"Poverty of Spirit"
Scripture - Matthew 5:1-12
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, February 2, 2014

Simple logic demands that we argue with Jesus on this one. He begins his long Sermon on the Mount, stretching for three chapters, with these nine succinct blessings. At first pass, they may sound endearing. However, when we place each one under the microscope, several seem questionable, if not entirely absurd. They simply defy common sense.

If I asked you to pull out pencil and paper and jot down a few sentences describing a blessed life, what would you write? If you are a parent, a good way of approaching this assignment is to think about what you would hope for your child. My child would be blessed if ______ (fill in the blank).

I took a shot at it and here is a partial list:

Blessed are those who are confident and self-assured.
Blessed are those who have no financial worries.
Blessed are those untouched by tragedy.
Blessed are those who are strong.
Blessed are those who know how to compromise.
Blessed are those who are recognized for doing the right thing.

Wouldn't you think that anyone fortunate enough to experience such blessings would have a good life? Yet this list is essentially the opposite of the list Jesus names.

A few of the beatitudes make sense. "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." I know that some people take advantage of those who show mercy, but most of us are kind to those who are compassionate with us. And, we certainly expect God to show mercy to those who are merciful.

In addition, Jesus strums a logical chord with "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." Surely those who are virtuous and free of guile and dishonesty are more likely to perceive God's activity in their lives.

However, some of the other blessings sound cockeyed. Blessed are those who mourn? I'm sure you are looking forward to your next tragedy. Blessed are the meek? I can hardly wait to get run over. Blessed are the persecuted? Really?

And what about the very first blessing Jesus names. His opening beatitude sets the tone for his numerous teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. He says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God."

Like many of you, I have spent decades trying to deepen and expand my spiritual life. I have been trying to achieve, if not a robust spiritual life, at least a healthy one. Surely God wants us to have rich spiritual lives, so why would Jesus say, "Blessed are the poor in spirit?"

If I go back to the list of blessings I created that are at odds with the Beatitudes - those blessings that I often think are what I want for my children - the answer surfaces.

If my children are confident and self-assured, have no financial worries and are untouched by tragedy; if they are strong, yet know how to compromise and are recognized for doing the right thing, they will likely conclude that they have made their lives a success and they have no need for God.

When life is going well and things fall into place, it is easy to forget that God makes it all possible. It is easy to overlook the fact that we did not create ourselves and that we depend on God for every breath we take. It is easy to think that our lives are going smoothly simply because we are so clever and have made such smart decisions.

Yet even when life is going well and we have enough income to do interesting and exciting things, something gnaws at our insides. Some feel it as an emptiness they cannot satisfy. Some describe it as a worry that surfaces from time to time. Some convince themselves that all is well, yet are blind to the fact that they are becoming cynical about everything. Some become increasingly callous to the pain around them.

A novel by Sinclair Lewis tells the story of a businessman who is having an affair. The young woman says to him, "On the surface we seem quite different; but deep down we are fundamentally the same. We are both desperately unhappy about something - and we don't know what it is." There is a vague discontent, an unsatisfied longing, a feeling that something is lacking.1

Toward the end of his life, British Columnist, Bernard Levin, wrote an article called, Life's Great Riddle - and No Time to Find its Meaning. He said that despite his success, he feared he might have "wasted reality in the chase of a dream." He wrote: "To put it bluntly, have I time to discover why I was born before I die?...I have not managed to answer the question yet, and however many years I have before me they are certainly not as many as there are behind. There is an obvious danger in leaving it until too late...Why do I have to know why I was born? Because, of course, I am unable to believe that it was an accident; and if it wasn't one, it must have a meaning." He went on, "Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with such non-material blessings as a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet, and at times noisy desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of it...it aches."

As a young man, the fifth century theologian, Augustine, tried to fill his life with hedonistic pleasures. During this phase of his life he uttered his famous prayer, "God, grant me chastity and self-restraint, but not yet."2

He tried to fill the void within himself in many different ways, but it was not until he came to faith that he changed his prayer to: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

When Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" he was pointing to the fact that it is when we recognize that we are incomplete, frail and misguided that we realize we are badly in need of God. It is when we acknowledge our spiritual poverty that God can fill us. Those who are "poor in Spirit" are blessed because they know that they need God more than anything else.

Growing up in a family of scientists, Elaine Pagels was taught that scientific discovery had made religion obsolete and irrelevant. Her experience of life taught her otherwise.

Now, a professor at Princeton, she writes, "On a bright Sunday morning in February, shivering in a T-shirt and running shorts, I stepped into the vaulted stone vestibule of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York to catch my breath and warm up. Since I had not been in church for a long time, I was startled by my response to the worship in progress - the soaring harmonies of the choir singing with the congregation; and the priest, a woman in bright gold and white vestments, proclaiming the prayers in a clear resonant voice. As I stood watching, a thought came to me: Here is a family that knows how to face death.

That morning I had gone for an early morning run while my husband and two-and-a-half-year-old son were still sleeping. The previous night I had been sleepless with fear and worry. Two days before, a team of doctors at Babies Hospital, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, had performed a routine checkup on our son, Mark...The physicians were shocked to find evidence of a rare lung disease. Disbelieving the results, they tested further for six hours before they called us in to say that Mark had pulmonary hypertension, an invariably fatal disease."3

Elaine asked the question no parent ever wants to ask: "How much time?"

The response: "We don't know. A few months; a few years."

I cannot fathom how devastating such news would be.

She writes, "The following day, a team of doctors urged us to authorize a lung biopsy, a painful and invasive procedure. How could this help? It couldn't, they explained; but the procedure would let them see how far the disease had progressed. Mark was already exhausted by the previous day's ordeal. Holding him, I felt that if more masked strangers poked needles into him in an operating room, he might lose heart - literally - and die. We refused the biopsy, gathered Mark's blanket, clothes, and Peter Rabbit, and carried him home."

"Standing in the back of that church, I recognized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child; and here was a heterogeneous community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine. Yet the celebration in progress spoke of hope; perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable."4

In moments when you feel helpless because life is more treacherous than you can handle, reach out to God. When you recognize your poverty of Spirit, do not try to convince yourself that you are fine and in need of nothing. Instead, seek the One - the only One - who can quench the deep thirst of your soul.


  1. William Barclay, Daily Devotions with William Barclay: 365 Meditations on the Heart of the New Testament, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 20.
  2. Wikipedia: Augustine of Hippo.
  3. Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, (New York: Random House, 2003), pp. 3-4.