The Sermon on the Mount 5

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. — Matthew 5.3

It is common to think of the Beatitudes as popcorn statements that Jesus directs at the crowd of people who gather to hear Him preach on the mountainside. We envision Jesus turning to the poor in spirit and speaking a word of blessing, followed by a similar statement to the subset of the crowd that is well acquainted with grief, and so on. When we read the Beatitudes this way, we allow ourselves to gloss over the statements Jesus makes that might not especially appeal to us (I mean, let’s be honest, who really thinks of themselves as “meek” anyway?) and instead we latch on to the particular Beatitude that we think best describes ourselves. This, then, becomes OUR Beatitude. “I’m the peacemaker,” or “I’m the pure in heart,” and therefore the rest of the Beatitudes aren’t really directed at me.

I would suggest that this is a terrible way to read the Beatitudes. Clarence Jordan, in his book The Sermon on the Mount, argues that the Beatitudes should be read progressively; that is, each Beatitude builds on the preceding one. What Jesus seems to be doing is not directing specific comments to specific groups of individuals; instead, He is giving articulation to the eternal principles of the Kingdom of God. This is what Jesus is calling us to repent toward: a life that is characterized by meekness and purity of heart and peace and poverty of spirit.

In this way, Jesus builds for us a “stairway”, a progression of steps into the Kingdom, the territory where God’s reign is fully manifest. But in order to enter this Kingdom, one must begin at a place of poverty and brokenness. Jesus begins with the poor in spirit because this is where we first receive the Kingdom. It is not in our proud moments; it is not in our victories; it is not when everything seems to be falling into place or going our way. No, it is in the broken places that the Kingdom comes to us. We find God when we reach the end of ourselves; when we realize that our best efforts still aren’t good enough; when will power has met its end…this is when God’s power becomes the overriding reality in our lives.

To be poor in spirit is to recognize our own frailties and iniquities; to be poor in spirit is to recognize that we stand in need of what only God can do for us. Its antonym is to be proud in spirit. The poor in spirit are ready to repent. The poor in spirit are ready to receive the Kingdom. This is where we all find our beginning.

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7 Responses to The Sermon on the Mount 5

  1. jamesbrett says:

    what’s the quote, something like “we’ll never change until we’re afraid not to…?” I like the idea of a progression in the beatitudes. and beginning with a brokenness, in which we understand and feel our need for God in our lives.

    in my experience, though, it seems like many (in our faith at least) don’t begin their Christian walk here. do you agree — or is it just where i’ve been? and how does that hurt us a little further down the progression chart?

  2. Jason says:

    another quote i like is the thought that says, “change begins with me”. i think that’s at the heart of the Kingdom of God. it begins with humility and repentance and transformation. that’s how the prayer of Jesus comes true, the part where He prays “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

    i think a lot of the people i know begin at this point of brokenness, but maybe they just forget about that place of brokenness the older they get. i think we’re guilty of making the Christian life analogous to having it all together and so we become fearful of experiencing brokenness and poverty of spirit.

    that’s just me.

  3. jamesbrett says:

    i understand what you’re saying, and i’m not suggesting this is what you mean, but you’ve reminded me of it all the same with the “change begins with me” quote:

    i think we (blanket over churches of Christ?), for the most part, have a pretty good grasp of God’s power in salvation. we seem to understand that it is by grace that we’re saved, and nothing of us. we are understanding and exploring the role of the Spirit in empowering transformation in our lives, etc.

    but we often still talk about repentance as something that we did on our own. ie “well i was living completely in sin, drinking and sleeping around and all that stuff. but then i finally came to my senses, and decided i’d better turn my life around… so i stopped all that stuff and gave my life to Jesus.” we give God credit for saving us, but not for the decision itself. but no man can come to Jesus, unless the Father draws him.

    the prodigal son decided that his life was miserable, and he even had a plan for how to bring that about. but his Father had a completely different plan. the prodigal’s role in all of that was really just to realize his brokenness. i see our role as merely understanding that we are completely lost and sick and dying, and in need of change. and the Holy Spirit can take it from there. i think we give God too little credit in the realm of repentance…

  4. Jason says:

    i agree brett. i think we over-emphasize our role in salvation, repentance, etc. To be sure, there is a response that is required of us. But i’m with you…that response pales in comparison to what God is doing in the process. God is the one doing the saving; God is the one doing the liberating; to borrow our baptismal language, God is the one doing the “killing” (the death of the old man) and the “raising” (empowering us to live sanctified lives that bring Him glory). We passively receive the blessing that comes about from the activity of God. All we can do is exhibit poverty of spirit and freely receive the gift of His grace.

  5. owen says:

    hey jason, thanks for sending me this link.

    i’m going to go along the same lines as you jamesbrett in seeing perhaps a we (the church of christ) perhaps take someting away from God’s saving power.

    my personal salvation experience was being a middle school kid attending one of those huge gospel meeting with the stern black preacher blaring the doom of the unsaved at me. that is what brought me to the baptistery. the teachings of christ unfortunately had little to do with my deciding to become baptized. it was the fear of eternal damnation.

    i don’t doubt my salvation, but i have had to dig through a lot of personal junk and questions to understand God’s love for me and how i am to love Him.

    i don’t want to downplay the significance of baptism, but do you think that maybe we are sometimes so quick to cram baptism down the throats of our youth that we push the “fast track” which would be fear instead of love for Christ? is the process of love, slower to prompt action than fear, sometimes being overlooked because it does “not bring people to Christ fast enough?”

    of course i speak from my own personal experience which is definitely limited, but i observe that the gimmick of fear is a way to goad people into doing what you want them to do and thinking what you want them to think. while i do believe that it is healthy to fear God, the kingdom of heaven is not built on fear. it is built on love which burns brighter and lasts longer.

  6. Jason says:

    I think fear is a lousy motivation for a lot of things. I guess there’s a place for that to factor into the equation, but I think love is the most compelling reason to follow Christ, per Paul’s comments in 2 Corinthians 5 and John’s discussion of love in 1 John. To your point about “fast tracking” baptism with our youth, I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Again, some may respond out of fear or guilt or any number of motivations, but I would want to emphasize the priority of love in the conversion process. Good thoughts, Owen. I hope you’ll keep dropping by.

  7. Pingback: The Sermon on the Mount 20 « already & not yet

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