Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. These are the opening words of Jesus' famous "Sermon on the Mount," recorded beginning in Matthew 5. And what's easy to miss if you're not really thinking about it, is just what the "poor in spirit" means.
Most of us today read this verse, and those that follow, and we think these are the words of God telling us what we ought to be. We ought to be, we think, poor in spirit. We ought to mourn. We ought to be gentle. We ought to hunger and thirst for God's approval. We ought to keep pure thoughts. We ought to be peacemakers. We ought to be persecuted for the sake of God's name. We ought...we ought...we ought....
But I don't think that's what Jesus is saying in these words. He's not giving us some commandment on how to live. He's not telling us what we should be. He's talking to us as we already are. Because here's what is likely most true about this whole scenario:
The poor in spirit were the audience.
He was speaking to persons who were poor in spirit. He was speaking to those who felt like they didn't have enough of the very spirit of life that they needed. He was speaking to those who longed for the greater things of God but could not escape the emptiness they felt in their souls. They'd gathered to hear Him speak, hoping...hoping He would somehow speak into their emptiness. And He does. Right off the bat. Blessed are you, the poor in spirit who have gathered here today, for yours is the kingdom of Heaven.
He was speaking to persons who were mourning, those who were grieving over their lives. Losses, maybe. Haunting echoes in the vacancies of their souls, maybe. Whatever it was they found themselves without, they were mourning, hoping...hoping for something better. And Jesus tells them it is coming. Blessed are you, those who mourn who have gathered here today, for you shall be comforted.
He was speaking to the gentle, those who lived what we might call quiet and tender lives, but who weren't getting much of a payoff for their gentleness. In a cutthroat world of merchants and politics, they felt like they were falling behind and they wondered, maybe, what it was worth to be a gentle spirit. They came in their poverty, unable to get ahead in this world, hoping...hoping that it wouldn't always be for naught. And Jesus assures them it won't be; their reward is coming. Blessed are you who are gentle, for you shall inherit the earth.
He was speaking to those who hungered and thirsted for God's approval. That's why they'd come to the mountain in the first place. All the rules and regulations of the old law, all the authority and domination of the Pharisees, had left them longing for more in their spirits. They desperately wanted to be able to fulfill something, anything of God and were struggling because the demands were so high. If there was any chance that there was something more satiating for their spiritual appetites, it had to be in this Jesus, so they came hoping...hoping He would feed them. And He promises He will. Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for God's approval, for you shall be satisfied.
The truth is we could keep going through this list, and we will always find these very persons amidst the audience on the mountain. Jesus was talking to the merciful, who maybe felt like they were just giving it away without much of a return on their investment. You shall receive mercy. Jesus was talking to those with pure thoughts who maybe thought this world might have more to offer them if they could be a little more corrupt. You shall see God. Jesus was talking to the peacemakers, those who refused to be drawn into the drama, who maybe wondered if their efforts were even noticed, let alone appreciated. You shall be called children of God. Jesus was talking to those who were persecuted, likely by the leaders and authorities of the church itself, for doing what God approves of, who maybe wondered if they were really doing the good thing. You will receive the kingdom of God. He was speaking to those who were insulted, persecuted, lied about, and gossiped about who had gathered there on the mountain in the hopes of something more.
It's easy for us to read these words and think that God is telling us how to live, that Jesus is laying down a new guideline for the heart of man. To be poor in spirit. To mourn. To hunger. To be persecuted. To make peace and extend mercy and be gentle. And maybe there is a little bit of that. But there's something else going on here, too; there's Jesus, meeting men and women just as they are and speaking life into their empty spaces.
That's more common of Jesus. That's more true to what we see Him doing throughout His ministry. God, particularly the God of the Old Testament, was all about telling people how they should live; the law required it. But Jesus...Jesus came to break that law (by fulfilling it), and He...He was always about meeting people right where they are. Right on the mountain. Poor in spirit and all.
And He tells them the greatest of all truth, the generous word of God Himself:
Blessed are you, right where you are...for I love you and call you blessed.