This sermon is part of the sermon series "Beatitudes". See series.
A few months ago my two teenage sons came to me and asked if they could go camping for a week … on Lower Wacker Drive in the city of Chicago! They wanted to spend a week living with the homeless. They'd gotten the idea from a book they'd recently read about being a radical Christian. The writer of the book wanted to identify with the poor, so he moved out of his house and lived with the homeless. I'm afraid that when my sons told me about their plan, I was less than enthusiastic. "If you want to help the homeless," I said, "get a job, and donate your money to some Christian organization that works with the poor and the homeless." They rolled their eyes at me.
I suppose I should have been more sympathetic. I appreciate the fact that they want to do something for the poor. But I'm afraid they have a romanticized view of poverty. You see, I've never viewed poverty as a good thing. It has never seemed to me as something to which I should aspire. So what am I to make of Jesus' opening statement in the Sermon on the Mount where he seems to say there is a blessing in poverty?
Here in Matthew 5:3, Jesus tells us that less is more, more or less. Jesus says that when it comes to the spiritual realm, it is better to have less than more. In the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven, less is more. To those of us who have lived most of our lives in prosperity, this is strange math; it was pretty strange math in Jesus' day as well. Before we ask what Jesus means by this first beatitude, we need to consider what the Bible has to say in general about the poor.
To put it simply, God has concern for the poor. In the Old Testament, serving the poor was a point of law. Deuteronomy 15:7 commanded: "If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs." God's concern was so great that ignoring the plight of the poor was grounds for divine judgment. This Old Testament concern is echoed in the New Testament. Galatians 2:10 says that those who follow Christ are to "remember the poor." The Bible pronounces a blessing on those who "remember the poor." In Acts 20:35, the apostle Paul quotes Jesus who said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive."
But in the first pronouncement in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says something quite different. Jesus seems to indicate that there is a certain advantage in poverty. He pronounces a blessing, not on those who remember the poor—but on the poor themselves. Matthew 5:1-3says, "Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." These words are as astonishing today as they were when they were first spoken.
In the kingdom of heaven, less is more when it compels us to see our need.
At the outset of this sermon, Jesus sends us reeling with his opening incongruity: "Blessed are the poor." Jesus links two seemingly incompatible things: poverty and blessing. Most of us have heard some version of this sermon before and so the shock has worn off for us—if it ever registered in the first place. We actually think that what Jesus says here is kind of sweet. But make no mistake about it: what Jesus says here would have been completely disorienting. It's as if, with a word, he has suddenly turned the laws that govern the universe on their head; in a way, that's what he did.
One of Jesus' goals in this sermon is to contrast the governing principles of the world as we know it with those of the kingdom of God. For a minute try to hear these words the way Jesus' original audience would have heard them. How would this statement have sounded to someone whose only possessions were the clothes on his back? Blessed are the poor? What would it have meant to the mother who didn't know where her child's next meal was going to come from? How would these words fall upon the ears of the beggar who was dependent on the handouts from some stranger for survival? I'm amazed that Jesus wasn't laughed off the mountain at this point. But Jesus wasn't speaking as a theoretician. Jesus didn't say this because he had gone on a field trip or read a book or taken a poll about the poor. Jesus had lived in poverty. According to Matthew 8:20, Jesus told one would-be follower: "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." Jesus depended on the charity of others. And when he died, the only possessions he owned were the clothes on his back (Matt. 27:55; John 19:23). That's why people didn't laugh as he gave his sermon.
But what does Jesus really mean? Is he saying that the poor are more receptive to the gospel than others?
Some people seem to think so, but I am not convinced. I am not at all certain that people who are financially poor are necessarily more open to the gospel simply because they are poor. My fear is that we who are not poor have romanticized poverty because of what Jesus says here. If the poor have an advantage over the rich, why does the wise man in Proverbs 30:7-9 say, "Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the LORD?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God." The poor and the rich each have their own unique temptations. One condition does not necessarily provide a spiritual advantage over the other. Some may be hardened by trouble just as others are lulled into a false sense of security by prosperity. Poverty does not automatically make us more open to God.
