The Poor in Spirit

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to spend some time in the opening verses of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—that series of blessings that have come to be known as “The Beatitudes” (Matthew 5:3-12). As we do, we’ll explore other passages—from both testaments—to open ourselves to the new reality that Jesus taught and lived. It forms a call on our lives, which is the same call Jesus gave to his disciples — “Follow me” (Matthew 4:19).

Our thoughts will guide us to Saturday and the first blessing.

 

Monday, September 9

Read: Luke 15:1-7

Consider: As happened so many times in Jesus’ ministry, today’s account finds Jesus addressing two very different audiences at the same time. Before Luke recorded this parable about a lost lamb, he told us who was listening. Those considered to be the worst of sinners and those who saw themselves as the righteous ones—the good guys—were both in attendance (15:1-2).

Have you ever sat through a sermon, cheering on the inside, thinking, “Yeah, you tell it, pastor! Straighten out these people!” only to slowly discover that you were the one who needed to listen? Let’s be honest. We’ve all done that. Well, Jesus didn’t want anyone to miss his point, so he gave us the punchline. He summed up the parable by saying, “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (15:7).

Now, on its own, that statement doesn’t make sense. Wouldn’t we rejoice more if people kept their lives pure? Wouldn’t we be happier about ninety-nine people who did it right than we would be about one person who finally got it right after making a mess of things?

Well, we know there really is no such thing as a person who does not need to repent. But Jesus was looking at “ninety-nine” Pharisees who were convinced that they didn’t need to. They saw no reason to change or to allow God to change them. And because they couldn’t see their own need for repentance, Jesus knew that they weren’t ready to see what God wanted to do in their lives. So, the shepherd went to those who knew they were lost.

By the way, this story contains a powerful truth about Jesus. And if we don’t understand it, we don’t know who God is. It comes from the mouths of the Pharisees who muttered, “This man welcomes sinners” (15:2).

That’s where we get that beautiful name for Jesus — “a friend of sinners.” That name should be our name as well.

Pray: “Lord, thank you for loving me, even though I am so far from perfection. Help me to love others—regardless of their actions—in the manner that you love them. Keep me humble before you. I realize that if I’m ever convinced that I no longer need to change, I close the door on the work that you want to do in my life.”

 

Tuesday, September 10

Read: Luke 15:11-24

Consider: In the days prior to smartphones with GPS, I got lost. A lot. All the time. Pretty much whenever I drove to unfamiliar territory, I’d get lost. My wife always recognized it immediately. She’d ask, “Do you know where you’re going?” Of course, I always said “yes” because I knew what my destination was. But then she’d ask the killer question, “Do you know where you are?” Well, now, that’s different. That’s when Carol knew for sure, and I had to admit, that I was lost.

And I always had a strange reaction. For some reason, when I realized I was lost, I’d drive faster. Maybe everyone does that. I don’t know. Perhaps we’re just anxious to see the next mile marker. But the result was simply that I was going further off course at a higher rate of speed—getting “loster” faster.

The three parables of Luke 15—the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost Son—have a beautiful commonality. They all end in celebration. But the third parable brings added truth. And part of that truth has to do with the heart and the vision of the one who was lost.

If a shepherd loses a lamb or a woman loses a coin, it’s obvious that something is missing. But when it comes to seeing that we ourselves are lost, we can be slow (or too stubborn) to see it.

The son who left his father had no clue that he was lost. He kept going the wrong direction and picking up speed, which took him far and fast from the life his father had for him. He thought he was doing a pretty good job managing his life. He had to experience great tragedy, sorrow and loss before “he came to his senses” (15:7).

What was obscured to the son was obvious to his father, for when the son returned, his father exclaimed, “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (15:24).

Our Father never stopped waiting for us. He never wrote us off as being unredeemable. He never gave up on us. But he had to wait. He couldn’t (and wouldn’t) force us to come home. He waited and waited. When we were humble enough—when we came to our senses—it became possible for the lost to be found and the dead to be raised.

Now, let’s not diminish this concept of “lostness” as simply referring to those who have never opened themselves to Christ’s love. Yes, in that respect, we are already found. But let’s be honest, even committed believers in Christ encounter times when we feel lost. That state can be brought on by discouragement, depression, anxiety, lack of direction or other factors that we didn’t see coming. And those times of feeling lost can last a long time.

