Sermon for 1/29/2011
Text: Matthew 5:3-12
When I was in middle school, my dad got season tickets to see the Houston Rockets at the Summit where they played in Houston. It was an amazing experience to go and see my hero Hakeem Olajuwon “dream shake” and juke his opponents around the basket. When I finally returned to Houston a few years ago, I drove by where the Summit had been and Hakeem’s face had been replaced on the billboard by a guy named Joel Osteen. The Summit was no longer a basketball arena but an enormous megachurch called Lakewood. I don’t know if you guys have ever heard of the prosperity gospel, but Joel Osteen is one of its major proponents. I’m not sure I understand it exactly but it seems based on this concept that the more money you put in the plate, the more God is gonna give you, and if you’ve got lots of money, it’s because God is happy with you. This gospel works great, when you’re the preacher. You’re welcome to try it out next time we pass the plate around. I’m a little biased against the prosperity gospel though, because I miss Hakeem the Dream and I resent his home court turning into a megachurch.
In Jesus’ day, the prosperity gospel looked different than today. They didn’t have self-help books written by millionaire megachurch pastors. What they did have were self-help proverbs that got circulated around in the ancient wisdom tradition, usually starting out with the phrase “Happy are those who…” The way to be happy was to follow the proverb and try to cultivate the habits or personality traits of those it described as being happy. So Jesus probably turned a few heads when he shared his Beatitudes: “Happy are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted; happy are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth; happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Happy are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Happy are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Happy are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Happy are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
I imagine you’re used to hearing the Beatitudes start off with the word “blessed” rather than “happy.” Well, the word used in Greek is makarios, which means to be privileged or fortunate. The Greek word for blessing in a religious sense is eulogos, the basis for our word “eulogy.” The reason that makarios usually gets translated ‘blessed’ rather than ‘happy’ in English is because it refers to someone’s fortunate life circumstances rather than just a positive emotional state. To be makarios is to be prosperous, whether or not you’re smiling about it. So what Jesus is saying is not simply that if you’re poor and meek, you should put on a happy face and try to make the best of it. It’s more radical than that: he’s saying that poverty is prosperity. In other words, the original prosperity gospel of Jesus said the opposite of what today’s prosperity gospel says.
Now I suspect you noticed that Jesus doesn’t just say “happy are the poor.” In Matthew, he says “poor in spirit,” though in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus does just say “poor.” Some people get up in arms about the way that Matthew added the phrase “in spirit,” suspecting him of trying to spiritualize Jesus’ words and take away Luke’s social justice message that God uniquely favors the poor. But I don’t think it’s far-fetched to suspect that Jesus probably said it more than one way on different occasions. In any case, being “poor in spirit” isn’t necessarily less serious than being “poor.” On the mission trips I’ve been on, I’ve met many people who were materially poor but spiritually rich. It often gave me the naïve impression that if only I didn’t have money, I could be spiritually rich too. There seems to be little excuse for being spiritually poor when you’ve got money. Doesn’t that make you an ungrateful brat? If you’re poor in spirit, then you’re depressed no matter how your life appears from the outside. Yet Jesus says that the “poor in spirit” are actually blessed.
So how in the world is it blessed to be “poor in spirit”? Christians have wrestled with this question throughout the centuries. There is a prevailing tendency, begun by ancient theologian Gregory of Nyssa, to turn the Beatitudes into a progression of eight steps in your spiritual journey. Your spiritual journey begins with a stage of humility when you realize that you’re poor in spirit and need God. You then enter into a stage of mourning over your sins. After this, you arrive at a state of meekness, in which you are able to submit to the will of God, who then instills in you a hunger for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, and the yearning to make peace. Ultimately the zenith of the Christian’s spiritual journey is to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake and martyred, thus following Jesus all the way to the cross.
Many Christian theologians have taken this allegorical interpretation of the Beatitudes as representing stages of Christian life. I respect this interpretation, and I think it has value, but I’m hesitant to let it be the only interpretation of these words of Jesus. What happens if you feel “poor in spirit” (which is stage 1) because you’re “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (which is stage 8)? Is that like when you spin the wrong number in Chutes and Ladders and you have to move your piece back to the beginning of the game? I also struggle with the assertion spoken by no less than the founder of Methodism, John Wesley himself, that “those who mourn” are not grieving “on account of some worldly trouble,” but are “they that mourn after God” and the gap that remains between God’s perfection and our sinful nature. I think Jesus wanted to comfort everybody who mourns, whether it’s over our sinfulness, the loss of a loved one, or any other life circumstance that has us feeling sad. The Beatitudes can be both a comfort to those who need comforting and a challenge to those who need challenging.
Whether they are stages of Christian life or just words of comfort to hurting people, the heart of the Beatitudes is the basic Christian truth that our utter inadequacy is paradoxically what empowers us to do God’s work. To use the words of Paul, God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. When you feel helpless and poor in spirit, whether it’s because you’re overworked, you’re missing someone you love, you’re taking care of everyone except yourself, or if you just feel like you’re worthless, then you are in a better position to receive the Holy Spirit and be moved by God than people who think they have mastered the art of living. John Wesley preached that “the foundation of all [Christianity] is poverty of spirit.” If you’re feeling weak right now, you’re actually in a state of higher spiritual prosperity than the people who are pretending to be strong, because God can actually do something with you.
People who aren’t poor in spirit aren’t much use to God because they don’t feel like they need God even if they throw God’s name around a lot. If I’m self-righteous, then I’m not going to hunger or thirst for righteousness. If I don’t feel like I need God’s mercy, I’ll have a harder time showing mercy to others. If I think that I’m right all the time, chances are I’m not going to be a peacemaker when disagreements arise and I might feel persecuted but I won’t really be suffering for righteousness’ sake. This is the way that the false prosperity gospel of our world shapes us to be – people who think their personal success is life’s ultimate goal and who trust in the power of their own positive thinking to get there. Of course, the secret is that we aren’t actually surrounded by the more successful, confident competitors we think we are; it’s a masquerade ball where everyone is trying to hide from each other how scared and meek they really feel.
So for those of us who want to be liberated from this world of fake prosperity, here is Jesus’ prosperity gospel: you’re better off when you’re empty because only those who are empty can be filled by God. The reason the meek will inherit the earth is because only those of us who are unsure enough of ourselves to depend on God can come together to become the perfect form of human society – the body of Christ. There can be only one head of Christ’s body. We are called to be empty vessels who receive our entire existence from God. This doesn’t mean that we need to abandon the resources God has given us to be beggars in the street. It does mean that we need to reorient how we understand our lives and possessions, considering everything that we have to be a gift from God. It’s okay to be confident in God’s power to work through us, but being cocky about our own abilities is profoundly ungrateful for the gifts that God keeps giving. Our hearts are purified as we are emptied of our delusions of self-sufficiency that this world, and our nation in particular, preaches as its prosperity gospel. The purity of heart that we receive from being poor in spirit, surrendering in meekness to God’s will, granting to others the mercy that we have received from God, and hungering for God’s righteousness and peace in all our relationships – this purity of heart is the truly prosperous state of being able to see God.
So if you’re feeling poor in spirit, if you’re grieving something or someone, if you have a hard time being tough and assertive, then you are exactly the kind of person Jesus is looking for. He’s not saying in these Beatitudes that you need to slap on a fake smile and pretend to be happy. He’s simply inviting you to be part of his broken body made up of people who confess their brokenness and, as a result, are made whole in communion with God. If you’re thirsting for the true prosperity that is the kingdom of heaven, then come let us be poor in spirit together.