Summary: Poverty of spirit - humility before God - is essential to authentic faith.
Toeing the Poverty Line
Over the past few weeks we’ve seen picture after picture of devastation and loss, desperation and helplessness. Responses have ranged across the spectrum from courage and compassion and generosity to greed, exploitation, and headline-grabbing. But one thing it has brought home to us all is that when hard times come we are all dependent on the kindness of strangers. And that is a very precarious way to live. The goal of most of us is to be independent. Or at least, dependent only on our own skills and resources. Living on the edge of poverty, one mis-step away from disaster, is a very tense and uncomfortable way to live. It is good stewardship, prudent management, to set aside a comfortable margin to cushion ourselves against the unexpected. But the truth of the matter is that our own skills and resources can only take us just so far. They can only protect us from physical or financial dangers.
Except in times of disaster such as we have witnessed over the past weeks most of us don’t have to worry a great deal about food, clothing and shelter... When you don’t have those, “happiness” runs a poor last in the race. Happiness and survival are one and the same. But once your physical survival is assured, life gets a whole lot more complicated, doesn’t it. Once your feet are dry and your stomach full, you start worrying about other things, like finding work and housing and basically rebuilding your life. And it doesn’t stop there. Once those needs are satisfied, you start looking for other things, things that famous psychologist Abraham Maslow identified as “higher order needs.”
Are you happy? If not, what would it take to make you happy?
“What is happiness?” and “How can I happiness?” are two of the greatest questions facing people in the United States today.
Some people think that having the right things guarantees happiness; others that happiness consists of the freedom to make your own choices. A British group in the 19th century called Benthamites defined happiness as minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But along comes the clinker... a phenomenon called “the hedonistic paradox.” The more time you spend looking for happiness, the less likely you are to find it.
The whole world is longing for happiness, and it is tragic to watch the self-destructive, futile ways in which many people are seeking it. Anything which encourages people to opt for short-term happiness and evade the difficulties of life ultimately adds to their problems. This is where the utter deceitfulness of sin comes in: it is always promising happiness, and it always leads - eventually - to unhappiness. If not for the person who actually made the initial choice, then for the people around them.
It’s not wrong to want happiness. Jesus’ most famous teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, starts out by promising happiness. But he goes on to say that there is only one way to be truly, lastingly happy, and that anyone who wants this kind of happiness had better sit up and listen.
Actually, the word “blessed” doesn’t exactly mean “happy,” although one famous modern preacher has suggested that we call this passage of Matthew the “be happy” attitudes. The Greek word “makarios” really means “fortunate” or “prosperous”... In other words, the person who is “makarios” has something bigger than a temporary feeling; there’s something going on here that makes a significant long-term favorable impact on the quality of his or her life. This type of person is truly happy, is truly “blessed.” This is the sort of person who is to be congratulated, and imitated.
The Sermon on the Mount is 3 chapters long. It’s full of short, pointed examples of behavior Jesus is recommending for his followers. And people often take a single incident, pull it out of context, and try to develop a rule with the illustration as its center. That’s not how this sermon works, though. Sermon illustrations never make sense unattached to the fundamental lessons. There are eight of them, and because each one begins with the word we translate as “blessed”, which in Latin is “Beata,” they are called “the Beatitudes.” Everything in this sermon must be understood in the light of the Beatitudes. They come at the beginning for a reason.
Jesus’ sermon is very carefully organized. Verses 3-16 speak in general terms; the remainder applies these generalities to specific situations. Verses 3-12, the words of the Gospel lesson, comprise the Beatitudes. The first 7 describe the Christian character, that is, poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungry for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart and peaceful. The last Beatitude, “Blessed are those who are persecuted,” portrays the reaction of the world to people who conform to this description. And the next 4 verses describe the general response of the Christian to the world in turn. The remainder of chapter 5 deals with the relationship of the Christian to the Mosaic law, while chapters 6 and 7 expand to cover a variety of other real-life situations, from the religious to the mundane.