Towards the end of the Epiphany season, our lectionary presents us with Jesus’ longest continuous discourse, referred to as the “sermon on the mount” in Matthew (in which Jesus went up and away from the crowds to preach to the disciples only), or the “sermon on the plains” in Luke (in which Jesus came down to the crowds and preached to the disciples in their presence). Today, we read Luke’s version; the one that lacks the Lord’s Prayer, but includes “the woes.”
It seems that Jesus may have preached a similar message on several occasions, and typically only after he fed and healed people. The common element of these two discourses we have in writing is the Beatitudes (“happy are those…”). In most of these statements, Jesus uses OT phrases that he elevates to new levels of humility, spirituality, and compassion. Our encounter with this text at this point of the church year makes sense in light of the Epiphany’s focus on vocation, with which we respond to the mystery of the Incarnation, and anticipate the self-giving of Lent. But note that despite beginning with the word “blessed”, those sentences do not match our ideas of happiness at all, exalting poverty, hunger, sorrow, and persecution. So, here we have some impossible ideals without even a promise of a desirable reward. What kind of religion would have such an unfortunate set of statements as its core text?
As a teenager, I enjoyed creative writing, and I was fortunate to have a supportive teacher who gave us interesting assignments. It helped that she frequently praised my work and read bits of my literary compositions to my classmates, though this did little to foster either my popularity, or humility. But, qne day, my growing self-confidence in interpreting classical works was shattered when she brought to us, a group of secular 14-year-olds of the post-soviet era, a portion of the Bible – the book which few of us had ever read. She told us nothing of its content, context, or genre; yet, assigned to us for that day’s interpretation, of all passages, the Beatitudes! Well, I might have had a Bible sitting on the shelf of my grandfather’s library, and might have opened it once to the first page of Genesis written in the archaic Russian, but the Beatitudes… I remember being utterly mystified by the whole thing that read more like a magic incantation than a teaching meant to inspire someone to follow it. I couldn’t even move past the first statement, which in Russian sounds even more ambiguous than it does in English: is it “the economically poor who are blessed by an extra measure of the holy spirit”, or “those who are somehow lacking in spirit that are somehow blessed”?. And, neither of those possibilities sounded the least bit appealing to me then. When that assignment was returned the next day, nobody’s work was read aloud in the front of the class… if nothing good came out of that episode, at least it made me a little poorer in arrogance!
Some 20 years later, I looked at this passage again, with a very different motivation, and found that most scholars agree that the "poor in spirit" does not mean lacking in either Holy Spirit or religious awareness. A surface reading of this line has been adopted by many to say that if you are indeed economically poor, you might have a more clear sense of your need for God as your provider, and that in itself is a blessing. Those who are not literally poor, would have to find another way to become aware of our need for God in that most profound way, as the source of our existence. This interpretation may be adequate, but it falsely dichotomizes the material and spiritual, and may lead to false humility, which is, in fact, the flip side of pride. For God does not create anyone without a talent, and when we believe our talents to be less valuable than they are, we are both disahinest of ourselves, and disrespectful of God for creating us the way we are.
CS Lewis has put it well: “[God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more or less or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another... rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as his neighbor’s... or a sunrise or a waterfall... [God] would rather that the man thought himself a great architect... and then forgot about it, than that he should spend much time and pains trying to think himself a bad one”. (The Screwtape Letters)
So, if we define and apply the “poverty of spirit” as self-forgetfulness, rather than self-abasement, then we might honor God as the creator of all talents, contribute to the life of others, and respect their talents without losing sight of ours. It is in this stance that the rest of the Beatitudes are rooted: meekness, gratitude, self-sacrifice, forgiveness. These go far beyond cause and effect, command and reward. They point to the truth that we already have an inherent and eternal value that is independent of our earthly status and circumstance. In other words, our love of all selves, including our own, does not lead to everlasting life, but results from it. By belonging to the Kingdom of God, which we do by virtue of having been created in God’s Image, we are enabled to embody the message of love, like Jesus did. Thanks be to God.