Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.–Matthew 5:3
This week, we’re kicking off a series on the Beatitudes, Jesus’ most-famous collection of sermons, found in Matthew 5. It’s an interesting list of what it means to be blessed in Jesus’ mind, but it’s a list of intangibles that seem to add up to being what Jesus is modeling. To be these attitudes, or to Be-Attitude, one might actually begin to look like Jesus, to be a disciple of Jesus.
It’s said that a disciple is one who follows behind his or her teacher so closely, that the sand the teacher’s foot kicks up ends up on the disciple. That would literally mean that the disciple would get dirty with the master’s dirt! So… what would it look like to get dirty with Jesus’ dirt, if he is not only God but also the teacher of all things about God, the one who would help us grow in our faith and what it means to be faithful?
Jesus begins with a word about pride. Nothing like getting right to it!
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Hmmm…
There was a truly obnoxious woman who decided that she was going on a cruise, but none of her friends would go along. Behind her back, they said it was her “me first” attitude. When she arrived at the ticket counter, she barged past the people standing there, whipping her suitcase around, yelling “Me first!” When it was time for dinner the first night, she elbowed others out of the way, shouting “Me first!”
But on the second day, the cruise ran aground between destinations, and the captain of the cruise informed the passengers that they would be ferried to shore or that they’d have to swim. He started to load the elderly and the children on, but the woman practically knocked him overboard, stuffing her suitcase on the lifeboat, grumpily muttering, “Me first!”
After three days, the passengers were shellshocked and scared they’d never be rescued, but rustling in the jungle nearby revealed a band of natives, who gestured at the shipwrecked crew with their spears and motioned that they should follow. The woman screamed, “Me first!” and charged after them.
Back at their village, the natives warmed large pots of water, making feeding gestures toward the passengers and the pots. Soon, they motioned the passengers toward the pots, and our favorite shipwreck-ee screamed, “Me first!”
And the cannibals threw her into the pot.
We don’t always know how to define “humility” but we know how to define what it isn’t. Pride comes before the fall, or as Proverbs 11:2 says, before disgrace. Humility, the author later writes in Proverbs 22:4, is “the fear of the Lord.” But it’s the opposite of the values that are pushed on us by society.
We think being “poor in spirit” sounds a lot like depression, or maybe having poor self-esteem. We think it must mean the other person is weak, and we can’t quite understand why Jesus would lead off his most famous sermon with the admonition to be poor in spirit.
Why would he want us to be poor in anything?
Why would the same man who promised the coming of the Holy Spirit want us to have a deficit in spirit?
What are these Be-Attitudes getting at, anyway?
Maybe it requires reminding ourselves that Jesus himself tended to view the world through a funhouse mirror- or maybe it’s that we’ve been taught to see the world that Jesus saw through the funhouse mirror. Either way, we can’t look at things the same once we’ve seen them from Jesus’ perspective. It’s just too strange!
Maybe that’s why Paul, the former Christ-follower killer and law know it all, wrote these things:
“I am the least of the apostles.” (1 Corinthians 15:9)
“I am the very least of all the saints.” (Ephesians 3:8)
“I am the foremost of sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
I believe that’s because Paul knew that if he put himself in last that he was in good company. If he was backed up, forgotten about, left behind, and ignored, he was with Jesus.
Consider what he wrote in Philippians 2:3-4 to one of the churches he had planted, when he wanted them to be like Jesus: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” He went further to say that Jesus, who was God, didn’t stress his being God but rather, “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant [or a human being],…he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition…” Wow, if we got that… the world would be different, because our perspective would be different.
There’s a story Robert Roberts tells about a game, balloon stomp, that was played in two fourth grade classes. In both classes, a balloon was tied to each student’s leg and the object was to pop all of the other balloons while protecting your own balloon. Last one with a balloon wins. Simple, right?
In the first class, there was absolute bedlam as the students attacked each other’s balloons. Well, at least some of them did. Others huddled along the walls trying to be invisible, but they were hunted down… and popped. The winner was the kid known for being a bully, for being win-at-all-costs. But he played the game the way it was explained.
In the second class, the game went differently. Maybe the students didn’t get the rules. But the balloons, not the children attached to them, were perceived as enemies. One student held her balloon to the floor so that another child could stomp it; he in turn held his down so she could return the favor. Everyone cheered when all the balloons were popped. Everyone… won.
Who really won?
