How can the poor in spirit be blessed?
The Sermon on the Mount, found in Chapter 5 of Matthew's gospel, is considered some of the greatest teaching ever delivered, yet, ironically, as one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century commented, it is perhaps the least understood – especially by Christians!
The Sermon on the Mount is a call to a new way of living, and it begins with a litany of sentences explaining how people, living this new way, will be blessed. Jesus sets out, poetically, what life becomes, or what life is like, for those that live in God's Kingdom. With his words, he does not only paint a picture of a future heavenly paradise, but of a community living under the kingship of Christ in the here and now.
Take the sentence, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It does not only mean that the poor will be blessed one day when they die, but that in God's Kingdom, the poor will be blessed in the here and now because they will be looked after by those that have monetary, emotional, and spiritual wealth – a foretaste, if you will, of a kingdom that stretches from now to eternity.
God’s Kingdom is not a worldly kingdom, but a community called to a way of life that transcends our worldly kingdoms. Those that live under it pledge allegiance first and foremost to the King – Jesus Christ – and live in a life-giving way that spreads throughout the world. Jesus goes on to describe those that live in this new way as, “the salt of the earth”. What does salt do? It does three things. It represents purity, it adds flavour, and it preserves.
Christians – followers of the King and therefore those living in God’s Kingdom – are called to be examples of God's goodness, to add spice to a spiritually bland world, and to protect against moral corruption and evil. To be a Christian is not to have a “personal” faith or to secure a place in heaven, but to be agents for good in the world – to ourselves, to each other, and to the environment.
As the Apostle Peter put it, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We, this chosen people, a new nation under God, declare God’s praises in both word and action.
Jesus emphasises this model – that Christians are to be a transformative presence in the world – by calling the members of this new way of life to be like light. “You are the light of the world,” he tells us. We are called to shine in the world and let our good deeds be seen by all, not to boast or be arrogant or proud, but to allow our blessings to be a witness to the goodness and grace of God that others may also be encouraged to join this way of life.
At the time Jesus was preaching, the people had the moral law, a set of rules that they had to follow to be God's holy people or community, yet Jesus was inviting them to adopt a new way of living. To avoid any confusion he explained two things.
Firstly, that he had come not to replace the law but to fulfil it – an important distinction, for, as we know, no one was able to follow God's laws perfectly. Yet Jesus did. He even challenged his listeners to prove he was guilty of sin, but no one could. This fulfilling – or perfect keeping – of the law established his kingship and authority and gave Jesus, the King, the right to call us to a new way of living, and claim us as his citizens – citizens of the Kingdom of God.
But then, secondly, Jesus said a strange thing, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” How can our righteousness possibly surpass that of the best of the best? The point is that it cannot. Our righteousness, our “pardon” if you will, can only come from the King himself.
Jesus did not come to give us another set of rules to follow, but came to call us to follow him. It is by him alone that we are pardoned, forgiven, and can enter God’s Kingdom and become members of this community called to work together for the redemption, restoration, and renewal of the world. This is the Gospel of the Lord and it really is “good news”, especially for “the poor in spirit”.
In the rest of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus digs into the detail of what this life looks like, and matters of day-to-day living – not as commandments that must be obeyed but as examples of how people will live together when they are transformed by the pardoning love of God.
Jesus taught the crowds on the mountainside that day, and his teaching was an invitation to a new, wonderful, and fulfilling way of life, and this invitation stands today. All of us are just one step away from being part of this holy community and being members of God's Kingdom, all we have to do is make Christ our King.
• Reverend Gavin Tyte is the pastor at St Mark’s Anglican Church. Visit stmarks.bm
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