Matthew 5:1-3, 13-16
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry with these words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near (or is at hand).” We usually think of the repentance message coming from John the Baptist, but that is, at its core, Jesus’ message too. Turn around! Go in the opposite direction! Live in such a way that the Kingdom of God is revealed; live in such a way that makes the earth heaven instead of hell. Matthew is writing to a Jewish Christian audience. He combines many of Jesus’ teachings into one sermon and locates Jesus on a mountainside, to elevate Jesus’ teachings to equal the teachings of Moses. Jesus begins his sermon:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of the Bible, translates the first Beatitude:
You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
Peterson reads “poor in spirit” as being at the end of your rope. At the end of all your ordinary resources, at the end of your strength or wisdom, when your options are all gone—then God has room to work in your life. I think that’s true. When we give up trying to play God in our lives, there is finally room for God to reorder or lives so that we really can be healthy.
I’m going to come back to that idea, but first I want to try to honor the original context in which Jesus delivered his sermon. The first century in Palestine was a time of religious and political turmoil. Poverty was a stark reality for the peasant class. The temple was as deeply in Rome’s pocket as the political leaders. Corruption was a fact of life and life was brutal. In a context in which many claimed to be the messianic leader of a rebellion, Jesus’ sermon may have sounded more like the speeches at Occupy Wall Street, than spiritual platitudes we hear. Jesus may have sounded more like the student leaders of the doomed rebellion at the heart of Les Miserable. That’s how the words might have been heard and even shared. But in the mouth of Jesus, the intent would have been to encourage those at the end of their rope to non-violent resistance, which Martin Luther King Jr. imitated in his call for the end of racial discrimination, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is rare for the privileged to rise up on behalf of the poor. Unjust systems (economic, educational, taxation, immigration) often obscure the vision of those of us who are born into privilege and we simply do not see it. We really do respond to one of our neighbors who finds him- or herself at the end of their rope. It’s just so much harder for us to see broken systems that shorten the rope of people we don’t know until they rise up and name the brokenness that may have even benefitted us. Blessed are they for knowing that God’s Kingdom belongs to them too!
As with almost every one of Jesus’ teachings, there is a macro application and a micro application. The micro application takes us into our spiritual centers. We have a tendency to fill up our spiritual core with messages and beliefs that are not healthy. It’s a lot like eating junk food that not only doesn’t satisfy, but damages our bodies over time. We live with messages of inadequacy, of not being loved enough, not being understood, of not being enough, or we build ourselves up by putting others down with messages of superiority, being worth more, deserving more, and a need to acquire. All of those messages appear as the illusions that they are when we get to the end of our rope. When every artifice we’ve created stops working, we finally have room for God to reveal the treasure of our souls and fill us with light and life. It is true that when I get move away from the center of the universe (I don’t know about you, but there are definitely times I am at the center of the universe), I see others as beloved and my compassion grows. When my spirit loses the bling of its prosperity and I get off the treadmill, I know my dependence on the Source of my very being and I don’t have to work so hard to love and be loved. Maybe there is some part of your life that needs to stand up and say, “The Kingdom of God belongs to me too!”
Only when we know that we are beloved, can we be the God flavor in this life. You are salt, even those of you who are poor in spirit. You are light, even those of you who are at the end of your rope. You are God’s beloved, even when your resources are gone and you may not believe it. The Kingdom of God belongs to you. Claim it and don’t surrender to anything that is not God’s love.