Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

Here’s the full audio of Pastor Michael’s sermon from September 17, 2017, reflecting on the first Beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount:

And here’s a written excerpt, looking at what Jesus meant by being “blessed”:

When Jesus talks in the Beatitudes about being “blessed,” he is combining two ideas together: the idea of “blessing” as divine favour, and the idea of “blessing” as human flourishing.

Those who are “blessed” are those who are favoured by God. God is predisposed toward them. God is particularly concerned for their welfare. God is “especially fond” of them, to recall the phrase from Paul Young’s The Shack.

Those who are “blessed” are also those who experience the flourishing life God desires for us as human beings. All the good things God created us for—discovering truth, realizing goodness, creating beauty, in complete harmony with God, others, ourselves, and all creation—those who are “blessed” experience these things.

To be “blessed” in the way Jesus speaks of in these Beatitudes is to be favoured by God—“divine favour”—and to experience all the good that God desires for us—“human flourishing.”

But how does this even make sense? How can it be true that “the poor in spirit”—or “the poor,” as Luke’s Gospel has it—are “blessed” like this, favoured by God and experiencing the good God desires for them? How is it possible that “those who mourn” or “those who are persecuted” can be said to be “blessed” in this way?

After all, this goes against all our popular language about “blessing.” In our way of thinking, it’s the rich who are especially “blessed.” We talk about people being “blessed” with great physical strength or athletic ability, or exceptional beauty or above-average intelligence.

Sometimes successful people even say this about themselves in a kind of “humblebrag.” “I’ve been blessed,” they say with a modest smile and a slight bow of the head. But the underlying message can be, “Look at how good my life is, and how good I’ve been to get it.”

Even for us lesser mortals, “blessings” are entirely positive things, things that fit with our understanding of happiness or success or “the good life.” Having a healthy family, a comfortable home, a few simple pleasures along the way—these are “blessings.” It simply doesn’t compute for us to speak of the poor as “blessed,” or those who mourn, or even the meek or the merciful.

In our world, these blessings of Jesus are completely upside-down.

To make sense of these upside-down blessings of Jesus, it’s important to understand that all these Beatitudes are describing something that is already present yet is somehow also still future. Most of them are “Blessed are…for they will be…” All of them are describing present blessing right now alongside a future promise of blessing fulfilled down the road.

Here’s why this is so important. These are not simply future positives in spite of some present negative; they are future positives that grow out of the present negatives. There is something about the present circumstances—being poor in spirit, mourning, yearning for justice, being merciful, being peacemakers—that leads directly to the future promise being fulfilled.

Being “poor in spirit” is crucial for experiencing God’s kingdom; it’s not simply that they receive God’s kingdom someday in spite of being poor now. It’s not just that those who are “meek” will one day “inherit the earth”; it’s that they will “inherit the earth” by being meek. We cannot experience the fullness of justice in the world unless we “hunger and thirst” for it, yearning for it deep in our souls. And so on.

To put this another way, all of the Beatitudes are identifying people who already are blessed, but they are also describing the necessary attitudes and behaviours that lead to blessing. Maybe you’ve heard the Beatitudes called the “Be-Attitudes.” Well, as corny as that might seem, it’s right on the money: these blessings describe “attitudes” that we should “be,” ways of thinking and living that we should cultivate if we want to experience the full blessing of God.

How does all this help us make sense of Jesus’ upside-down Beatitudes?

First, Jesus’ Beatitudes seem so upside-down to us because Jesus has a different understanding of “blessedness” than we often do.

Jesus’ idea of “divine favour” isn’t the same thing as ours. For Jesus, and the Bible generally, “divine favour” is entirely unearned. There’s no idea in the Bible of calling ourselves “blessed” when really we mean, “look how good we are.”

And Jesus’ idea of “human flourishing” isn’t the same thing as our idea of “the good life.” For Jesus, and the Bible generally, the goal of human life is not “being successful” or “being happy.” Rather, the goal of human life as described in most of the biblical writings is shalom: justice, peace, and flourishing life for all, being in harmony with God and all creation.

Second, Jesus’ Beatitudes seem so upside-down to us because Jesus is taking the long view.

This bigger-picture vision of “blessedness” is no short-term project. It requires the cultivation of attitudes and behaviours in each of us, and all of us together, that will only lead to the full harvest of divine favour and human flourishing down the road.

This is hard for us, especially in our culture of instant gratification. We want results not now, but right now. Combine this with our mostly materialistic concepts of “success” or “happiness” or “the good life,” and it’s no wonder something like “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” makes no sense to us.

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