One of my all-time favorite TV shows was Seinfeld. I say “was” because I don’t watch it much anymore. There no reason, it’s just not in my schedule. Besides, I’ve got most episodes memorized. Seinfeld brags the show is about nothing. Yet, everything that happens in life can be related to a Seinfeld episode. One of these days I’m going to write an entire Bible study curriculum based on the TV show.
In one popular episode things are not going really well for George. (Actually, in most episodes things don’t go well for George.) George in seen standing on a pier, leaning on a railing, overlooking the water, and reflecting on his life. His conclusion is that his life has not turned out the way he expected it to. Later, in the corner diner where everyone hangs out, George announces to Jerry and Elaine, “Every decision I have ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be.” Jerry then tells him, “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite must be right.” With those words, and for the length of the episode, George does the exact opposite of what he would normally do, with surprisingly positive results.
For some reason, when I read the Beatitudes, I think about that particular Seinfeld episode. In a lot of way, what Jesus tells us in the Beatitudes is the exact opposite of how most of us think and live. I wonder if, like George, our lives would be better if we did the exact opposite of what we usually do? It’s worth an experiment, don’t you think?
Transition to Text
Last week we began a journey together that will take us through the entire Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). I’ve titled the series, A Mountain of a Sermon. Jesus had been traveling throughout Galilee, healing the sick, delivering the oppressed, and ministering to people most others had ignored or given up. As a result, a large crowd of mostly poor, hungry, and sick people gathered around Him. When Jesus saw the crowd “he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying…” (Matthew 5:1-2).
That’s how this mountain of a sermon begins. The most notable part of His sermon is the first part, the Beatitudes,Matthew 5:3-12. Jesus says…
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Wow! Nine statements preceded by the word “blessed.” Each statement is the exact opposite of what we usually consider a “blessed” life. Each statement is counter-cultural. Each statement describes what life is like in God’s kingdom. A lot has been written on what it means to be “blessed.” Jesus’ words harken back to Old Testament passages like Psalm 1:1-3 that reads, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers” Or the prophet Jeremiah who said, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him” (Jeremiah 17:7). I think the simplest idea behind what it means to be “blessed” is to be “approved” and promised “favor” because of one’s heart for God. The worst understanding of “blessed” is to think it simply means “happy.” A person is blessed by God, approved by God, and shown favor by God if they trust in God and have a heart for Him, regardless of their outward circumstances. A person experiencing poverty and hunger and sorrow and persecution and insults is blessed by God, approved by God, and favored by God because they still trust in Him, and maybe actually trust Him more, because of the hardships that life has thrown his or her way. To be able to look down the gun barrel of life and say, “It is well with my soul,” is a blessing.
This is countercultural. This is the opposite of how we usually think. Imagine one night before you go to sleep you pray, “Lord, today was a difficult day. I pray tomorrow will be better. I pray tomorrow will be a day of blessings.” Then, the next day, on your way to work, you have a flat tire. You are late to work, again, and are fired. Later, you receive bad news from the doctor. Even later, you get an email from a friend who insults you and betrays you. That evening you watch the news only to hear about another mass shooting and that we are now at war with another country. And, oh yea, your dog ran away. No one in their right mind would consider that to be a day of blessings. But if through it all you continue to trust in God and live a life pleasing to Him. Guess what? You are blessed beyond measure. You are approved by God and God has favored you. God’s promises are based on God alone. Not your circumstances! So, get your eyes off your circumstances and focus on God.
In the words of the psalmist, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore” (Psalm 121).
The Blessings of Poverty
The very first Beatitude says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Let’s stop here for a moment because all the other blessings may flow out of this single blessing.
The Greek word translated “poor” is ptochos. The root of ptochos is ptosso, which means “to crouch or cower like a beggar.” So, the word for “poor” that Jesus uses means to be really, really poor. It means to be so destitute that you are completely dependent on begging to survive. Many in the crowd surrounding Jesus, because of their afflictions, would have been beggars, and Jesus was saying they were blessed. Jesus uses their real life poverty to teach a real life spiritual lesson. He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” What does that mean?
In Mark 18:17 Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never inherit it.” I suggest to you that the best way to understand what “poor in spirit” means is the same way we understand what Jesus means by saying we should have the same type of faith as a child. What is it about the faith of children that we should mimic in our own faith so we can enter heaven? Likewise, what can we learn from extreme poverty that will help us trust in God more than we trust in our circumstances? What are the blessings of poverty that all of us need to experience?