What is invisible to us is clear to our Father. But sometimes, we walk through dark passages—very dark paths. At those times we may not see the Father, but we are humble enough to know we can’t navigate the night on our own.

Pray: “Lord, the thing that can draw me away from you is my delusion of self-sufficiency. When I forget that I am lost without you, I wander into strange lands. Today I walk with confidence because I will walk with my Father in whatever direction you take me.”

 

Wednesday, September 11

Read: Luke 15:25-32

Consider: On Monday we looked at one of the most beautiful names ever given to Jesus — The Friend of Sinners. Of course, that didn’t sound beautiful to everyone. Those who found their identity in being morally superior to others didn’t like those “others” to be loved and cherished simply for who they are. They wanted those “others” to earn it, like they thought that they had earned God’s favor.

What Jesus saw in those Pharisees and teachers of the law (15:2), he addressed in this third parable. He pointed out the thinking of the older brother who couldn’t handle the grace and mercy his father gave to his “morally inferior” brother.

Of course, that’s the difference between us and Jesus Christ. We want to feel like we’re righteous. We know we’re not perfect, so we’re tempted to find our “righteousness” in comparing ourselves with others. The older brother said, “Look, I never disobeyed you or gave you a moment of trouble, while he was out spending your money on prostitutes! How can you possibly rejoice over that?” (15:29-30).

Let’s be honest. We really like to appear to be righteous. And, as I said, that’s the difference between us and Jesus. He chose the opposite…

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

It’s amazing that the only one who was willing to claim total unrighteousness was the Righteous One. And he did that for you and me.

So, as is the case in so many of Jesus’ parables, he flips our world upside down. The “bad guys” become the good guys and the “good guys” must realize that if they would only bring their unrighteousness to God, he would change everything.

This is mercy. This is grace.

Pray: “Lord, I can barely comprehend what it means that you ‘became sin’ for us. I only know that it humbles me. I am reminded that without your grace I have nothing. But your love for me compelled you to a sacrifice of mercy that is beyond my understanding. Thank you.”

 

Thursday, September 12

Read: Matthew 9:9-13

Consider: By all accounts, it was a pretty unsavory crowd that Jesus partied with that evening. The tax collectors of Jesus’ day were Jews who had betrayed their sisters and brothers by working for the enemy. They extracted exorbitant taxes for Caesar’s army and Herod’s construction projects and lined their own pockets in the process. They ripped off their own people while helping the Romans oppress them. Traitors are the worst kind of enemies. They were so hated that many of the Jewish Zealots thought that the only thing better than slitting the throat of a Roman soldier was killing a tax collector.

Yet, Jesus accepted an invitation to Matthew the Tax Collector’s house, so he could spend an evening in the company of Matthew’s cohorts. Who knows what kind of “sinners” (9:10) were in attendance?

In that culture, to eat with someone was to call them your equal. The rich didn’t eat with the poor. The landowners didn’t eat with the slaves. Jews didn’t eat with Gentiles. And men didn’t eat with women in public. You would only allow yourself to be seen eating with someone you considered to be equal to you.

So, the Pharisees were utterly baffled and deeply offended. They asked Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (9:11). It didn’t make sense to them. Those people could only hurt Jesus’ reputation. It was clear that they should be shunned and condemned.

But…

“On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick…for I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” (9:12-13)

Jesus wasn’t saying that the Pharisees were healthy and righteous. They weren’t. Rather, he was telling them that these tax collectors and “sinners” knew they were broken. Matthew invited Jesus to his home because he knew he needed to hear what Jesus had to say. He invited his friends because he wanted them to meet Jesus. Those Pharisees were not at a point where they could hear Jesus, because they thought they were the healthy, righteous ones. So, Jesus gave words of life to those who could hear them.

Here we find Jesus making the same point as he did in the parable of the Lost Sheep recorded in Luke 15:1-7 (see Monday’s meditation). One lamb could hear. Ninety-nine could not.

Jesus keeps returning to this point—it takes humility to hear and understand the message of the new kingdom. It takes seeing and accepting our brokenness to experience the liberation of his righteousness living in us.