So what is the benefit of being poor? Jesus clearly says that there is a blessing here. Kent Hughes points out that the Greek term that is translated "poor" can help us understand the point Jesus is making. Hughes notes that the term comes from a verbal root that denotes 'to cower and cringe like a beggar.' Hughes writes, "In the New Testament it bears something of this idea because it denotes a poverty so deep that the person must obtain his living by begging. He is fully dependent on the giving of others. He cannot survive without help from the outside." That is the kind of benefit Jesus is talking about. The blessing of poverty is in the awareness of need. The benefit of poverty is not in not having. The benefit of poverty is in knowing that you do not have. Jesus' point is that in the economy of the kingdom, the first pre-requisite to blessing is need. The first principle is to recognize that when it comes to God and his grace, you cannot survive without help from the outside.
Johann Sebastian Bach was once standing outside an inn in the city of Luneburg. A student at the time, Bach had just returned from a long trip. He was hungry but too poor to pay for food or lodging, which is why, when someone threw a couple of fish heads into the trash heap, Bach decided to retrieve them. As he examined them to see if any part was still edible, Bach was surprised to see a glint of gold. Perhaps aware of the young composer's need, someone had placed a gold coin in each head. In a way, that is what Jesus has done for us when he says, "Blessed are the poor." He shines the light of his truth on the refuse heap of our lives. Suddenly we see a glint of gold in it. What we thought was loss proves to be gain. What we counted as worthless, Jesus says has great value. Jesus shows us that where the economy of the Kingdom is concerned, less is more. The blessing Christ offers is reserved for those who need it. But there is an important and necessary corollary to this truth: poverty is a blessing only if it prompts us to respond to God's grace.
In the kingdom of heaven, less is more when it prompts us to call upon Christ.
It is important to note that this blessing is associated with a particular kind of poverty. Jesus is drawing an analogy here, rather than making a statement about economics. It is not poverty in general but spiritual poverty that Jesus has in view. In verse 3, Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." The addition of this phrase sets Matthew's version of this sermon apart from Luke's, and it is an important clarification.
In Luke 18:10-12, Jesus tells the story of two men who went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, a respected religious leader. The other was a tax collector, a notorious sinner. According to Jesus, "The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' It was the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home forgiven. Jesus isn't teaching the poor to pray their own version of the Pharisee's prayer saying, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men—the wealthy, the middle class." Moreover, without this clarifying phrase, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," we might actually miss the personal application Jesus wants us to take from this beatitude. You see, I like the thought that the poor are blessed simply because they are poor. It relieves me of the guilt I feel over not being poor. I don't have to feel bad about having so much, because I can comfort myself with the thought that Jesus also has a blessing for those who don't have so much. But I don't think this was what Jesus intended by this statement. Jesus isn't talking only about those who have no money. He's talking about me as well. He didn't pronounce this blessing to make the poor feel better about the fact that they have no money. He didn't pronounce it so that I could feel better about being in the middle class. Jesus is serving notice that when it comes to the economy of the kingdom, the rich and the poor enter on the same basis. In the economy of the Kingdom, less is more. The only ones who enter are the ones who know what they don't have.
Every so often I get an urge to calculate my net worth. The urge usually comes when I'm paying bills. And to tell you the truth, it usually doesn't take very long. I always think it's going to make me feel better about myself, so I get out the calculator and go online and begin looking up all my accounts. I calculate how much I have in my checking account and my savings account. I look up my retirement account. I try to figure out how much I could get for my house if I sold it. I take the cushions off the sofa and reach down to see how much change has fallen out of my pockets. I try to estimate how much I could get for my dog if I sold him on e-Bay. Then I add it all up. No matter what the amount, I find that the result is always the same: it is never quite enough. I always wish I had just a little more.
