Matthew 5:1-12

I Will Be Happy When….

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Matthew 5:1-12


I Will Be Happy When….

Richard Niell Donovan

See if you can finish this sentence: “I will be happy when….”

There must be a million possible endings for that sentence. “I will be happy when….”

• I will be happy when I grow up and move away from home.

• I will be happy when summer comes and I don’t have to go to school.

• I will be happy when I fall in love and get married.

• I will be happy when I can buy a new car.

• I will be happy when I get promoted.

• I will be happy when I retire.

• I will be happy—when they lay me to rest.

When will you be happy? What will it take? What are the chances that it’s going to happen? How long will it be? One year? Five years? Fifty years?

Jesus has some wisdom on the subject. His wisdom might not make much sense to you. What he has to say seems exactly backwards— upside down. When you hear what he has to say, you are likely to write off his wisdom as religious gobbledygook—something so highflying that the rubber never hits the road. But don’t dismiss Jesus too quickly. Many people have tested Jesus’ wisdom and found it true. It just takes some getting used to.


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Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

The first thing Jesus does is to change the vocabulary. He doesn’t talk about happiness, although some versions of the Bible use the word “happy” instead of the word “blessed.”

“Blessed” is a better word, because of the ways that we use the word “happy.” Happiness is taking the summer off —or getting promoted—or getting a new car—or watching the 49ers thump Green Bay. Jesus has something different in mind—something that goes deeper —something that seems strange when we first hear it. He says:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit….

“Blessed are those who mourn….

“Blessed are the gentle….

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness….

Now you see what I mean by upside down. Those are not the rules as we know them. The rules as we know them are:

• Blessed are the rich, because they can buy what they want.

• Blessed are the strong, because they can take what they want.

• Blessed are winners, because it is no fun to be a loser.

• Blessed are those who hunger and thirst at the best restaurants, because they will be pampered—and indulged—and filled.

But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….” 

He goes even further, giving us a total of nine beatitudes. I cannot do justice to all nine in the time that I have, so I will treat only the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….” I believe that approach to be valid, because the first beatitude is foundational. If you are in synch with the first beatitude, you will be in synch with all of them. If you are out of synch with it, you will be out of synch with all.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….” 

The Greek word that is translated “poor” is ptochos (toe-HOS). It means abject poverty. True poverty is a cruel thing. It breaks people. They suffer. Confronted daily with their own helplessness, they know the difference that even a small act of mercy can make. They watch eagerly for a gesture or a glance that might promise help. They long for a bit of kindness. They crave a bit of dignity.

Standing before God, the poor in spirit are like that. They bring nothing in their hands that God needs—and nothing in their hearts that compels God to accept them.

• They come in their poverty hoping for sustenance.

• They come in their brokenness hoping to be mended.

• They come in their sin hoping to be forgiven.

• They come in their grief hoping to be comforted.

• They come in their illness, hoping to be healed.

• They do not come bargaining with God, because they have nothing to offer.

• It is precisely their humility—their openness—that makes them fertile soil to receive God’s blessings.

And so Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….” Blessed are those who come to God on their knees.

That isn’t our preferred mode of travel—on our knees. We prefer to be in control. We prefer to pay for what we get. We prefer not to be in anyone’s debt. We prefer to walk up and lay cash on the barrelhead.

But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….”

We fight hard not to be poor in spirit. We try to get the best grades we can—so that we can get the best job that we can. We work as hard as we can—and do the best that we can. We try desperately to be in control of our lives.

But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….”

Our best efforts leave us exhausted. A few years ago Newsweek ran a cover on which there was only one word in large bold letters— EXHAUSTED! The article inside told of people—everyone from the president of Harvard—to housewives—to single moms—to a father trying to juggle two jobs. All of those people were EXHAUSTED! Can you identify with that?

Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….”

We are exhausted, in part, because we are not poor in spirit. We are proud—so desperate to be in control—so desperate to do it our way. And so we spend so much energy on trivial things. We work long hours—to buy things that we don’t need—to impress people that we don’t like. Why do we do it?

Some years back, Mary Mannes wrote a book in which she said:

“American men are obsessed with money;
American women are obsessed with weight.
The men talk of gain; the women talk of loss;
and I don’t know which talk is the more boring.”

Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….”

In his book, The Way to Go, Gilbert Bowen tells about a young boy admitted to the hospital with terrible injuries. Shortly thereafter, the boy’s father arrived. It was clear from his manner and his clothing that the father had money and was accustomed to giving orders. As the doctor tried to care for the boy, the father began to shout, “Why aren’t you doing something? I want the best care that money can buy. I want you to fly him to the best specialists in the country. Do something for my boy!” The physician turned to the father and said, “There is nothing that your money can do for your boy. All you can do is wait and pray.”

When I read that story, I wondered about that father. My first thought was that he probably didn’t know how to pray. He was used to demanding what he wanted and buying what he wanted. I doubted that he knew how to pray for what he wanted. I felt sorry for him, because he was facing the most terrible crisis of his life, and his stunted spirituality left him badly unprepared.

But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….”

• And so it occurred to me that this terrible moment might have brought the father face to face with his own inadequacy.

• It struck me as very possible that, in the crisis, the father might have recognized the deep need that he had so long ignored.

• It occurred to me that, in that moment, the father might have become poor in spirit—able, finally, to approach God on his knees— able to acknowledge that he had nothing to bring to the table—able to plead for God’s mercy.

• It struck me that this might have been a turning point in his life—that in his brokenness he might have been able, for the first time, to receive God’s blessing.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….”

Henri Nouwen, the late Catholic priest and author, met Mother Teresa in Rome. He said that the first thing he noticed about her was her constant focus on Jesus. People were asking questions, and she was answering in a way that reflected her total focus on Jesus. Her answers sounded, at first blush, simplistic and naïve. But Nouwen sensed, not only her own personal strength, but also the subtle power of her answers.

When Nouwen finally had the opportunity to speak with Mother Teresa, he told her of his problems. He spoke of his struggles. He asked her advice. She answered simply, “If you spend one hour a day in contemplative prayer and never do anything which you know is wrong, you will be all right.”

Listen to that one more time. It sounds simplistic, but is really profound. “If you spend one hour a day in contemplative prayer and never do anything which you know is wrong, you will be all right.”

Nouwen says, “With these words she answered none—as well as all—of my problems at the same time. It was now up to me to be willing to move to the place where that answer could be heard.”

“Blessed are the poor in spirit….”

The meaning of this first beatitude—and of all the beatitudes—is that God blesses us when we come to God with empty hands— bowing before the throne of grace—ready to receive whatever blessing that God chooses to give us—ready to follow in whatever path God chooses to lead us.

The promise is this. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” Notice that Jesus does not say, “theirs WILL BE the kingdom of heaven.” He says, “theirs IS the Kingdom of heaven.” We do not have to wait for the kingdom. Jesus says that it has come near. We can enter it now.

I am tempted to conclude this sermon by saying, “Be poor in spirit so that you will receive God’s blessing”—but that isn’t what Jesus says. Jesus doesn’t issue an order but, instead, gives a blessing. He promises that, when our need is greatest, there we will find God—and there we will find blessing.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright, 2002, Richard Niell Donovan