By that I mean, “How can the Beatitudes be so simply put yet at the same time be so difficult to fully grasp?” The other widely-known passages in the Bible (The Ten Commandments, the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer come to mind) are fairly straightforward and easy to comprehend but the “blesseds” delivered by Jesus in Matthew 5 and Luke 6 aren’t necessarily so. It’s not that the words are hard to translate or digest; rather it’s what they imply that confounds us. That’s because our Savior’s teachings invariably go against the grain of everything a human gleans through observation and experience growing up in this fallen world. I dare say that some folks may have rejected Christianity altogether due to the Beatitudes alone. Some encounter its list of the poor and the sad and the weak and the mild-mannered and, employing logic, claim that to be any of those things only guarantees that strong, ambitious and aggressive people will smash you flat like a steamroller. And, actually, they’re right. So what was the Lord really teaching? The truth is that Jesus wasn’t insisting his followers have to be or become poor, sad, weak or mild-mannered at all. A casual reading may create that impression but when one digs a little deeper and takes into consideration the context our Lord presented them in, a more correct understanding will emerge.
So what’s the context? It’s what Jesus spoke about most often: the availability of the kingdom of the heavens. Go back a ways. We’re told in earlier verses that He went into Galilee to begin His ministry and to fulfill the messianic prophecies. It’s worth noting He didn’t go into the country club, He went into the country. Matthew 4:17 reads, “From that time Jesus began to preach this message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’” In the text that follows Jesus is seen acting in harmony with God’s will by first tending to the immediate needs of the common people the establishment honchos had long ignored. He healed the sick and crippled. He eased chronic pain and He evicted demons. And those He made well stayed well. Little wonder He collected more than a few fans along the way. Now that He’d garnered their attention it was time to give them a much-needed sermon of hope. He positioned Himself on a hillside so that all could see and hear him clearly and He began to speak authoritatively. Being God incarnate one would expect He’d likely start spouting lofty religious ideas and profound philosophic concepts to those in attendance. But no. What He offered His hungry audience was encouraging words pertaining to the kingdom of God He’d recently given them a glimpse of (via miracles) and had assured them was “at hand.” He then proceeded to instruct them on how to live as a kingdom of God citizen. Many of those in the crowd had themselves been healed by the gentle miracle-worker or knew someone who had. He didn’t have to convince them that He was the genuine article.
When Christ said, in essence, “Blessed are those who think they don’t have a spiritual bone left in their body; those who feel like all their spiritual aspirations have been siphoned out of their tank by this cruel world; those who feel like spiritual ne’er-do-wells, ashamed to ask God for help,” everyone there could definitely relate. When Jesus announced, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them” (Matthew 5:3), He was assuring them that no matter how insignificant they might feel in the grand scheme of things their loving Father in heaven hadn’t forgotten them for a nanosecond. As a matter of fact, He said God was ready and willing to deem all of them heirs and eager to share His magnificent kingdom with them unconditionally. Jesus knew He was speaking to folks who’d readily acknowledge that they were, indeed, “poor in spirit.” Thus they didn’t take His words to mean they should strive to get themselves in that condition and neither should we. The good news He was broadcasting to the throng was, “To those who feel undeserving of God’s grace, don’t despair, there’s hope for you yet!”
Please don’t miss the significance of what’s going on here. Jesus is addressing regular Janes and Joes like me and you who don’t have a degree in theology. Who aren’t summoned by church elders when serious “spiritual work” is to be undertaken. Who don’t possess the charisma of a Billy Graham or T. D. Jakes. Who can barely quote John 3:16 verbatim without consulting notes. Who wouldn’t know the first thing about leading a Bible study group. Who none of our peers would label “pious” at all. And yet we’ve felt the Lord’s personal touch. Because of Christ’s presence in our life we know without a doubt there is a God and that He loves us beyond measure. Therefore we know, our spiritual poverty notwithstanding, we’ve been truly blessed. Jesus is conveying in His sermon that we’re not blessed because we’re poor in spirit – but in spite of it. Any confusion that has arisen over the centuries regarding this passage is due to the original Greek being translated incorrectly. Dallas Willard wrote, “It’s a mistranslation driven by the necessity to make sense of something one just does not understand. If the Greek language wishes to say something about knowing or realizing one has no spiritual goods, it certainly has adequate resources to do so. But it says nothing of all that.” While purely unintentional, this translational miscue nevertheless highlights our tendency to try and make being “poor in spirit” a condition God deems righteous. And that leads to thinking if we’re righteous enough we’ll have earned God’s grace. Do you see where I’m going with this?
Christ didn’t preach, “It’s a good thing for y’all to be spiritually bankrupt because that’s the only way you’ll be worthy of the kingdom of God.” That would infer that the more discouraged and “down on ourselves” we get, the more qualified we’ll be to gain divine favor in God’s courtroom. No way. If we jettison the joy out of our status as adopted children of the Heavenly Father then where’s the “good news” of the gospel message? Let me state this clearly: The “poor in spirit” are not blessed because that’s how they see themselves but because God longs to have a relationship with them no matter how dreadful their self-assessment might be! Alfred Edersheim wrote, “…the promises attaching, for example, to the so-called ‘Beatitudes’ must not be regarded as the reward of the spiritual states with which they’re respectively connected, nor yet as their result. It’s not because a man is poor in spirit that his is the Kingdom of Heaven, in the sense that the one state will grow into the other, or be its result; still less is the one the reward of the other. The connecting link is in each case Christ Himself: because He…, ‘has opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.’” Willard commented, “It may take our breath away to say it, but blessedness is possible to all now, regardless of what the situation may be. That is the hope of Jesus’ gospel – which is not the least excuse for failing to change situations that should be changed.”