First, people in extreme poverty are blessed because of their dependence. The poor know they cannot survive alone. The poor know their greatest need is God. The poor also know they need other people. More often than not, the physical needs of the poor are met by other people who are poor. It is the poor’s dependence that is a blessing. People in poverty recognize their need to trust in God to meet those needs. But they are also blessed because they live in solidarity with other people in need who trust completely in God. One scholar has written, “The antitheses of the ‘poor in spirit’ is the rich oppressor…We need to remind ourselves that each beatitude is a reversal of cultural values: the self-dependent or wealthy oppressor is at odds with the economy of the kingdom.”
Second, people in extreme poverty are blessed because of their simplicity. This does not mean their lives are easy, quite the contrary, people in poverty have a very hard life. It simply means they don’t have the time to worry about things that don’t really matter. When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, when you do get a meal, you are not worried about presentation. When you don’t have anything, you are not afraid to lose everything. You know the saying, “More money, more problems.” It is the poor’s simplicity that is a blessing. Likewise, our relationship with God. Often times, we make it far more complicated than it needs to be. Spiritually we are bankrupt, but God in His riches of mercy and grace redeems us through faith in Jesus Christ. By grace alone. In Christ alone. Through faith alone. It really is that simple.
Third, people in extreme poverty are blessed because of their humility. This is not to say that a poor person is automatically humble, but poverty does have a way of keeping you humble. Concerning the rich, Paul warned Timothy, “Command those who are rich in this world not to be proud. Tell them to hope in God, not in their uncertain riches…” (1 Timothy 6:17). Proverbs reads, “Better the poor whose walk is blameless than the rich whose ways are perverse”(Proverbs 28:6). James writes, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10). It is the poor’s humility that is a blessing. I think it is easier to be humble when you are poor than when you are rich. But regardless of where a person is economically, we all came to faith in Christ through humility. To be “poor in spirit” includes walking in humility. A person who does so is “blessed,” or approved, by God.
Fourth, people in extreme poverty are blessed because they understand the importance of community. Allow me, for a moment, to paint with a broad brush in order to make a point: Drive, or walk, through any poor or low-income community, in the States or in a Honduras, and you will notice people outside talking and fellowshipping (or gossiping). You will see kids playing outside. If it’s a nice, warm day, you will smell all kinds of different foods being cooked, and, of course you will hear music. Very loud music! If you show yourself to be kind and friendly, you will be invited in, or given a hamburger or a piece of fish, or a tamale. It’s a community, and they understand the importance of community.
Drive, or walk, through a wealthy, or high-income community, in the States or in Honduras, and you will notice locked doors and privacy fences and gated neighborhoods. Very few people will be outside. Most of the residence will remain inside, especially if they see a stranger walking or driving around. Stay in those neighborhoods to long, and someone will call the police on you. Everything in that community says, “You are not welcome here.” In reality, it’s not a community. It’s a neighborhood. And it’s full of lonely people!
It is the poor’s understanding of the importance of community that is a blessing.
What we learn from people in poverty that we can apply to being “poor in spirit,” is the importance of community. The New Testament word for this is koinonia, and refers to the deep fellowship we should have with each other because of our shared experience in Jesus Christ. The Bible says that in this community of believers we call church we are to “love one another” (John 13:34); “honor one another” (Romans 12:10); “accept one another” (Romans 15:7); “serve one another” (Galatians 5:13); “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2); “forgive each other” (Ephesians 4:2); and “encourage each other” (1 Thessalonians 4:18). We can learn a lot about the importance of community from people living in poverty.
My most recent trip to Honduras was different then all the trips I had taken previously. I went to a different part of the country, an area called Olancho, which was mainly a rural mountainous area. Most of the people in Olancho live in extreme poverty. But they modeled for me what Jesus must have had in mind when He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 6:10). These people showed me dependence, simplicity, humility, and community. And they fed me more than anyone should be allowed to eat. One day we went way up to the mountains to visit some pastors and churches. These people had nothing, but they insisted on feeding us a meal. A meal they had obviously saved up for their “special guests.” Our host pastor fed us breakfast that morning, and told us we would be having lunch at one of these mountain churches. But between breakfast and lunch, driving through the mountains, we made five visits. Guess what? Between breakfast and lunch, I had five meals, and some of the best coffee in the world. One pastor, who made his own coffee to sell to support his family, gave me two-pounds of his coffee to bring home. They call this kind of coffee, “Café de pallo,”or, “Coffee from the tree.” I call it, “Café all gone now.”
Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). The “kingdom of heaven” is the blessings that come from following God in this life as well as the next life. When we live out the blessings of the poor—dependence, simplicity, humility, community—regardless of our economic standing, we show what it means to be a follower of Jesus and a citizen of God’s kingdom. Remember, Jesus prayed, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
May we become more like Jesus by being “poor in spirit.”
 Scott McKnight, The Story of God Bible Commentary: Sermon on the Mount, 2013, p. 35. Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI.