Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Last One There is a Rotten Egg
My three-year-old son came home from preschool saying my least favorite F word, “No fair.” I felt like launching into a long explanation of privilege, blessings, and humility. “You don’t know how good you have it, kid. People in Rwanda don’t have clean water. That is No Fair.” But at that time he was only three, so I just repeated my mantra, “Our family doesn’t say that.” Clean, decisive. I’m the schoolyard phrase assassin.
Our family may not say that F word, but we live it every day. I learned “No Fair.” My husband learned “No Fair.” Humanity collectively cries, “No Fair.” We hate long lines, we demand compensation, we glare at anyone with an unearned edge. And those who don’t work for it? What’s their problem?
We expect to find equitable housing, receive a fair wage for an interesting job, attain recognition for service, and be treated as well as or better than everyone else. That is fair. Anything else is oppression. Or cronyism.
That attitude serves us well as we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and seek out success for futures. But it is a disadvantage when we approach the words of Jesus. Jesus turns fairness upside down. Jesus takes justice and flips it inside out into mercy. Jesus looks at the underprivileged whose bootstraps broke long ago, who deserve the last place in line and he says,
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Our No Fair mentality has deconstructed this verse so many times that some translations even rework it so that it doesn’t match the original Greek. For example the first edition of the New English Bible translated this verse as “How blest are those who know that they are poor.” This sentiment is easy to adapt to include me. I know I’m really poor, even though I have money. I know I don’t deserve everything I have. This verse must apply to me! The kingdom of heaven is mine.
Or we try to substitute ‘humility’ for ‘poor in spirit’ so that we can claim this promise for ourselves. We explain that the most well-educated, wealthy, successful people can relate to this verse just by being more humble. In this way the verse become a prescription for behavior. Be humble about your amazing life and you will find the kingdom of heaven.
Some choose to entirely throw out the Matthew text in favor of the Luke text, “Blessed are the poor”, to find blessing in their financial position. Jesus favors me because I haven’t been treated fairly. I haven’t received the opportunities that others have received. God bless me. I’ve worked my heart out for little success. Mine is the kingdom of heaven. Anything else is “No Fair.”
The trouble with any of these interpretations is that they all make the assumption that the verse applies to us. But Jesus is making a new path here. His message and his journey on earth proved that Jesus is considering the “other”. The neighbor. The outsiders. Any attempt to include ourselves on the inside of some “poor in spirit” club is missing the point. It’s not about the humble, the poor, or those who know they are poor.
It’s about everybody else.
A Drunk and the Kingdom of Heaven
A long, long time ago I went to Guatemala on a mission trip with my youth group. We used drama and dance and physical labor to show the love of Jesus to the people there. One night we performed our production in a park where families and teenagers and vagrants gathered to watch us in our shenanigans. After a few catchy numbers and heart-wrenching dramas, a friend of mine gave her testimony. Then we gave an invitation for people to come forward for prayer. A man came forward to my group for prayer and we quickly determined that he was drunk as a skunk. And it was my job to translate his mumblings.
I remember us all giving each other knowing glances. He’s not in his right mind. Does he even know what he is doing? Will he remember this in the morning? Boy, he is really drunk.
I was disappointed. I had wanted to share the good news with someone, not prop up a drunk while he lamented his sad life. I tried my best to translate. We surrounded him and prayed for him. He kept mumbling. His breath was so bad. I looked out at the crowd who watched us, but had not come forward and thought, Are we wasting our time? This will all be lost and forgotten by this guy.
I’m embarrassed by my fifteen-year-old self. This poor, suffering man with a devastating addiction had come forward for prayer. For touch. For healing. And I was looking over his stinky shoulder for the next guy. I wasn’t satisfied with an outsider. Jesus was right at home with outsiders. In fact he surrounded himself with outsiders.
Jesus tells us that the last shall be first and the first will be last. Jesus recruits his team from the fishermen, tax-collectors, laborers of the day. He spends his time rubbing shoulders with lepers, dining with prostitutes, feeding the hungry. He washes the feet of those who would eventually betray him, fall asleep instead of praying for him, or deny him.
Jesus sees the seemingly invisible people around him. Jesus tells us that our neighbors are the Samaritans, a people group reviled by the Jews of the day. Considered gentiles and outside the promise of Israel, the Samaritans were seen as quite poor in spirit. They lacked the inheritance of the people of God, and Jews did not associate with them at all. But Jesus tells a parable that picks the scab of this prejudice. He casts a Samaritan as the Good Guy, coming to the aid of a Jew.
But [an expert in the law] wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
So this Samaritan, so poor in spirit, sets the example. This outsider has a stake in the kingdom of heaven. It may seem silly that this would be so shocking to a first century Jew. With our diverse, 21st century sensitivities, prejudice for the Samaritans seems archaic. But the feeling is painfully too familiar.
When we pick teams in this world, don’t we still go by the schoolyard pecking order?
We demonize entire groups of people by their political agenda, their immigration status, or their level of fundamentalism. We nod our heads when people “get what they deserve”. We all have our own Samaritans.
We invite people in only if they are ready to make a change, “Man on the Road, you look like you need help. But I need to know what your intentions are. If I help you, are you prepared to change your life?”
But Jesus says “follow me”.
The Least of These
Luke tells us of another encounter between Jesus and one who is poor in spirit:
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
Jesus claims that the widow’s two mites have great value — that our offering does not even compare. Yet today, do we condemn this woman for mismanaging her money? This lady must watch TV evangelists – those frauds who deceive people into giving all their hard-earned money to corrupt churches. We tell her to be smart. Make a budget like the rest of us. Get a clue.
And again, Luke shares a moment with us, where Jesus extends his community to include another group of outsiders: children.
People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
Jesus beckons the children to come to him. Yet we hold them back. Place them in childcare. Tell them to color on the bulletin while we talk over their heads. Plug them in so that we can get some peace and quiet. We diminish their educational content as light or simplified or easy: Love one another. God loves you. Share with your neighbor.
As if that were easy.
Brave New World
The gospel of Luke captures many outsider moments with Jesus. Luke introduces us to Jesus, the One who surrounds himself with the Poor in Spirit. They don’t deserve it. They haven’t earned it. When we try and put them in categories, box them in, create separate worship experiences for them, lecture them, or altogether avoid them, Jesus embraces them. He surrounds himself with the poor in spirit. How can I edge myself into that circle? How do I become part of that in-crowd? Can I squeeze in there somehow?
Jesus demonstrates the ‘how’. We stretch out our arms wide and we say, let them come. We embrace the poor in spirit and we find ourselves in the circle. Because this verse isn’t about me. It’s about everybody else. Welcome to a new realization, Me. The people I categorize, who have less to offer, who don’t belong on my team are blessed. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Jesus gives them dignity. Jesus gives them hope. Jesus draws them in. If I want to get on board with the kingdom of heaven I had better call them blessed.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I say, “No Fair.” And Jesus says, “Our family doesn’t say that.”