I’ve mentioned previously that I feel God wants to speak to us personally and significantly in the season we’re in, and do so through the sermon on the mount. He keeps bringing it up all around me, that has to be a sign. Last night we started to dig into the Beatitudes with the small small group we’re in (with one other couple).
Last night I felt very poor in spirit. A great-aunt died this week and while I would like to go to the funeral (a 5 hour drive each way) it seems difficult because of all the other “stuff” that’s bugging me. The truck has an engine valve that won’t close and it’s already spent the night in the shop. Projects at work are falling behind, and we’re losing a staff member; I have a contract negotiation that’s been drawn out for almost two years now and is starting to turn more sour than it has been, finally reaching what is basically an ultimatum. The repair estimate for the tile in our shower is higher than we expected ($2k+), and our oldest daughter became ill the day before yesterday with a swollen lymph gland… one of those things where the doctor lists all the things it could be, and the worst ones play through your mind for hours until they finally narrow the field for you to the “less bad” possibilities, but still it eats away at you while you watch your child visibly in pain. I left work early… but let’s just sum up and say I felt completely sapped, and very much poor in spirit. Thankfully my daughter is up and about and looking much better today, but still can’t turn her head to either side. These are just some of the things bearing down at the moment, things that make me want the easy yoke and the light burden.
So of course I knew we were having these friends over last evening, intending to talk together about Matthew 5. I also received Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy in the mail earlier this week and noted right away that he had a chapter on the Beatitudes, so I sat down with my NET Bible and Chapter 4 of Dallas Willard. I read through the Beatitudes, then started reading Willard. There are some books that you can get your money’s worth only if you resell the book after you’ve read it, and there are others that prove their worth in just a few pages. There are a rare few that can change your life. The Divine Conspiracy has all the hallmarks of one of those rare few; Richard Foster places it in the company of writings by Deitrich Bonhoeffer, John Wesley, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine of Hippo. I can’t wait to get into the rest of it. A relevant excerpt:
Standing around Jesus as he speaks are all kinds of people who have no spiritual qualifications at all. You would never call on them when “spiritual work” is to be done. There is nothing about them to suggest that the breath of God might move through their lives. They have no charisma, no religious glitter or clout. They “don’t know their Bible.” “They know not the Law.” …they are “mere laypeople,” who at best can fill a pew or perhaps an offering plate. …They are the first to tell you they “really can’t make heads or tails of religion.” They walk by us in the hundreds or thousands every day. They would be the last to say they have any claim whatsoever on God. (p.100-1)
Willard goes on to talk about how translators struggle with the concept of spiritual poverty, to the point where some translations (e.g., NLT et al; cf. The Message which doesn’t catch it either) come out saying that you are blessed if you understand your need for God… not really the same concept as “poor in spirit.” Willard rightly points out that if the Greek language needed to express that the important thing was to recognize one’s need, it is more than capable… but here it just doesn’t say that.
So I never got past verse 3, and this all became discussion fodder later in the evening. The mistranslations of Matthew 5:3 serve to put the blessedness into our grasp, such that there is thereby something we can do to merit or earn the blessing. This notion is reflected in many other common theologies or teachings… reasons given as apologetic for honoring one’s father and mother, for tithing, and for living in unity (harmony) with each other are all based in this notion that God conforms to a formula of which we can avail ourselves. We looked at the prayer of Jabez (the verse, not the book) and considered the mass appeal of the book, which again is based on the notion that following the rules will guarantee results (whether or not it’s stated that strongly or clearly). Turns out that in the text there isn’t really a connection necessary between the prayer and anything that Jabez actually did or requested; Jabez prayed, and God granted the request… it’s no more complicated than that. No matter how many books were sold, there is no formula. As if Job could have read the book and followed the formula. Oh, please.
We discussed the common phrase “God is no man’s debtor” which failed to turn up in our searches of the Bible… turns out the closest it comes to inspiration is Spurgeon. The problem is that it’s often quoted as evidence or illustration that if we do something for God, he will respond to repay his “debt” to us and grant us the reward for our action, and therefore not be in debt to us. Unfortunately the statement is only true if one understands that God is not our debtor because he does not owe us anything. Ever. What could we possibly ever do or offer to God that would cause him to become indebted to us? The notion is farcical.
We so much want to reduce God to a formula… do this and God will do that. We can’t seem to conceive of the notion that a God constrained by such a formula is far too small to be an object of our worship. If he is bound to respond in a formulaic way at our whim, the real question becomes which one of us is God. What folly.
Summary observation made at this point: it says “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and not “Rewarded are the poor in spirit.”
In our discussion, the subject of idolatry came up somewhere around this time… in idolatry, one does things to appease the idol and receive (or prevent) whatever favour is being sought from the god. There is a formula and there are rules which the worshipper follows and then the god responds. Our God is not an idol, and cannot be reduced to this kind of relationship, as though we can figure him out and get him to do what we want by following rules. I have a friend who has often observed, “I’m glad that I have a God I cannot understand, because if I could understand him, then I could give him advice.”
So we come to the poor in spirit. The Bible I was reading gets the correct literal translation, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but then deems it necessary to add a study note explaining that Jesus is talking about the “pious poor,” and then cites a list of Psalms as examples. This is unfortunately a bit of a leap.
Who knows what was on the minds of the crowd around Jesus as he taught the Sermon on the Mount? I do wonder though, if they had just seen him healing people and were asking themselves and each other if he might be the Messiah, or at least a prophet. They were unschooled, not like the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, so how could they know? They were poor in spirit, not like the “righteous” Pharisees and religious leaders who knew all about these things. They were downtrodden, not people who would normally be asked to render an opinion on whether or not the man before them was a prophet. Laypeople, “they have no charisma, no religious glitter or clout.” (These were the type of common people who Martin Luther determined should have the scriptures in their own language, even if they didn’t have the theological training to “understand” them.)
And then Jesus sits down and tells them that none of this matters, the Heavenly Kingdom is theirs, it is near them. It is for them. Isaiah 61 tells us this is the reason he came… for them. For us.
I observed that Jesus seems to be alarmingly inclusive. Not in the “everyone gets into Heaven” sense, but in the sense that the Kingdom comes to everyone… people get healed and then go away without hearing him teach, without ever “responding to the gospel.” Whoa. That’s an illustration of what Jesus says here: if you’re poor in spirit, the Heavenly Kingdom is there for you. Not “if” something, the way we so often read it.
There’s no command here to become poor, just a heartening word from Jesus, to those who are already poor in spirit, the Heavenly Kingdom is here for you. Simple.