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.
(Mat 5:3-10, NIV)

We have as our Gospel reading this morning what is certainly one of the best known and best loved portions of the Bible.

Along with 'The Lord is my Shepherd' and 'For God so love the world ...', these verses from the beginning of Matthew Chapter 5 must be amongst the most frequently quoted words in the entire Bible.

They are traditionally known as the 'Beatitudes':

"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 the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Despite the occasional confusion with the 'cheese-makers' here I think you'll agree that most of us know these (and the other four blessings that accompany them) pretty well. They are amongst the most celebrated words Jesus ever spoke, though I'm not entirely sure why?

I think that for many people it's because these words strike them as being a beautiful (almost poetic) description of the sorts of qualities that God looks for in people?

I used to have a poster on my study wall with the Beatitudes printed on them, and it had an image of a beautiful landscape in the background, so that these Beatitudes appeared almost as a work of art, worthy of reverence.

I can remember too hearing these Beatitudes read out on TV more than once by a man with a deep, soothing voice, and with similar beautiful images running in the background, again reflecting the perception people have of these words as inspirational.

I have an immediate problem with this though. I've never been able to see that there is anything inspiring about having a poor spirit! Mind you, I'm not sure I've ever had anyone satisfactorily describe to me what it means to be poor in spirit either, but it's not something that sounds intuitively attractive.

Being a 'peace-maker' or having 'purity of heart' indeed depict admirable qualities of character, but I've never heard anybody say of their child, for instance, "Oh, he's such a lovely boy. He has such poverty of spirit."

Maybe it loses a lot in the translation. The Bible I was working with yesterday translated this first Beatitude as 'Blessed are the spiritually destitute', but that doesn't help a lot either, does it, for in truth, we generally admire people who are spirited (ie. full of spirit) rather than those who are spiritually bereft?

If the first Beatitude is difficult, the second is even more confusing at this level. To say 'blessed are those who mourn' is pretty much the equivalent of saying 'Happy are the sad', which seems to be just plain self-contradictory!

Of course if these words are intended as poetry we shouldn't be trying to dissect them and scrutinize them as if they were logical syllogisms, and yet I'm not convinced that the Beatitudes of Jesus were ever intended to be a work of art or beautiful in any sense of the word.

I remember Kierkegaard saying that admiring Jesus for His beautiful language is like admiring St Paul for his tent-making skills. Our concern should not be with the beauty of Jesus' words but with their relevance! Jesus didn't give us these aphorisms so that we can admire them but so that we might live them out! And this introduces us to a second approach to the Beatitudes, which sees in them words to live by.

I have a friend who refers to herself as a 'Christian of the Beatitudes' by which she means that while she may not accept all the traditional Christian dogmas about Christ, the cross, the forgiveness of sins and the coming of the Kingdom, here, in the Beatitudes, she finds not only inspiration but direction!

Blessed are the poor in spirit
Blessed are the meek
Blessed are the peacemakers ...

And this woman (while I wouldn't say she was poor in spirit by any stretch of the imagination) certainly does strive to be a peace-maker - devoting herself more or less full-time to the struggle for peace in Israel/Palestine (God bless her).

I didn't check this out with my Islamic friends, but I can see too how this approach to the Beatitudes could fit quite comfortably with the Islamic understanding of Jesus. Prophet Jesus, from an Islamic perspective, is another prophet like Moses who brings His own set of laws, and there seem to be real parallels here between Moses climbing Mount Sinai to deliver his 10 Commandments and Jesus climbing His mountain to deliver these 8 commandments-of-sorts that we remember as the Beatitudes.

The problem with this approach though is that, like the first approach we mentioned, it fits some Beatitudes better than it does others. While it makes sense for Jesus to urge us to be peace-makers and to be merciful, it makes less sense to have Him urging us to mourn and to get ourselves persecuted! And, for that matter, I'm likewise not sure how you exhort someone to achieve greater destitution of spirit?

Now, I'm not wanting to knock those who want to take the Beatitudes as a guide to life. Indeed, I believe that Gandhi found guidance in Jesus' blessing of the meek, and that's fantastic. Even so, I'm not convinced that the Beatitudes were actually intended to be read as a list of commandments or guidelines for life, and this is not only because I don't see Jesus as a law-giver in the Mosaic sense, but rather because not all of these Beatitudes make sense when read that way.

