it is key to moving forward on a pathway of blessing. The great part is that it immediately places us in the kingdom of heaven. It’s not some arrival far off in the future. The kingdom of heaven can begin right now when we not only recognize that we need help, but also when we note that help is available. The psalmists knew that. Case in point: Our help is in the name of the Lord (Psalm 124.8). The people who clamored to get close to Jesus knew that. In the gospels, perhaps the folks who didn’t know it were the ones that presumed that they were already rich in spirit, thank you very much. They were those who thought God was really lucky to have them on the team.
Think this week about why the sermon on the mount begins in this particular way. Think about your own life, and when you’ve been in touch with what it means to be poor in spirit. And if you find that mysterious phrase resonates with your experience, see it not as judgment or failure but as occasion for grace to abound, an opening for all kinds of blessings in days ahead. It’s just the beginning.
Ready to help the folks in your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys? Join our fall cohort of RenewalWorks participants…
The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.