February 28, 2010: “Surprised by God’s Blessing?”

Posted on : Feb 25th, 2010 | By | Category: This Sunday's Service

Last week Dan began our sermon series on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). This Sunday we will look at the first two blessings in verses 3-4:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Usually when the Beatitudes are read, everyone feels all warm and fuzzy. I suspect it is the repeated use of the word “blessed” that evokes these sentimental feelings in us. Truth be told, the Beatitudes are rather unsettling. It seems that Jesus’ values are very different from our values and the world’s values. In fact, from God’s perspective, the world is upside down and needs to be turned the right way around. According to the values of the world, one is considered blessed if you are successful, wealthy, powerful and have a wonderful life. But according to Jesus you are considered blessed if you are poor, mournful, meek and persecuted.  How can people possibly feel blessed when they are poor or beaten down, when they cry their hearts out, or are abused or run out of their community? Really, the word “blessed” did not come to mind as I watched the tragedy unfold in Haiti! Wait, it gets worse. “Bless” is not actually the best way to translate the Greek; it conveys something more like a short cry of joy: “Oh you lucky person.”  In effect, Jesus is saying: “How lucky are the unlucky people.”

Are you shocked yet? You should be. Jesus was not the soft spoken, meek and mild “sweet baby Jesus” some cheesy Gospel movies sometimes make him out to be. The Jesus of the Gospels is radical, unsettling, offensive, and tends to make outrageous statements. Prepare yourself to be surprised by God’s blessings, as the title of our sermon series says.

The first two blessings witness to this irony. First off, Matthew uses this bizarre expression “poor in spirit” that we find nowhere else in the New Testament. In fact this expression doesn’t even exist in Greek. No one is really sure what it means. What to do? Luke has written down the same Beatitudes, so maybe he can shed some light on the mystery. Or perhaps not. You see, this is what Luke says: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” (Luke 6:20, 24)

So does “poor in spirit” mean people who are poor? Yes and no. It is obvious that this is how Luke understands it. He means to say, of course, that the poor, despite their horrible present circumstances, will be blessed when their fortunes are reversed when God’s realm is fully realized; when the world is restored to the way God wanted it to be all along. And to the rich, he says: “Well, it’s too bad for you; you already had your comfort.” Are you starting to feel uncomfortable? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Why then did Matthew make up this expression “poor in spirit?” Why did he not just say “poor” like Luke? Could it be that he tried to soften Jesus’ statement? The way Luke puts it does seem to suggest that those who are poor are good and they are going to be rewarded in heaven and those who are rich are bad, so they will be punished. Now we know that not all poor people are necessarily good or all rich people bad. So maybe Matthew felt that this dichotomy of pious poor and wicked rich was a gross oversimplification.

We do find similar expressions in the Hebrew Scriptures, such as “lowly spirit,” and they tend to refer to those who admit their dependence on God with a contrite and humble heart. Is this perhaps what Matthew had in mind?

Now it is true that the Beatitudes refer to both the present and future. Since God’s realm already broke into our world with Christ’s life, ministry, death and resurrection, these blessings are not just about a promise for the future, but are already a reality in the present.  As Christians in the USA, many of us have grown so comfortable that we can no longer identify with the humble conditions of Jesus’ first audience. So we tend to favor the “humble heart” interpretation. The future eternal blessing-thing has sort of fallen out of fashion.

Yet we dare not discount the value of future rewards. One needs only to listen to songs composed by American slaves to realize the consolation in the belief. “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home.” “When I get to heaven, goin’ to put on my robe, goin’ to shout all over God’s heaven.” “We’ll soon be free, we’ll soon be free, when the Lord will call us home.”  They had little hope in this world but abiding hope in a world to come. What good did it do for the slaves to believe that God is not satisfied with a world that included back-breaking labor and masters armed with bullwhips and lynching ropes? To believe in future rewards is to believe that the long arm of God bends towards justice, to believe that one day the proud will be overthrown and the humble raised up and the hungry filled with good things. (Philip Yancy).

This doesn’t imply that we don’t need to fight for justice in the present – rather it allows us to believe in a just God after all. But what does all this mean for those of us who, as Luke so “diplomatically” put it, already received our comfort. How would Matthew have phrased the blessing to us? Maybe something like: You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you.

We’ll talk about it on Sunday.


~ This Sunday’s Scriptures ~

Psalm 51: 16-17

For sacrifices give you no pleasure;

if I were to present a burnt offering,

you would not be pleased.

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a lowly spirit;

a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not scorn.

Isaiah 57: 15-21

For thus says the High and Exalted One,

who inhabits eternity,

whose name is Holy:

I dwell in the high and holy place,

and also with those who are humbled and broken in spirit,

so I  can revive the spirit of you who are dejected,

and revive the heart of you who are contrite.

I will not accuse forever,

nor will I always be angry –

for then your  spirit would grow faint before me,

your breath which I created.

Because of their sinful greed I was enraged;

I punished them, and withdrew my favor,

but they kept turning back to their own willful ways.

I know your ways – and will heal you.

I will lead you and comfort you,

you and those among you who mourn,

bringing praise to your lips.

“I will bring peace, peace, to those far and the near,” says my God,

“and I will heal them.”

But those who do evil are like the churning sea

that cannot quiet itself;

its waters toss up silt and mud.

There is no peace, says my God, for the corrupt.

Matthew 5: 1-4

Jesus teaches about blessedness.  “You are blessed!”

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on the mountainside; and after he sat down and the disciples had gathered around, Jesus began to teach them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”