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Poor in Spirit, or just poor. . ,

Brussels, Belgium – July 26, 2012:Stained glass window depicting Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount in the cathedral of Brussels, Belgium

This past Sunday, I began my sermon by speaking of the futility of being a biblical literalist. In our current Bible and book study we are exploring the different ways the writers of our four gospels approached the same stories that were circulating about Jesus in the first century. One of the most obvious differences is the teaching of Jesus in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount when compared with Luke’s Sermon on the Plain.

In Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven(Matthew 5:3). In Luke, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20). Let’s ignore the fact that one sermon took place on a mountain the other on a “level place”. Let’s ignore the fact that Matthew speaks in generalities (the poor, theirs), while Luke has Jesus addressing those in the crowd who were at the bottom of the economic ladder directly (you who are poor, yours). Is it kingdom of heaven or kingdom of God? If we approach the gospels as a zero sum game we end up believing that either Matthew or Luke incorrectly conveyed the message of Jesus to their first century communities.

But the biggest discrepancy is whether it is those who are poor in spirit, or those who are poor who receive the divine blessing. We end up looking at our sacred texts through either/or spectacles. 

Why can’t it be both/and? In fact, we need both. Liberation theologians have gifted us with an understanding of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” In that case we might be tempted to say Luke got it right. But, as I told the congregation on Sunday, we who are not poor in financial terms must be “poor in spirit” to fully understand the nature of God. We need Matthew’s beatitude, as well. Those of us who are not “poor” need to be “poor in spirit” if we will ever be able to truly love our neighbor – especially if that neighbor is “poor”.

Our egos, our political stance, the newspapers we read, the news channels we watch invariably get in the way of realizing the “kingdom of heaven,” or is it the “kingdom of God.” Christian mystics have always realized that our own agendas often get in the way of  who God calls us to be. Elric of Eynsham, in the tenth century, said in one of his sermons,“Our Lord gave us laws to guide us, but we create “new” ones for ourselves, totally unlike God’s. Our self-conceived directives are at cross purposes with divine teaching. We are opposing the wisdom of the ages, but we are so stubborn that our self-will rebels against everything good. Trampling God’s commandments with arrogant behavior, we make our lives difficult. There is nothing worse than betraying Jesus, because the betrayal estranges us from God and destroys community. Love God. Abandon what is wrong.

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