“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3
Spending as much time as I have with my students at FPCH traveling through Jesus’ beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount has given me more of a deep appreciation for what Jesus is teaching us and the depths by which he is doing so. The way Jesus interacts with his culture, the way he invests his resources, the vulnerability, transparency, and inevitability of his movements demonstrate the deepest affection and deliberate action toward his neighbors and re-action toward the dehumanizing caricatures of his culture. This idea is vital if we want to understand the weight and fullness of Jesus’ ministry, for anytime we examine the beauty and simplicity of Jesus’ encounters with others, always take time to examine and think through how all of his interactions are tinged with the weight of action as well as reaction. What does this mean? Well, let us see how we can understand these twin sides to Jesus teaching and make sense of them, specifically in the beatitudes:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
We often assume we know exactly what Jesus is saying here, and I am sure to a large extent we most certainly do. However, it’ll help us understand not only this beatitude but the whole of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount if we can take notice not only of what Jesus says but in what he doesn’t say. Jesus doesn’t say something like this:
‘Blessed are those who acknowledge their spiritual poverty, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Or, ‘The kingdom of heaven and its benefits are only for those who can perceive their spiritual poverty.’
Jesus begins his beatitudes partly by re-acting toward the crooked systems and faulty biblical interpretations that uphold and justify the neglect and oppression of specific communities as a natural, fixed, and God-ordained reality, as particular identities contingent on misguided interpretation and opinion rob certain people of their God-given dignity and sacredness, such as those who were designated as the ‘poor in spirit.’ See, in Jesus day (and he was keen to consistently point this out) both the influential and those who lacked any cultural, political, or religious standing to be influential are both damaged within the process of being ultimately identified by all the wrong ideas, as good things become ultimate things (Tim Keller), usurping their place in our hearts, to become idols over our hearts. Wherever these idolatrous ideas take place, their roots go deep enough to hurt every single person in our approximate sphere of influence.
Those who believed themselves influential, who believed that they within themselves possessed a righteousness they could cultivate with no outside interaction cut themselves off from the grace, mercy, and compassion of our Father through the life of Jesus precisely because they were too proud to see him for who he was. In other words, they were too blinded by their own perceived influence to understand and identify with Jesus’ sufficiency through their intimate and yet public acknowledgment of their spiritual insufficiency. Likewise, they created unrealistic religious and cultural standards that the less influential, those “scape-goated” as the sinful and as the less privileged “caste” within Jesus’ context, could never attain because they were boxed in by the subjugation of a definition created by another.
Isabel Wilkerson in her book Caste: The Origin of our Discontents, speaks about how those who identify with influence and authority and those who have no cultural or religious clout both suffer underneath the weight of defining sacredness through identities that cannot help but be contingent on frail and faulty premises, and therefore could never carry the weight of our expectations and needs. Those cast out within any culture as the less influential are rarely given the tools to cope with personal and cultural tension, for whatever difficulty they endure are never defined as a human problem that affects us all because we do not believe that our fates are tied to one another’s flourishing. Therefore, difficulties that should be understood as communal become but another problem contingent on the identity of the “other,” or on “them” in the distance, as if we are justified in our tacit neglect as we view the dissociation we have with others as badges of self belonging and self-righteousness.
Isabel Wilkerson likens this cultural scape-goating to the book of Leviticus, where a specific goat was designated with the sins of the people and sent into the wilderness, symbolizing the shortcomings of the community (of every single person) being cleansed thereby demonstrating the reality that they will no longer define their relation to God or one another through the fragilities that have been done away within the forgiveness and mercy of God, thereby illuminating the possibility of a new relation and perception of our neighbors in light of God’s reconciliation.
However, in our modern-day culture we have misapplied and therefore instrumentalized this biblical concept, and instead of designating a scape-goat for the total, full, and collective healing of the whole community, we choose a segment of individuals within our culture and burden them with the sins of the whole, cutting ourselves off from them and alienating ourselves from our humanness. This allows the most influential to further justify our neglect by unloading the sins of us all on ‘them’ thereby justifying our separateness by no longer having to associate with others because of their religious impurity.