“In humility value others above yourselves…”
There’s a story, some say by C.S. Lewis, about spoons in heaven and hell. In hell, everyone has a long spoon and looks emaciated trying to get their arms twisted around to get the impossibly long spoons of soup into their mouths. In heaven, everyone has a long spoon and feeds someone across from them, until all are fed.
“Value others more than yourselves.”
This, Paul writes, was Jesus’ crowning moment, because he was obedient to God’s will that he die on the cross, because he valued others, and now God has made it that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” From worst to first! Murdered, executed, and betrayed by death on the cross meant for a terrorist, the lowest of criminals, Jesus rose by flipping the world’s perspective of pride and power, with humility.
That seems so basic to the Jesus story. In Matthew 20:16, Jesus even says, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” But consider, if you look back through the passion narratives, through the stories leading up to Jesus’ death while he’s being beaten on, interrogated, and accused, he doesn’t argue. He doesn’t fight back. He doesn’t demand for his day in court.
My father-in-law told me that one day, his students asked him if he minded when someone told him he was wrong. He laughed and said, “I’ve been married for forty years and I’ve had two teenagers– I’m used to it!”
Jesus’ life and death didn’t need a rebuttal. They didn’t need pride getting in the way of his mission or his humility. Jesus knew who he was and that was enough.
But we’re supposed to be humble. We’re supposed to be “poor in spirit.” How in the world can we even be a fraction of a second like Jesus?
I think we need to be more like the apostle Philip and his friend, the Ethiopian eunuch. In Acts 8:26-39, Philip is doing God’s work, minding his own business, and God sends an angel to direct him toward a middle-of-nowhere desert road.
It says while he is on the way, he meets an officer in the court of the Ethiopian queen, who is returning from Jerusalem for worship. This man obviously has seen something about the Hebrew writings, our Old Testament, that catch his attention, and he is sitting there reading the Book of Isaiah in his chariot. And God directs Philip toward this higher up, this leader from another country.
Philip sees what he is reading and asks him if he gets what he’s reading. “Do you understand?” going deeper than “can you read Hebrew?” to “does it speak to your heart?”
“How can I unless someone explains it to me?” replies the man.
So these two men, foreigners and outcasts, sit and discuss Isaiah 53:7-8: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”
The eunuch wants to know more, and Philip explains about Jesus’ life, teachings, and resurrection. And as they go further, they pass by a body of water, and the man asks, “Why shouldn’t I get baptized right now?”
So, Philip baptizes the man.
Two men, headed different places. Two men, poor in spirit. One humble to the gospel, to following the will of God and the teachings of Jesus. One humble enough to admit that he didn’t know everything, to ask for directions [I know, that hurts, I’m a guy!] Two men, who in their dialogue, in their mutually seeking out what they needed to live a fuller, richer, holier life, found community with each other, with God.
If the eunuch is too proud to ask…
If Philip is too proud to go…
One misses salvation, while the other misses the opportunity to be a disciple making disciples.
I’m a pretty big fan of Undercover Boss, the reality show where higher ups in various companies go plainclothes and disguised to see how their company is run on a grassroots level. They often find that the jobs that make their company go are harder than they look! But all of them find hope, and joy, when they see their employees, some working for minimum wage, who want to do their best, who want to share the gospel of their company with a new employee, humbly, faithfully, and with all of their effort.
What if Jesus walks among us today, wondering how the Be-Attitudes, the attitudes we should be, are being pronounced and shared? If Jesus is in plainclothes, looking to see if we are sharing our faith in a way that leads others to believe, if we are poor in spirit to learn more so that our faith would grow and so that others might learn from us?!
What would it look like if we admitted that we are selfish, prideful know-it-alls, and that more often than not, in economics, social status, self-appreciation, and relationships, our attitude is “me first”?
What would it look like today if we assessed our own spiritual depth, and recognized the places where it is too shallow, too poor?
What would it look like today if we prayed that God would make us deeper, richer, fuller in those areas until they were our strengths?
What would it look like if we sought opportunities to serve rather than to be served, to bring others into blessing rather than worrying about being blessed ourselves?
I imagine we’d begin to recognize our spiritual poverty, and in seeing the depths of our need, we might find ourselves staring deeply into the eyes of the God who loves us more than we can yet know.
Paul said, “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). He didn’t say he wanted to win but that he wanted to finish. He wanted to complete the task, to follow through, to be the disciple he was supposed to be.
He didn’t care what place he came in because he was grateful to be part of the race God laid out for bringing people into the kingdom of God.
Where the first would be last, and the last would be first.
Let us be least of the apostles, the very least of all the saints, and the foremost of sinners. Then we will know our place.
In dead last. With Jesus.