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.”

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 

I give and I give and I give

While traveling by car in Ethiopia my husband and I had the familiar experience of meeting beggars at our windows. At first it was difficult. Many of the people were women nursing babies or children or people with disabilities. We felt compassion and wanted to help. But our translator informed us that it is against the law in Ethiopia to give money to people out of your car window. If we did, it could cost the driver a steep fine.

The decision was removed from us. We could righteously ignore the pleading faces of the underprivileged, knowing that we were obeying the law. Mercy was out of our hands. Why did we feel relief? Why did it feel like a burden of responsibility was gone?  Because in that moment when our eyes locked with the have-nots, our money burned in our pockets.  Our clothing hung like chains. Our busy schedule weighed like a noose.  I don’t want to give these to you. I feel awkward.

We could tell ourselves it was probably best for those people anyway. The kids should be in school. The mothers should have jobs. The government really needs to fix this problem. And how about those big churches we see everywhere? This is their job. We are here to do our one job. We can’t be bothered with everyone’s problems. There’s only so much we can do (and still maintain our lifestyle in the United States, of course). Someone else will have a heart for the street children of Ethiopia. God bless ‘em.

And with that we rolled up our windows, like we had so many times before.

We teach this lesson to our children as we roll past the homeless person on the corner, our hands at ten and two on the wheel, looking straight ahead and ignoring her stare.

“What does that lady want, Mommy?”

“She’s asking for food, honey.”

“We’ve got plenty at home, Mom.  Why don’t we go get her some!”

Then we find some way of racing to our next destination without confronting the question.

Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.

But, they won’t. Not really. Let me explain it to you. You see, if you give ‘em an inch, they’ll take a mile. If you give money to her, she’ll just go buy drugs. If you let him stay at your house, he’ll be there until Christmas. If you forgive them, they’ll only do it again. In fact, is mercy really doing anyone any favors?  Enabling people to keep doing what they’re doing?  Those who are merciful are those poor suckers who give to charity and actually think that their ten dollars will make it to the victims.

I say, Blessed is the realist who keeps her money in the bank and her food in her fridge and her heart in her chest.  She’s safe.

But she’s not.

Jesus walks in, sits down, and changes the game.

Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.

Jesus doesn’t stop there.

Compassion is the New Black

The revolutionary message of Jesus centers around themes of mercy, grace, and love. His parables depict people who take things too far, care too deeply, and risk too much. The father embraces his prodigal son. The Good Samaritan helps a man he is predestined to hate. The Good Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to pursue the one lost sheep. Then Jesus embodies this mercy as he looks compassionately on those who would torture and kill him. Forgive them for they know not what they do. Jesus did not call down judgment. He called down forgiveness. Christ, have mercy on us, sinners.

There is a kind of mercy that doesn’t stop at the Live Telethon.  It moves beyond supporting a child in a distant land with a small monthly payment.  It crushes the donated Christmas toy.  This mercy isn’t fazed by collecting change or a pop can drive or even a 5K. The merciful may indeed do these things.  But the real suckers we call The Merciful have no limit.  They give and they forgive and they give some more.

The merciful live in a different place.  An alien world, where they smell like mercy, that musty, acrid aroma that you encounter in the subway station. They share pain. They collect burdens. They invite in lost causes. They have nothing to protect, because they’ve been taken advantage of so many times. They don’t budget for giving, they give out of poverty. Nothing truly belongs to them anyway. From the outside they seem like suckers.

Losers. In fact, the merciful sometimes can’t tell the difference between the people they are helping and themselves. It almost seems as if someone is showing them mercy.

Tough Love

I met a merciful person once. Her name is Christine Moers. She welcomes traumatized kids into her home and she shares her struggles in a blog called Welcome to My Brain. She gives too much. She should take some time for herself. But every day she battles the trauma that plagues her children: Violence. Rage. Fear. Abandonment. Loss. Memories. But her steadfast, merciful spirit has wrestled these foes with great strength. The mercy she has shown her children actually begins to transform their little hearts and minds. After years, she sees progress.  Hope.

One of Christine’s strategies is to hang encouraging signs saying things like, “I will love you forever. No matter what” all over her teenager’s room. One day her daughter went into a rage and expressed her pain by ripping each message, destroying the evidence that someone cares about her. After living a life of trauma, where those who were supposed to love her violated her, she was convinced that she could not accept love from anyone.

Christine would not let that be the last word on her love for her daughter. In the face of the destruction of these temporary messages, she aimed for something more permanent…even on the walls of her borrowed parsonage.  She grabbed a can of spray paint.

Stepping over the piles of torn love notes, Christine sprayed across her daughter’s bedroom walls in huge letters, “Mom loves you.” And across another wall, “4-EVER”, and across another, “You can go but I will never leave you.”

I can hear the hiss of the spray paint. I can smell the paint. The permanence.  Christine, you are wrecking your walls.  Christine, you’ve taken it too far.  Christine, your daughter is just going to do it again. Christine, take care of yourself!  You’ve given enough. Why are showing her mercy?

She chooses, “I will love you forever.  No matter what.”  And then mercy comes. Here Christine describes the moment her daughter re-entered her room…

You turn around periodically to watch your child quickly hide their expression of “WTH??” Then you plop down on their mattress and ask them to join you. You start popping candy into their mouth as you talk to them and sing to them. You tell them those positive thoughts you were thinking on the way home. You tell them what God sees in them and why they were created. You tell them a story. You sing to them. You cuddle and stroke their hair (even the puff sticking straight up because they took out one of their braids in anger during the day … and you know they’re now really regretting it).

Then, you kiss them goodnight. They actually ask you to lean back down so they can kiss your cheek. You tuck them in and turn out the light. You shut the door to set the alarm.

You out-shine their darkness. You out-love their fear and anger. You out-crazy their crazy.

This is mercy.

God bless Christine.  Show her mercy.

When Jesus announces to the world that the merciful will be shown mercy, the suckers of the world find hope.  This is good news.  You losers who walk around with no change in your pockets and who never take a moment to “pamper” yourselves?  God sees you.  You dummies who help people who keep hurting you and others?  You are blessed. You who have filled up your extra space with ungrateful moochers?  Jesus is on your side. You who parent kids whose trauma is not your fault, Jesus is with you.  You who are the first call when family or friends need money or time or babysitting or a listening ear, you will be shown mercy.

Jesus is on your side.

Will I show you mercy? Or will I judge you for not planning ahead or budgeting or taking time for yourself? You know, I may just examine these words of Jesus and open my eyes a bit. I may begin looking at the world around me, finding opportunities to extend the mercy that I have been so freely given. My wallet is full of that kind of currency, the currency of grace. Maybe I can find a way to translate that into tangible, merciful deeds. Maybe.  But I know that the first step is to open my eyes. Lock eyes. Feel the weight of the mercy that has been given to me and let it go.  And it won’t be a loss.