This alone demonstrates to us that we are far less ‘modern’ than we think and much more religious than we want to admit. In Isabel Wilkerson’s own brilliant words, those we define as poor in spirit in our culture perform “the unwitting role of diverting society’s attention from its structural ills [by] taking the blame for collective misfortune.”
However, this sort of posture toward others is a double-edged sword, for it brings unwitting misfortune on all people simultaneously. Those who are far more influential, those who have far more cultural authority are neither given the tools that they need to flourish and thrive, for they are given an unhealthy overabundance of resources that give them an over-reliance on ‘things’ that only lead to addiction and dependency that result from an anthropology just as, if not even more faulty.
Once we as the influential finally find out that we have become over-reliant on cultural resources that are contingent on a faulty and overly indulgent understanding of what it means to be a healthy human being, it is usually far too late. We inevitably scatter to even more misunderstood mechanisms to try and cope with the feelings of anxiety and uncertainty that have come as a direct result of trusting in ideas that miss the mark of what it means to be a healthy human being in the first place, which creates a cycle of addiction.
This is an idea that Alan Noble sketched in his brilliant book You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhumane World. Every culture has a vantage point on whatever we might believe our anthropology might be. What is anthropology? A basic grid, a fundamental web of ideas of what defines us as human beings and what by consequence gives us meaning and purpose. Every culture, therefore, supplies tools to help us express whatever we might believe is the identity that we feel will give us the most authentic validation amongst our peers. In other words, we are each given the resources to live whatever life each one of us personally defines as the authentic life. These tools, however, are always limited precisely because every culture has a different vantage point on purposeful living.
This is a bit deeper than we might at first suppose because it isn’t always as simple as a mere disagreement over fullness. Most of the time, whatever I as a Western person may believe could be interpreted as a purposeful life will most likely be interpreted and therefore understood as a vice in another culture; something that I may pursue individually even though it does emotional damage to my family or my community will be seen as a pursuit that stifles and does not fulfill. This then is much more profound and fundamental than a simple disagreement over wholeness.
Johann Hari in his book Lost Connections talks about a man named Tim who grew up believing that the way to grab hold of a meaningful life was to obtain as many material possessions as would make him fill up with the most happiness. However, when Tim’s swimming coach gave him some records with artists such as John Lennin and Bob Dylan, he noticed that there was a different sort of narrative being told; a different sort of purpose and meaning in this life that he was not aware of. They didn’t sing of seeking out joy relentlessly in this life by pursuing as many material possessions as possible, for they sang of a different sort of story. So Tim, once he entered college, created a questionnaire he called the “Aspiration Index,” where he would be able to find out what people assumed gave them the most purpose in life.
He spent a long time in University working with students and with older people throughout New York as well. He was able to not only gauge how possessive materialism drove the existence of both college students and older people, but also how no matter the possessions people had and no matter how relentlessly they would continue to pursue after newer and shinier ones, they were never technically happier, but always closer to anxiety and depression than most. This is how Johann Hari tells of his dialogue with Tim:
“It really did seem that materialistic people were having a worse time, day by day, on all sorts of fronts. They felt sicker, and they were angrier. ‘Something about a strong desire for materialistic pursuits,’ he was starting to believe, ‘actually affected the participants’ day to day lives, and decreased the quality of their daily experience.’ They experienced less joy, more despair.”
But, if it is at all possible that our culture’s anthropology (our contexts definitions and interpretations that give our lives objective and universal meaning and purpose) might perhaps be wrong, does it not follow then that the tools, resources, and ‘coping mechanisms’ we are given to deal with the anxiety and uncertainty that comes with missing the mark or failing to reach the standard of validation and authenticity that is provided for us, might also be wrong? So many of our young people fail to realize this idea because we are not asking the right questions. Alan Noble sums it up well:
The question is not, where do we belong, “but to whom do we belong?” And who is allowed to offer us the tools for self belonging?