We’ll see again tomorrow another way that Jesus tells us the same truth—the same good news. And we’ll see that it is indeed good news!

Pray: “Lord, when I think my sins are great, you remind me that you are the healer, the physician for our sick souls. Thank you for coming to heal me and liberate me by your mercy. Today I give you thanks for your amazing grace.”

 

Friday, September 13

Read: Luke 18:9-14

Consider: Sometimes Jesus’ parables are subtle. In many of his stories, we must look for the nuances and spend time meditating on the meanings and multiple truths contained in them. Not this one. Nothing subtle here. Jesus told a parable that sticks a finger in the face of anyone who embraces a sense of moral superiority. And because it is so black and white, it’s easy to dismiss. After all, who of us would stand in church, point to someone else and pray, “Thank you, God, that I’m not like that jerk! Thank you that I’m so much better!”

Of course, we would never do that. But when Jesus spoke in such stark terms, he was trying to rattle us—trying to help us see something about ourselves that we may find shocking.

So, let’s do a little personal inventory. Let’s talk about our feelings toward others. I’m not referring to rational discourse. I would never say I’m superior to someone else. But how do I feel?

How do I feel about people of other races or ethnicities? How do I feel about sexual minorities? How do I feel about people of other religions or those with no religion at all? How do I feel about people who embrace politics that are completely at odds with my political convictions? How do I feel about people at a different socio-economic level (whether “above” me or “below” me)?  How do I feel? How does Jesus want me to feel?

He wants me to feel love.

Oh, I know that love is active and can’t be reduced to a feeling. And that’s a common excuse we use when we despise someone. But Jesus wanted action and a willingness to allow others into our hearts and into our lives. Remember, he taught us that, when it comes to our spiritual health, to hate is as destructive as committing murder (Matthew 5:21-22).

So, let’s be honest. Unless I’m willing to feel love toward all humans—willing to see the Image of God in them—I’m never going to act like Jesus.

This parable sticks a finger in my face and compels me to be honest about my love for God’s image-bearers. If I’m honest, it may cause me to fall on my knees and say…

“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13)

And that will lead to my liberation.

Pray: There are many written prayers that have become a part of Christian worship down through the years. One is called, “The Jesus Prayer.” It simply says…

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Another has become a part of common Christian liturgy…

“Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”

These are good prayers to pray if we approach them in the right way. Don’t see them as self-condemning. (Don’t focus on original sin. Focus on the original blessing—the truth that you are made in God’s image.) See them as the liberating prayers that are taken to the One who loves us more than we can imagine—the One who is eager to forgive and has already forgiven. See them as a vehicle for you to open your heart to everyone, because all of us need God’s grace.

 

Saturday, September 14

Read: Matthew 5:1-3

Consider: You may want to take another look at the passages we’ve read from the New Testament this week. You may want to scan the observations we’ve made. Their origin is found at the starting point of Jesus’ teaching about the new kingdom…

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (5:3)

The kingdom cannot be comprehended by…

The “ninety-nine” who won’t admit that they are lost (Luke 15:1-7).

The obedient son who feels morally superior to his messed up little brother (Luke 15:25-32).

Those who feel no need for a spiritual “doctor,” believing that they are already whole (Matthew 9:9-13).

The one who looks at the “other” sinner with contempt (Luke 18:9-14).

No, not them. The kingdom of heaven—the here and now kingdom of heaven—belongs to “the poor in spirit.”

This first phrase of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the starting point for all of Jesus’ teaching. If we do not recognize our own spiritual poverty, if we will not humble ourselves, if we will not ask God to change us and create new ways of thinking and living, the kingdom of heaven will be unintelligible to us.

This is not a one-time event. This is a way of life. Without a constant, humble seeking of the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16), we will fall back into the “wisdom of this world” (1 Corinthians 3:19) and be seduced by the lies of the nations.

As Jesus sat on the hillside and told the people what it would mean to follow him, his very first sentence explained the attitude we must bring. He spoke about the position we take to hear him and to follow him. He blessed the spiritually impoverished. He blessed us.

Pray:“Lord, your call to acknowledge my spiritual poverty is also a promise for me—for us. Lord, please open our eyes to see your kingdom in ways we could never have imagined. That is a true blessing.”