The Happy Beggar
When you get to know Jesus the way we meet him in the gospels, you realize that he is no Santa Claus, a nice grandpa who pats you on the back, telling you that everything you do is great. He is demanding, holding you to the most rigorous standard. “Unless your righteousness by far exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees,” he says in Matthew 5:20, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, what he asks of us is that we be perfect, and as to leave no doubt about what level of perfection he talks about, he adds in Matthew 5:48: “as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In Matt 16:24, he asks nothing less than for us to imitate him, in his complete selflessness and sacrificial love for other human beings. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
After a while you start wondering: who are these people? Who are these people who are far more righteous than the Pharisees, who are as perfect as our heavenly Father, and who imitate Jesus in giving up their own life for the sake of others. Do these people even exist? And if they do, where do you find them?
On one occasion (Luke 13:23) a man asked Jesus: “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” Jesus does not give him a direct answer, but instead he urges him: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.”
The more important question to ask, then, is this: how can I be one of these people, one of Jesusí true disciples? What are the character traits of his disciples and how can I acquire them?
The Beatitudes answer these questions and give us an eightfold description of what a disciple of Jesus is like. In my sermon today, I will talk mostly about the first of the Beatitudes. I will also talk a little bit about how all the Beatitudes fit together, but mostly how they relate to the first one. So, when the normal time for a sermon has passed, and I am still talking about the poor in spirit, donít despair, I am going to sit down before I have given you eight more sermons on the other Beatitudes.
When Jesus talks about the poor in spirit, the word he uses for poor, is a word that could also be translated “beggar.” It refers to people who are so destitute that begging is their only means of survival.
On several college campuses, students have been offered a class where they will learn about poverty and homelessness in America. One of the requirements of the class is that the students will for a few days experience what it is like to be homeless. They are not allowed to bring anything more than the clothes they are wearing and for two or three days they try to live on the street, struggling to piece together enough money to get themselves what is hopefully one decent meal a day. What these students experience is what it is like constantly to be dependent on other people. In the beginning, they are too embarrassed to ask people for money, but after a while the basic need for food kicks in. Many students learn that after several hours of starving, they are ready to do almost anything, if only it will give them enough money for a meal. They start looking in dumpsters for anything they can eat. They hang out outside fast food restaurants, hoping to find leftovers.
This is the level of poverty that Jesus talks about in the first Beatitude. He also makes it clear that he does not have material poverty in view. He congratulates those who are poor in spirit. Spiritual poverty, as distinguished from material poverty, has to do with how we see ourselves before God. The spiritually poor are those who are so destitute, spiritually speaking, that they know themselves to be completely and utterly dependent on God.
The first characteristic of Jesusí disciples is that they are aware of this dependency. They are aware that Jesusí standards of righteousness are so demanding that they are quite helpless. When Jesus in Matt 19:24 told the disciples that it was more difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, they were astonished and said: ďwho can then be saved?” This is the painful realization the disciples come to. ďGo away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” That was Peterís response in Luke 5:8 when he stood face-to-face with the miraculous power of Jesus, and Jesus had given him such a catch of fish that his boat was about to sink.
And Jesus does not lighten up on his requirements. Answering the stupefied disciples, who had asked ďwho can then be saved?”, he says: ďWith human beings this is impossible,” and then he adds: ďbut with God all things are possible.”
And thatís where the disciples were: faced with demands that are quite impossible. All they can do is to cry out to God, to whom nothing is impossible.
Someone I know, who has modeled this attitude for me, is a former pastor of mine. He could get along with practically anyone, and I think the reason was that he was so completely unassuming on his own behalf. People did not feel threatened by him and he always made people feel comfortable. I donít think I ever saw him be offended, even though there were many times when I was offended on his behalf. But he did not seem to care.
I am sure he would never say of himself that he is a model of the poor in spirit; it just does not occur to him to think of himself in that way. But I believe that he could be the way he was precisely because he was poor in spirit. He knew very well that he was a beggar before God, that he was a sinner who had been forgiven. When he had this view of himself, he never needed to prove anything. He knew his status before God, that he was his child, and he knew that he was not the child of God because he had deserved it, but because God had shown him mercy.
Therefore, he was ready to extend mercy to the people around him. He was generous in his estimation of other people. I remember one time a lady in church complained to him about another church member. “That person is weird,” she said. My pastor thought nothing of it: “he will fit in well with you and me, then,” he said. “Itís a good thing for you and me that the church is a place for weird people.” Precisely because he had received mercy from God, my pastor could be generous to other people.
