Blessed are the Poor in Spirit (part 2 of 9) – Matthew 5:1-16; Isaiah 6:1-8

Last week we began this series of messages by looking at how Jesus mirrors Moses in the first five chapters of Matthew. Now we are on a mountainside with one greater than Moses hearing a word from God about being his people – his kingdom. This “new” word is more than another external law or a bunch more things to do; rather it opens the characteristics, the attitudes, the transformation of the new Israel, the followers of Jesus Christ. Here is the ethics of the kingdom of God – a summary of what the law and prophets and gospel produce in a redeemed and truly human person in God’s kingdom. Law is about what we have to do. This is about what we are, what we need to be.

And all of this is confusing, counter-intuitive, and up-side-down. Jesus called his disciples to him – this newly constituted Israel and described eight characteristics of the mature and sanctified Christ-follower – people of whom the kingdom of God is. Let’s try to define the pieces so we can begin to understand.



“Blessed” …. I had a supervisor when I was in training to be a pastoral counselor who told us that we need to assume that people spent 100% of their time attempting to make themselves happy. Though cynical, he may be close to the truth as we observe how people around us function. Jesus said something radically different about functioning in God’s kingdom. “Blessed…” the word is rich in meaning: blessed by God, content, secure in God, happy, complete, fulfilled.

This is certain what everyone wants, works for, dreams about for themselves and their children. What does it take to be happy? Enough success to feel secure? A retirement program that allows us to do all the things we couldn’t do when we were working 60 hours a week? Admiration from others? Popularity? A great education for the kids? Lots of attention from other people? Power and control over our little piece of the world? The American dream – work hard, get rich, be secure? Health? An adoring family? People’s love and gratitude? Being the “best” at something? What gives us happiness? OK, in our deepest hearts we suspect that there is not enough of any of these to maintain our happiness even if we give our life to it.


Poor in spirit

So Jesus turns it all up-side-down: to be truly happy, blessed, fully and truly human again you need to become poor in spirit. Poor? Doesn’t this word frighten us? POOR? POVERTY? That has to be a contradiction, a paradox, or an oxymoron.  To understand this let’s think first just about being poor. When we see extreme poverty we are moved to help.  It is so awful compared to our existence we can hardly imagine.  It scares us. Look at this 1 minute clip to make our point…….  We saw the anxiety producing words: poverty is – hunger, lack of shelter, no education, no health care, no choices, powerlessness. Isn’t this what we fight to avoid?

Happy are the poor in spirit? Spiritual poverty … spiritual poverty is the recognition, is the deep self-knowledge, that we stand before a Holy, Almighty, God as a beggar with nothing to offer. This is the exact opposite of all sinful human pride, of arrogance that tells us the illusion that we are independent and in control. This is what the prophet Isaiah realized as he stood before God in 6:5: “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

It is all upside down. We judge people and success and value and class of people around their wealth. Jesus says – they have none, and when they know that they will be happy!? I am reminded of Jesus looking at the churches in Revelation. He comes to Laodicea in 3:15-17 and says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich: I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”


Happy is Free

OK, so what is happy about? How can this poor in spirit stuff add up to happy or blessed? In the humility of understanding that we have nothing, in the awareness of our total dependency on God, we are free. FREE? Free to live in a thousand gospel-like ways, ways in which people who have the illusion they are rich are not free. For instance, if we are poor in spirit, have the right view of ourselves we are free not to worry and be anxious because we are trusting God to give us what we need that we cannot give ourselves. We are free not to try to control everything because we know that is an illusion. We cannot really control anything but ourselves. We are free to value other people. We are free to forgive, free to allow others to be broken because we know ourselves and give only what we also need.

And ultimately, beyond all those things we are free to receive: receive anything and everything God might give us, receive anything and everything our Father who knows our needs and is outrageously generous might offer us, receive as wonderful gifts that fill our joy. Here is the wonder of what Jesus is saying: if we are poor in spirit, poor in the inside, not having any illusions about who we are, but aware of our total dependency on God, then we are free to be – to become truly human again. We can receive from God and depend on God as we were made in the first place. We are then ready to know the blessing of the joy that Jesus won in offering himself to bring us back to God.