I’ll venture to put it in a modern-day context. Imagine that by word-of-mouth people heard that an evangelist was able to cure terminal cancer and Alzheimer patients and he was holding an open air meeting in a local vacant lot. He’d attract a bunch of what high society snidely calls “deplorables” and “undesirables” for sure. He’d say to those who came, “I get it that a lot of things in this bat crap crazy world have been a literal beat-down on your soul. Maybe you had an abusive dad growing up. Maybe you never even met your dad. Maybe your mom often went AWOL and you had to fend for yourself. Maybe you’ve been unemployed for years and you’re scraping by on welfare and charity handouts. Maybe you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol. Maybe you and your spouse live like roommates instead of lovers. Maybe the threat of radical Islamic terrorism has you scared to leave the house. Maybe you get so depressed that at times suicide begins to look like a reasonable solution. Maybe you think you’re losing your ever-lovin’ mind! Well, folks, I’m here to deliver some incredible news. Your gloomy outlook on life doesn’t matter to the great I AM as long as you have Jesus in your heart. You’re blessed whether you feel like it or not. That’s the miracle God’s giving away free! Look, you don’t have to be the kind of guy or gal that walks around singing ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams 24/7 in order to get God to love you. He loves you just as you are! Warts and all. You may think you have no worth but, in the eyes of the Father, even the Pope’s got nothin’ on you. You’re saved by Christ’s shed blood same as he is. Stay depressed if you want but I’m here to tell you that God reigns over a perfect kingdom and you’ll someday soon inherit all of it. That’s the Father’s unbreakable promise. Now, what you choose to do with that information is up to you.” I think that’s what the Galilean peasants who gathered together on that hillside 2,000 years ago were desperate to hear and what civilization is just as desperate to hear today.
The trap that believers can fall into is to think that all one has to do to be blessed is to be extremely humble-minded; that by simply owning up to our spiritual incompetence we’ll merit redemption. Now, if spiritual poverty isn’t our biggest hang-up then we might be tempted to substitute one of the other conditions Christ touched on – overwhelming grief, an introverted personality, a lack of confidence, etc. Problem is, in doing so we conveniently remove undeserved grace from the equation. While those things may not technically qualify as “salvation-by-works” they do fit into the category of “salvation-by-attitude” and that’s just as misguided. One might conclude in order to get inside the Pearly Gates one must be destitute or in a constant state of mourning or of being persecuted, on and on. For me to opine that Jesus was teaching anything of the sort would be to reveal that I don’t know much about my Savior at all. The danger is I may start considering the Beatitudes as sacred instructions on how to get on God’s “good side” when, in reality, they were never meant to be “guidelines to better living” in the first place. They weren’t intended to describe conditions or behaviors that’ll make a human being more attractive or lovable to God. What Jesus was telling the anxious assemblage is that no one – absolutely nobody – is beyond receiving the Heavenly Father’s blessings. Otherwise, wouldn’t Christ have instructed them to stay downtrodden, to stay depressed, and to stay miserable? On the contrary, He consistently urged them to repent – to change.
It’s also vital we view the Beatitudes in proper perspective and resist segregating them from the entirety of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” The Beatitudes were merely the prologue to what could rightly be identified as the greatest sermon ever delivered. In other words, to stop reading after Matthew 5:12 and not continue on through Matthew 7:27 is to do a massive disservice to one’s Christian education. To do so is to miss out on Jesus’ comprehensive lesson on how to live as one of His disciples. He ended his splendid soliloquy with, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, but it did not collapse because it had been founded on rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, and it collapsed; it was utterly destroyed!” (Matthew 7:24-27). After that He figuratively let the mike drop. There was nothing left to say. One doesn’t have to be a scholar to decipher what the Lord was getting at. He was clearly stating that if a person were to follow both Him and His sage advice they’d be able to withstand anything that life on planet Earth could throw at them.
To say that Jesus knew exactly what He was doing by opening His famous address with “Blessed are the poor…” is an understatement. He knew full well that the Beatitudes would have far-reaching, long-lasting relevance. Frederick Buechner wrote, “In a sense we are all hungry and in need, but most of us don’t recognize it. With plenty to eat in the deep freeze, with a roof over our heads and a car in the garage, we assume that the empty feeling inside must be just a case of the blues that can be cured by a Florida vacation, a new TV, or an extra drink before supper. The poor, on the other hand, are under no such delusion. When Jesus says, ‘Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28), the poor stand a better chance than most of knowing what He’s talking about and knowing that He’s talking to them. In desperation they may even be willing to consider the possibility of accepting His offer. This is perhaps why Jesus on several occasions called them peculiarly blessed.”
Philip Yancey expressed it elegantly when he wrote, “I do not believe the poor to be more virtuous than anyone else… but they are less likely to pretend to be virtuous. They have not the arrogance of the middle class, who can skillfully disguise their problems under a façade of self-righteousness… I now view the Beatitudes not as patronizing slogans, but as profound insights into the mystery of human existence. God’s kingdom turns the tables upside down. The poor, the hungry, the mourners, and the oppressed truly are blessed. Not because of their miserable states, of course – Jesus spent much of His life trying to remedy those miseries. Rather, they are blessed because of an innate advantage they hold over those more comfortable and self-sufficient. People who are rich, successful, and beautiful may well go through life relying on their natural gifts. People who lack such natural advantages, hence underqualified for success in the kingdom of this world, just might turn to God in their time of need.” Yancey summed it up perfectly in his next statement: “Human beings do not readily admit desperation. When they do, the kingdom of heaven draws near.” I know that to be true.