Dr. Chris White Jan 12, 2014
There are few sections of the Bible more associated with Jesus and his teachings than the opening words of the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed” it begins, and what follows are phrases describing the blessed or happy life as given by God. With these short, simple ideas Jesus gives us what we’ve always been looking for: a roadmap in this life of faith. Just as Psalm 1 opens with “Blessed is the man…” or “How happy is the man…”, Jesus here offers a direction for finding happiness.
But the direction holds a challenge. We expect certain conditions to follow “happy are you when…” We expect some of the traditional renderings of blessed or happy to follow—like paid bills and beachfront and good health and children who thrive. We expect concrete renderings of success and control and freedom. And because we expect all that, this path to happiness is complicated in the blessed. The challenge here is that we are asked to put words together that are hard to put together.
And the first beatitude is the hardest: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3) This introduces a difficult word. Jesus uses a word for “poor” that is a worst-case scenario poor. When the story is told in Luke 21:2 of the poor woman who offered two small coins in the temple offering, “poor” designates her as poor, in poverty, but still having something to offer. Jesus uses a different word here. “Ptochos” means poor in the sense of being reduced to begging, to be an indigent in need of help. It is used adjectively as beggarly, sorry, in low condition. It is the word used here of Lazarus in the parable from Luke 16:19-21: There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sump-tuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The point here is that Lazarus does not look blessed in any sense of the word. He is a beggar. The rich man in purple and at the table looks blessed. So when Jesus joins two words together—happy and impoverished—it calls for serious thinking.
So what do we make of the word? To be poor in spirit is to be powerless as a beggar before God. Happy are you, Jesus says, if you see God from a position of utter need, utter helplessness, utter powerlessness. Blessed are you, Jesus says, when you look out at your abilities and holdings and accomplishments and see nothing you might put before God as bait for Him to love you or listen to you. Happy are you, Jesus says, when you approach God without boast or record of performance and ask only for His mercy and kindness in your life. Jesus illustrates this best with the parable from Luke 18:9-14. To be spiritually poor, then, to be at the end of your rope and all arguments for self-promotion, is to find strong standing before God.
And now for an obvious question: How might we ever find happiness in such a state of powerlessness? And if we fight in this world to never be in a powerless place, why would we ever open ourselves to such humble ways?
First, accepting our powerlessness is realistic. When the apostle Paul writes in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” it is to remind Jews looking out on pagan Gentiles that just because the sin of Gentiles is different from the sin of Jews it does mean the sin is acceptable. Paul cites Psalm 14 (v. 2-3) which holds these timeless nuggets: The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. This is not a surrender to the good fight of faithfulness; it is an honest confession of our limits. If we’re going to set the bar at God’s good, God’s inherent glory, then there really is no one who does good and we have all fallen short of God’s glory. So even as we diligently set out to be faithful to God, there is a certain powerlessness to this life of faith. We only have so much power over self or interest in God. Practically speaking, we’re never going to be that impressive. Oh, maybe to one another, but that is not the point. We are powerless, poor, in need and that is who we are.
In fact, it is recognizing this powerlessness that lets us enjoy grace. Our American drive for personal success stories make us so afraid to confess what we’ve been given in life. We are often loathe to give all the credit that is due other people for the success we enjoy. But if you accept helplessness at the heart of your life, if you move beyond the “Look what I did without you!” protests, you can celebrate where the faithfulness of people has made a difference for you. You should know and celebrate when someone altered their life for you; when someone made you a priority; when some-one gave you a break or a first job; when someone presumed the best instead of the worst; when someone forgave you. This is grace, when someone gave to you what you had not earned. This outer helplessness is a hint of the inner helplessness that God addresses in the grace of Jesus Christ for us. As Paul continues in verse 24 of Romans 3, we are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. If we do not accept that we are helpless and powerless without God’s grace, we lean on our own efforts and miss the grace of the gift of salvation and the gift of the grace of salvation.
Second in our answer to finding happiness in powerlessness, to embrace this humble state before God is to align ourselves with Jesus. From 2 Corinthians 8:9: For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. That “poverty” is the same word used in Blessed are the poor in spirit. It was the grace of the Lord Jesus that led him to this world, to human form, and to powerlessness as we suffer powerlessness. For our sake he accepted limitations. For our sake he suffered. And by offering faithful-ness to God in the powerlessness of human form, he offered us what only a Savior can give. But he also offers us what only a brother can understand. He knows something about this poverty of spirit. He knows something about looking out and finding no one and no answer but God.
Jesus tied his destiny not to our faithfulness to him, but to God’s faithful-ness. He lived with utter need for God because God alone was his hope. He asks us to do the same. We revisit these stories of Jesus’ arrest, beatings, rejection, abandonment, and crucifixion because Jesus has shown us that we have a greater need than for the powers of this world to be on our side. He calls for us to become like a child to enter the kingdom (MT 18:4). He also calls for us to take up a cross and follow. Neither scenario offers power or control. To go the route of needing God is to tie your destiny to Jesus. It is to seek God through him, by him, and with him. We regularly tie our destiny to people in the name of love, but this destiny ends with death. Always. In Jesus Christ we find one who is God’s Son and at the right hand of the Father. He intercedes for us, knowing full well the full weight of being powerless in this world. He is the reason we embrace our spiritual need, the example in our spiritual need, and our help in spiritual need.