I have had countless conversations with young students who fail to fully understand what repentance is biblically because they believe that it is nothing more than the constant reminder that we are nothing more than less than. God has a standard of perfection, and for us to have a fulfilling relationship with him we must be able to reach that standard. All repentance does is remind us that we are consistently missing that mark. What we must make clear, is that both our culture and the bible both offer the possibility that it is quite inevitable that we will miss the mark, or miss the standard set before us. Our culture offers us tools to cope with this; anti-depressants, pornography, personal isolation, repressing unforgiveness and planting the seeds of resentment, pursuing materialistic possessions, seeking an over-reliance on a public persona that hides our emotional turmoils, instrumentalizing our relationships to pursue feelings over people, etc. Scripture offers a solution too, this solution, however, is no tool; but a person.
This is a problem that brings up the bigger question: how dependent are we on one another? Is my flourishing and thriving reliant on my neighbors flourishing and thriving? Yes, and even more so than this. Jesus consistently made the argument through his reactions toward the dehumanizing structures, teachings, and caricatures within his culture, that it is not possible for one to flourish and thrive unless we are constantly seeking out the well-being of our neighbors, that they also flourish and thrive. See, if we are not intentionally and deliberately invested in our neighbors from an intimate proximity, then we will not be able to react toward what burdens them and what hurts them, and this should matter supremely because it diverts our neighbor’s attention from the image of God they bear (regardless of their own belief), and the voice of the Holy Spirit, as their hearts become overcrowded with the voices and intentions of a culture seeking to dehumanize and instrumentalize.
This is an important premise found in Matthew 5:3. If all are poor in spirit, then by consequence, the kingdom of heaven belongs to all people, because all people are poor in spirit; right? This naturally means that there is a category of two sorts of people who nonetheless share the same image and the same potential to live beautifully; those who acknowledge their spiritual insufficiency and therefore acknowledge their whole dependence on the grace of God and the sufficiency of Jesus, and those who have yet to.
Is it possible that those I said have yet to will not? Of course. Is it my concern? Meaning, should it affect me becoming a daily extension of Jesus’ kingdom culture to them? That I stifle the abundant overflow of the same grace and mercy that has first been given to me? By no means. It is Jesus’ prerogative to separate the sheep from the goats in his time (Matthew 25:31-46). It is my prerogative to love my neighbor and have a posture of affirmation regardless of their posture toward God, or toward me.
When Jesus mentions the kingdom of heaven throughout the gospels, he usually means one of two realities broadly speaking:
Jesus present kingdom culture that is here now that primarily works through the local church,
and the kingdom of heaven yet to come in its fullness.
As I try to teach my students, the Kingdom of Heaven is present here and now through the life and resurrection of Jesus, and it serves as a culture of meekness, righteousness, mercy, purity, peace making, and family. It therefore, becomes the burden upon the local church that is light and gentle to become an extension of the love that has been given to us, that we abundantly overflow into the lives of our neighbors demonstrating the reality of a restored family by applying the reality of the cross to our daily lives and interactions with our neighbors. Therefore, as we act out our identities in Christ in these ways, we will also be compelled to react against all the structures within our culture that hinder the progression of Jesus’ kingdom culture through the local church.
This is vital, because even we as the local church allow specific contingent identities in our culture to stay in place and hold the same idolatrous authority over our neighbors which we implicitly allow to distance ourselves and therefore serve as a self righteous justification to why we never have to enter “their” community. We have allowed our differences with others to cement the reasons why we could never possibly find common ground with our neighbors, thereby isolating ourselves from them more and more, until the local church becomes no sort of option for them. This therefore necessarily means an intimate proximity to our neighbors that will make it possible for us to listen to their histories and not discard them, but re-contextualize them in light of the cross is necessary.
All of this allows our neighbors to see that we too are poor in spirit, and this is precisely why we have placed our faith in Jesus. This will allow us personal dependence on our neighbors as we not only seek to establish similarity, but establish a common ground to compassionately tackle our differences from, when they do inevitably rise to the surface. We must try to dismantle the idea that no one in the local church needs grace, and the more we seek out our neighbors all the more we will find the opportunities to act as extensions of Jesus’ kingdom culture. Because, as we have learned today, we are all poor in spirit, and that means the Kingdom of Heaven is for us all, not against us.
Richard Gomez / FPCH Youth Discipleship Coordinator / email@example.com / (323) 770 – 1556