There is another way of looking at these Beatitudes altogether, of course, and it's a way that does make sense, not just of some but of all of the Beatitudes, and this involves looking at them as de-scriptive rather than pre-scriptive.

These two words (descriptive and prescriptive) sound very similar don't they, but they lead us in very different directions. If Jesus' words here are descriptive rather than prescriptive then these Beatitudes are not a list of qualities Jesus is urging us to acquire at all, nor are they any condensed set of commandments, but rather simply a description of the people Jesus was hanging with. And when we see it this way I think it all makes sense.

For we know the types of people that Jesus chose to hang around with, don't we - the weak, the marginalized, the destitute, the oppressed, the sinful, the sorrowing, the mournful and the poor in spirit. These were His people, and I imagine that this would have been a pretty good description of the crowd that gathered around Jesus that day on the mountain.

These were the people Jesus chose to hang with - the poor, the weak, and the marginalized - and so these were the people Jesus chose to bless. And amongst them too of course were His chosen twelve - themselves a poor and marginalized little group, displaying plenty of poverty of spirit, no doubt.

Mind you, I'm not pretending to now have some authoritative understanding of what it means to be 'poor in spirit' but I am saying that we don't need to assume that it's a quality to be admired or sought after either. Even so, if you are poor in spirit (or sorrowful or persecuted) be assured that the blessing of God is being extended to you in Jesus, just as it is to the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and to all who crowd around Him.

This blessing is prophetic of course (we must be clear about that) and as such these blessings are simply an extension of Jesus' preaching of the Kingdom.

Those who weep are blessed not because there is anything blessed about weeping but because soon the Kingdom of God will come where every tear will be wiped away. Likewise those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed because they will be satisfied when the Kingdom finally comes.

The blessed state that Jesus promises to His disciples lies in the future when that day comes such that 'the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea'. (Isaiah 11:9) Even so, our sure and certain knowledge of the coming victory of God gives us hope and strength in the present such that we can experience life in abundance here and now.

Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are those who mourn.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Times may be hard now, but blessing awaits! The wicked may seem to have the upper hand in this world, but the Kingdom of God is coming! And when that Kingdom comes, we who have been hungering and thirsting for justice shall be satisfied!

And so what starts out looking like a list of exhortations to moral excellence turns out to be simply Jesus blessing people right across His community, most especially of course those who have lost out in this world - those who have not gambled on the stock market and made a killing but those who have struggled to get on in this world while maintaining their integrity, the weak, the marginalized, the poor in spirit.

Let me conclude today by letting you know that over the next few weeks in church we are going to be going over the full text of Matthew chapters 5 and 6 - the entirety of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. And if there be some here who feel that I have taken the teeth out of these opening verses of the sermon by robbing them of their moral force, you can be assured that there are plenty of commandments and exhortations and moral imperatives still to come!

Indeed, there is no getting around the fact that in this Sermon on the Mount, as a whole, Jesus does lay down for us a rigorous set of standards that we are supposed to live by. And He doesn't just pass his ideas on to us as pieces of friendly advice either, but he commands us, "You must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect!" (Matthew 5:48)

There are plenty of commandments and exhortations and moral imperatives to come in the Sermon on the Mount, but that is why it is so significant, in my opinion, that the whole sermon begins, not with a call to action, not with a prophetic warning, nor with any threat of Divine judgement, but rather with a simple series of blessings.

And who is to be blessed? The pure and the faithful? Yes, they are blessed! The poor and the marginalized? Yes, they are blessed. The sorrowing and the persecuted? Yes, they are blessed too. Indeed, everybody who gathered around Jesus that day received His blessing just as everybody who cares to gather around Him today receives His blessing still.

For the Kingdom of God is coming and things are going to change, and the poor and the lowly are going to be lifted up and the high and the mighty brought down, and the meek, the hungry and all of us who are poor in spirit shall be blessed. Amen!

Sermon first preached at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, January 30, 2011

Author's Bio: 

Rev. David B. Smith
(the 'Fighting Father')

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four