Jesus wants us to reflect on that – happy – blessed – complete – whole – contented are the poor in spirit who know everything they are and have is received.  And once that get through to us – that everything we receive is gift: gift we don’t deserve, gift freely given, then we become rich in gratitude and joy as we use and develop and enjoy and share the abundance of gifts  — owning and deserving nothing.


Blessed are the poor in spirit, because the kingdom of heaven is for them or of them.

When Jesus came teaching he said “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”, or “the Kingdom of God is near.” That kingdom, God’s eternal rule came personified in Jesus. The structure of the language here says that God’s kingdom is “for” or “of” the poor in spirit. He came with power and wisdom to defeat the powers of evil in our lives and world. However, his atonement for us, his servanthood, becoming sin, suffering and dying established the reign of God in a new way in the lives of his people.

The Kingdom of God. We are kingdom people. We belong to his kingdom first of all – before any other political power or state or government.   We sense that we are called to bring about the kingdom. We pray for it in the Lord’s Prayer: “May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” What did those 1st century Jews here when Jesus talked about the kingdom? They, of course, thought about restoring the glory of Israel by reinstating the throne of David and throwing out the Romans.  This would bring the promised Messiah. So they were doing everything they could to hasten the kingdom of God. How did they attempt to do that? We need to pay careful attention to this because we see parallels among us.

  • The first group was the Zealots who championed the way of violent revolution. They would usher in the kingdom of God by sword and spear, by slaying the enemy. They beatitude would be “blessed are the physically strong, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
  • The Pharisees championed bringing in the kingdom with religious observance. They believed by scrupulous adherence to every jot and title of the law they would bring the kingdom of God. If they could just get everyone to do it right God would have to listen. “Blessed are the religiously strong, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
  • A third group were the Essenes who championed flight from the world. They would usher in the kingdom by setting up safe cities in the desert away from the world. Their beatitude would be “blessed are those who are strong enough to renounce the world, leave it behind and create a safe place where they can create the kingdom of heaven.”
  • Finally, there were the Sadducees who believed they could hastening the kingdom with political cunning and gaining political power. They did not want to fight like the Zealots or hide like the Essenes, but instead get seats of power in the world. Their beatitude: Blessed are the politically powerful, for they can force the kingdom of heaven on the world.

These were the four ways in Jesus’ world. Any of it sound familiar? And what did he think of them? He astonished all his hearers: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. In other words, the happy ones who are given the kingdom are not those who sit near the seats of power, not the religiously strong, not the militarily strong – but those who know they are poor and powerless. He went the direct opposite direction from the people of his day. This was his way of being human, being the faithful people of God. How did this work?

They were called to bless the world, and they were trying to kill it with violent revolution. They were called to liberate people and they were enslaving them with rules and religious observance. They were called to be a light to the world and they were putting their light under a bush in the desert, in their own little private development. They were called to be distinct from the world and they were yoked with it in all they were doing. He brought the kingdom of God by caring for the downtrodden and rejected in society. He brought the kingdom of God with a cross, suffering, and death. God brought his kingdom in the power of his resurrection in our lives. The poor in spirit bring the kingdom of God with their compassion, with their hospitality, with the loving spirit of the early church, with the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven as God builds it in the hearts and lives of his people one person at a time. The unfaithful still want to build the kingdom with power or politics or oppressive religion or living their lives in some bubble in attempts to hide from the world. We are called to be poor enough in spirit to receive. Are we? The program for building God’s kingdom, for being truly human in an inhumane world is turning the other cheek to your enemies, going an extra mile, giving your shirt too if they demand your cloak, and forgiving. The program for the kingdom is confession instead of arrogance and compassion instead of judgment. The program for the kingdom is being a light in the world and serving the poor, the down and out, so that the reign of God can break through. The goal is serving not winning.

Jesus said, Blessed, happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. It makes no sense until we understand the gospel and see Jesus who won the kingdom by being willing to suffer and die for you and me. We are now called to be his ambassadors, the children of God, the poor in spirit who understand that everything we do and have and are is a gift from his hand. We then understand that poverty of spirit is owning the wealth of the kingdom.

Jesus, like Moses, gave us the Word from God on a mountainside. Are we able to hear him, or are we too engrained in building the kingdom our way? It all begins with how we see ourselves – anxious, fearful owners or in poverty of spirit receiving everything from God and using it for him with joy. Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.