Believe it or not, that's how Jesus wants you to feel when it comes to the kingdom of God. It is no accident that Jesus begins his description of the "blessed" life with a negative. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who know where they are lacking. He wants us to calculate our natural resources when it comes to our own righteousness and recognize that as much as we may think we have, it isn't enough. I'll go even further and say that he wants us to calculate our natural resources when it comes to our own righteousness and realize that by Kingdom standards we are bankrupt. Once again, when we come up against the strange math of the kingdom of God, less is more. Bankruptcy is a sign of riches.
Spiritual bankruptcy is the prerequisite to blessing, because Jesus Christ only offers his grace to those who know they have nothing to add. It begins at the point of salvation. We turn to Christ and say, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." We recognize that we have a debt before God and no means to make good on that debt. We also recognize that Jesus Christ cancelled our debt when he died on the cross.
The blessing Jesus talks about in this beatitude begins at the point of salvation, but it doesn't end there. Notice that there is a promise connected with this beatitude: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This is Jesus' answer to the inevitable question raised by this beatitude. Why are the poor in spirit blessed? Because they know how to reckon according to the strange math of the kingdom of God. They recognize that less is more when it compels us to see our need; less is more when it prompts us to call upon Christ.
In the kingdom of heaven, less is more when it helps us to focus on our inheritance.
What Jesus says in this beatitude is a word of promise, but it is also a word of correction—it assumes that we have a tendency to live by different math. We don't live in a world that believes less is more; we live in a world that thinks more is more. We live in a world where there is a great temptation to value that which is of little value—to consider to be gain what may actually work to our loss; to think we have much when we have little. Frankly, that's one reason some of us are nervous about following Christ. We are worried about what we will lose in the process. What will I have to give up? What will I have to forsake. I suppose there is some basis for such concerns. Jesus does talk about loss in connection with discipleship. Discipleship involves loss but it is not a matter of earning the right to be disciple. Jesus doesn't say if you must give up this or that to be a disciple. He says you must give up everything. It is a matter of exchange. We exchange our life for his. But in this first beatitude he looks at it from a different angle. Here Jesus emphasizes what is gained. What is there for the poor in spirit? There is a kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is theirs.
What does Jesus mean when he says the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit? We know that what he says is literally true. There will be a literal kingdom. The Bible tells us that one day the kingdoms of this world will be the kingdom of Christ. Jesus will come in glory. He will be enthroned in Jerusalem and reign as king. But what will then be true is, in fact, true today in principle, for those who belong to Christ. In Luke 17:20-21, we read that after Jesus had been questioned by the Pharisees about when the kingdom of God was coming, he answered and said, "The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you." At its very heart, the kingdom of heaven is the reign of Christ.
If it can be said that those who are poor in spirit are heirs of the kingdom of heaven, then it must also be said that the poor in spirit experience the reign of Christ. In other words, what is this treasure that Jesus speaks of in this verse? Is it gates of pearl and streets of gold? Is it a mansion just over the hilltop? It is all those things, but it is much more. The ultimate treasure of the kingdom is Jesus himself. It is the person and presence of Christ. But there is something more. When Jesus speaks of the poor in spirit and the kingdom here in Matthew 5:3, he uses the language of ownership. He says of the poor in spirit that the kingdom of heaven is "theirs." He doesn't merely say that they will see the kingdom. He doesn't even say that they will enter the kingdom. Jesus speaks in terms of possession.
When my children were younger, my wife Jane and I liked to attend the Gull Lake Bible Conference in Michigan. Every summer we would spend a week in one of the rented cottages there, listening to the conference speakers and sitting on the beach. Our boys used to talk about "our house at Gull Lake," but, of course, it wasn't our house. We were just visitors. And as much as we enjoyed it, we knew we were just visitors and would eventually have to leave. There is a big difference between being a visitor and being a resident. Those who are poor in spirit may not have much in this life. But they do have this much: they possess the kingdom. They have an eternal inheritance that cannot be calculated in terms of human wealth.
Some years ago a friend of mine was doing some electrical work on a wealthy man's home. My friend was on pretty good terms with the man, and so one day he asked him a bold question: "How much money is enough?" The rich man answered, "Just a little more." When it comes to the kingdom of God, the answer is different. In the economy of the kingdom, less is more. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.