There is an intimate connection between the first and the fifth Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “blessed are the merciful.” And it is no accident that “Blessed are the poor in spirit” comes first, because only those who have seen themselves in this light can be truly merciful to others. They know that they have no reason to be arrogant and look down upon other people. They know themselves to be utterly dependent on Godís generosity. Therefore, they can be generous to others. When we have experienced the goodness of God, we can show the same goodness towards others.
In the Beatitudes, those who display this kind of attitude are praised as “blessed.” The Greek word for “blessed” is difficult to translate. It refers to the happy state that God gives, and the word “blessed” captures that meaning well. But unfortunately, a little bit of the character of the Beatitudes is lost through that translation. The Beatitudes function almost as a congratulation formula. In the Old Testament, the equivalent Hebrew word is often rendered “happy,” and that is helpful. For example in Proverbs 3:13-14:” Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.” It is like we would say: good for you if you find wisdom, wisdom is better than money, so congratulations.
The Beatitudes in the Old Testament are all like this. People are being praised for something that is evidently good, something all reasonable people would like to experience. Who would not want to be wise? Who would not want to have understanding?
Jesusí Beatitudes are quite different. What they describe, is not at all desirable. To be poor, to be mourning, to be persecuted. Nobody wants that. And if you know someone who does experience these things, you donít walk up to them and congratulate them.
But that is what Jesus does. It is almost like he is a cruel comedian who is running out of material and does not have anything better to do than to make fun of the less fortunate. So, your house burned down. Good for you! You went bankrupt. Congratulations!
But Jesus is not a shallow comedian. The Beatitudes show us how the Lord of heaven and earth has come to turn everything upside down. They show us how the gift of God is given to those who donít deserve it.
Jesus says in Matt 23:12 (CEV): “If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.”
Do you get frustrated with your own spiritual life? Do you feel that it is not as rich as it should be, not as rich as other peopleís spirituality? The Beatitudes are for you. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Are you depressed about your own ability to follow Jesus? Does it make you sad to think about the quality of your own walk as a Christian? The Beatitudes are for you. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.”
The first two Beatitudes are about realizing your own state before God, and the good news is, they promise that the state will be reversed. The good news is for those who are aware of their own spiritual poverty. And the good news is that they will not remain poor. The poor in spirit are the ones who are truly rich. Not because being poor in spirit in and of itself is such a great thing, if you just get the right perspective on it. No, the reason is that the poor in spirit in fact have the greatest riches of all. The kingdom of heaven is theirs.
When Jesus came he started establishing his kingdom. He brought his healing power and where his power was at work, the kingdom was coming. When he comes again, his kingdom will be established completely, and the poor in spirit will no longer be the poor, they will be the owners of the kingdom. Those who mourn over their sins will no longer mourn, for they will be comforted.
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, that is, those who long for the ability to do Godís will, they will be satisfied. The Beatitudes do not end by praising the poor. And they do not praise the poor because it is so great to be poor, but because realizing your poverty is the first step to connecting to the riches of God. God will satisfy you by giving you the ability to do his will. Not as something to brag about, but as a gift you receive, as a gift you are totally dependent on God to give you. That is why the blessed are also the meek. A meek person is someone who is not contentious on their own behalf. They rely on God and trust in him. Jesus himself was the foremost example of someone who was meek. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls,” he says in Matt 11:29.
While the first four Beatitudes describe internal attitudes, the next four describe how these attitudes find an outward expression in our interaction with other people. Since the blessed ones share the mind set of Jesus, they also imitate their father in heaven. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
The next section of the Sermon of the Mount explains how Jesusí disciples through non-violence and love for their enemies can bring peace to the world. In 5:44-45, Jesus says “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” This is how the meekness of the children of God comes to expression. By loving their enemies and not repaying evil with evil, they show the same generosity that God shows.
This commandment about how to deal with enemies may often become relevant for Christís disciples. When they imitate their master, they will often experience that they have to share the same fate as he. They often have to experience some of the same kind of persecution that Jesus experienced. But the outcome is great: Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
So when Jesus says that we shall be perfect like our heavenly father is perfect, he is not thinking about the absence of errors or mistakes, like we would think of a perfect final exam or a perfect test score. He is referring to an attitude, the attitude of those who are aware of their own weakness and therefore can identify with others in their weakness. The attitude of those who know that they desperately need Godís mercy and therefore are more than ready to show mercy and generosity to others. The attitude of those who know their status before God and therefore have nothing to prove, no reason to step on others to reach the top themselves. The attitude of those who are happy to put themselves low, because they know they will be exalted by God. The attitude of those who put their trust in the Lord, and therefore are free to refrain from retaliation. This is the attitude that Jesus calls perfect, or pure in heart.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
© Sigurd Grindheim