Read the Gospel passage here: St. Matthew 5:1-12
What a whirlwind the opening of the Gospel of Matthew is! We started with the genealogy, then the birth narrative, which focused on Joseph and that included the visit of the Magi, the escape to Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents. Then Jesus emerges, is Baptized by John, tested in the wilderness, calls a few disciples and here we are – chapter 5 – ready for Jesus’ first sermon. And what a sermon it is! Just the introduction alone is profound and beautiful. But throughout all of this – chapters 1 through 4 in the Gospel of Matthew, one important theme emerges – Jesus Emmanuel (God saves, through God’s presence) is born into the real world. This is no mythical religious setting. This is a harsh real world filled with suffering and oppression and murder and deceit and intrigue. It is in this context then, that we hear these words:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven…..
We all know these words, right? We have heard them over and over. They are popular in our culture. There have been books written; and various celebrities have even discussed these words of Jesus at length in various forums. Just a quick online search brings up over 400,000 hits. But with all this attention it is curious to note that very few seem to actually understand what Jesus is saying here.
It is common for us to hear these words as imperatives – or orders or conditional. “If you are poor in spirit, then you will be blessed; if you are mourning then you will be comforted; if you are meek then you will inherit the earth” and so on. The reverse of this is also assumed I think by some = “if you are NOT poor in spirit, then you will NOT inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.” And so these Beatitudes become something to aspire to, something we have to accomplish on our road to heaven. The other problem with the popular interpretation is that it is seen as a roadmap to heaven. “If you are poor in spirit then you will go to heaven.” All of these ways of looking at this passage represent a complete misunderstanding of this passage.
So in order to get at what it is Jesus is trying to say let us first remember the context. Remember those first 4 chapters, with allusions in the genealogy to horribly sinful people (all of whom are in Jesus’ family), with the stories of Herod and murder and misery and grief. This is the context of Jesus’ ministry: the world – the real world. When Jesus mentions poor in spirit (those who have given up and are completely discouraged), those who mourn and grieve, those who are meek and fearful, those who show mercy to others, those who are pure in heart or have good intentions and try to do the right thing, those who try to bring peace from conflict, and those who are persecuted for all of the above – when Jesus lifts these people up he is not saying – “Be Like This!” He is saying – this is the way of the world. There are people all around who are in this situation, who struggle and grieve and try to do the right thing and who get discouraged and sometimes persecuted – and you know what? They are blessed! God loves them and God is with them. In fact, God holds all people who struggle like this in a special place in God’s heart.
And there is something else. At the end of chapter 4 the Gospel tells us that Jesus started going around the region of the Galilee “proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven!” In other words, Jesus begins preaching - It is here! The Kingdom is not just something that is coming in the future – it is here right now! The Kingdom of Heaven is in our midst and we are citizens of the Kingdom come into our midst. The fact that there are still those who are poor in spirit, and mournful and meek and so on is a sign that the Kingdom is incomplete, it is not yet come in its fullness. But the promise of and reality of God’s presence, the promises that Jesus lays out in this passage are signs that the Kingdom has come into our midst. And that it is to be found bursting forth!
Ultimately, this beautiful introduction to Jesus’ extended Sermon on the Mount is saying something very simple – you are blessed. In your struggles and losses and difficulties and fears, and in your human weakness, God is with you and you are blessed!