Early in his ministry, according to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus preached a very public sermon. This sermon, unlike any other, has not only been a great treasure of literature, but also stands as the foundation of Jesus’s teaching ministry. The introductory illustration of this famous sermon given on a mountainside is a collection of sayings by Jesus about who is blessed in the kingdom of God. They are called the “Beatitudes.”
These Beatitudes spoken by Jesus have been widely admired across religious, political, and social realms. Persons as diverse as Jimmy Carter, Ghandi, and the rock musician, Sting, have all quoted these sayings of Jesus. Indeed, Dallas Willard notes, “[A]long with the Ten Commandments, the Twenty-third psalm, and the Lord’s prayer…[the Beatitudes] are acknowledged by almost everyone to be among the highest expressions of religious insight and moral inspiration.”(1)
The exact nature of this religious insight and moral inspiration has been the subject of numerous biblical commentaries and writings. Biblical commentator, Craig Keener notes that there are more than 36 discrete views about the sermon’s message.(2) Perhaps the difficulties in interpretation lie with the implications of the Beatitudes themselves. As one author notes the Beatitudes are “a statement of the world turned upside down, where those who mourn are comforted rather than abandoned or merely pitied, where those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are satisfied, not ignored or shouted down, where the meek inherit the earth rather than being ground into dust.”(3) In other words, much is at stake. A world “turned upside down” serves as inspiration to some and bad news for others. Indeed, Luke’s account of the sermon adds a series of four-fold “woes” for those who have contributed to mourning, humiliation, and injustice (Luke 6:17-26).
The first beatitude of Jesus is on the “poor in spirit.” I’ve often wondered what it means to be poor in spirit and certainly wondered if being a follower of Jesus included depression or a perpetual frown. The poor in spirit, according to various commentators, include the dispossessed and abandoned ones. In Jesus’s society, these were the persons without hope in this world, the forgotten ones who were left behind. In every way, these were the ones who recognized that they had nothing to offer God in terms of the spiritual requirements of their religious traditions. They were the spiritually destitute. In the ancient world, poverty was often viewed as a spiritual curse whereas riches and prosperity were seen as divine blessing. Poverty and calamity were understood as the results of wrong behavior, as we see in the story of Job. Job’s friends assumed he had done something wrong to bring on his suffering.
And that is why this declaration by Jesus that the poor are blessed and the kingdom of God belongs to them must have shocked his first hearers.
And yet, extending the reach of the kingdom of God to the poor in spirit was part of the messianic mission as foretold by the prophets. Jesus himself understood this, and during a visit to his home synagogue in Nazareth, he read from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor… to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Indeed, Matthew’s gospel gives us a concrete picture of this mission of Jesus in his healing of those who were poor in spirit because of various illnesses. Just before Jesus gave his public sermon, he proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom in word and deed by healing “every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23). These were the crowds who followed him up the mountain where he began to teach. Looking around at those who just received a tangible expression of the kingdom of God coming among them, Jesus proclaimed that these ones—these spiritually destitute ones—were blessed.
And the power of the blessings of Jesus is that they are given at the beginning of his sermon, and they are given to those who have done nothing to deserve them. As Fred Craddock notes, “If the blessings were only for the deserving, very likely they would be stated at the end of the sermon, probably prefaced with the conditional clause, ‘If you have done all these things.’”(4) God blesses because God’s grace knows no bounds. For by grace we are saved through faith and not of ourselves…it is the gift of God.” There is no one beyond God’s reach, no one who is beyond hope; even the spiritually destitute can come and find their place in the kingdom of God.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 98.
(2) Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1999), 160.
(3) Mary Hinkle Shore, “It’s the Indicatives, Stupid!” Pilgrim Preaching: Readings for Preachers and Others, November 1, 2003, http://www.pilgrimpreaching.org.
(4) Fred Craddock, “Hearing God’s Blessing,” The Christian Century, January 24, 1990, 74.