“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
--Matthew 5:3 NRSV
As I explained in yesterday’s email, according to the liturgical calendar the first Sunday after “All Hallow’s Eve” (Halloween) is All Saints Sunday. Since churches like ours don’t have capital “S” saints but rather use the word “saint” the way the Apostle Paul did, which is referring to all Christians as lower case “s” saints, I like to make All Saints Sunday a time to remember people on our faith journeys who have made a difference in our lives.
The traditional Gospel reading for All Saints Sunday is Matthew 5:1-12. This passage has come to be called the Beatitudes (see yesterday’s email for my explanation why). Each of these phrases begins with the words often translated as “Blessed are. . .“ These are not instructions to be poor in spirit, mourners, meek, persecuted, etc., but rather declarations of the way God sees the world. Jesus depicts God’s reality in a way which is contrary to how we understand how the world works.
Jesus says, “Contrary to how the church usually does things, those who are poor in spirit are actually blessed by God.” This doesn’t really make sense. Elsewhere Jesus urges his disciples to be full of faith. The Holy Spirit is sent to the first Christians and being full of it seems like a good thing. Yet, Jesus declares those who have little spirit already have the kingdom of heaven. Say what?
In my lifetime of being in various kind of churches and attending or officiating a whole lot of Christian funerals, I have often heard people praised as a person of faith. “He was a man of faith.” “She was a woman of faith.” Oftentimes, by this phrase they mean the person was a dedicated Christian or an involved church member. Sometimes I’ve heard the phrase used to imply the person was a superior sort of Christian, especially faithful, as if she or he possessed some degree of holiness or God’s blessing that is more than others. I have never heard anyone praised at their funeral as “poor in spirit.”
Jesus’ strange declaration that those who don’t seem to have much faith or spirit already possess the Kingdom of Heaven makes a little more sense when we consider what else Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). A little while after the Beatitudes, Jesus has this to say about giving alms (giving to others in need):
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others.”
He then has this to say about prayer:
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”
He then says this about fasting:
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”
Jesus seems particularly critical of those who make a show of their religion. Elsewhere he declares that God hears the prayer of a humble sinner over a self-righteous person. He says tax collectors, prostitutes and others singled out as committing worse sins than others are entering the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of the most important religious people.
What this means is that the celebrity pastors and sycophantic religious leaders offering cover for corrupt political leaders and the TV preachers asking for money are not the blessed ones. In fact, according to God’s point of view, the most visible Christians in society are further away from the Kingdom of Heaven than the people they condemn. If we take Jesus seriously, then when we make our spirituality a contest, we have already missed the point.
People who use religion to acquire power, money, celebrity and fame “have received their reward” and it is not being a part of what God is up to in this world or the next.
People who use their faith to feel superior over others, condemn others, judge others and exclude others “have received their reward” and it is not the Kingdom of Heaven.
But people who struggle with their faith and even question whether God exists, don’t understand why there is so much suffering in the world, own their own faults, mistakes and the pain they have caused others, and demonstrate humility, grace and love to others whoever they are—these kind of people, “the poor in spirit,” have a different kind of reward.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851