June 25, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Matthew 5:3 (NIV)
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus’ Beatitudes attempt to correct our view of God’s expectations for us as human beings. Instead of seeing what God intends for us, we see something quite the opposite. So when Jesus declares God’s actual expectations, we come away disoriented and disturbed. Everything seems backward from what we thought was true.
Expectations. We all have them. Many of us live with high expectations, particularly those of us in leadership. Some of us pick them up from those around us. Others of us seem to be born with them hardwired within. In either case, expectations define our world. For some, those expectations are a positive motivator. For others, they are a profound burden. Sometimes, we find those expectations lead us where we didn’t expect to go. As a friend of mine once told me, he climbed the ladder of success only to find that it was leaned up against the wrong building.
Jesus too lived in a world of great expectations. His extraordinary birth raised great hopes as well as created profound fear (Matthew 2:1-18). Later, his miraculous ministry only increased those hopes and stoked those fears. Jesus seemed to have all the prophetic markers of being the messianic king promised to Israel. Was he the one who would, in the phrase of N. T. Wright, “set the world to rights?” And perhaps the unasked and even more weighty question behind that question is, “What will that world look like?”
Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount by resetting the expectations of his listeners. Perhaps a stronger and more accurate verb than “reset” would be “reverse.” Jesus reverses the expectations about what the world looks like when it is made right. What is striking is how backward it all seems.
In the opening beatitude, Jesus blesses those who are poor in spirit. That’s not exactly a category for people to aspire to, either in the first century or in the twenty-first. In doing so, Jesus raises the disturbing possibility that, in the words of the friend I mentioned earlier, our expectation ladders are leaned up against the wrong building.
Or, to change the metaphor, consider the medical condition called anorexia.
A member of our family struggled with anorexia in their teen and early adult years. Anorexia is “an eating disorder characterized by an abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of weight” (Anorexia nervosa – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic). It is a strange disease. I discovered to my surprise that, for the anorexic, much of life works backward. In my desire to be helpful, I encouraged my family member to eat more as I saw them losing weight. Instead, they chose to eat less even more resolutely, thereby losing more weight. What I discovered, as I entered their world, was that their self-perception was reversed from reality. When they looked in the mirror, instead of seeing someone losing weight, they saw a person gaining weight. Their perception was diametrically opposed to what the rest of us saw to be true.
Jesus’ Beatitudes attempt to address something similar. Like an anorexic looking in a mirror, our views of God’s expectations for God’s rule (and for us as human beings) are deeply distorted. Instead of seeing what God intends for us, we see something quite the opposite. So when Jesus declares God’s actual expectations, we come away disoriented and disturbed. Everything seems backward from what we thought was true.
Jesus begins by calling the poor in spirit blessed. How can that be? For both the secular and religious person, “being blessed” is usually an indication of flourishing. For those familiar with God’s work in the history of Israel, a blessing is associated with God’s goodness as it is expressed in the bounty of creation, in God’s faithfulness to deliver God’s people from their enemies, and in God’s affirmation of those who are faithful to God’s instructions. Economic poverty to many in ancient Israel (as to some Christians today) was a sign of the lack of God’s blessing. Spiritual poverty suffered much the same assessment. Even if the causes of such poverty were debatable, the effects could hardly be described as “being blessed.” What was Jesus talking about?
Jesus’ Beatitudes have been with us for two millennia and it is easy to become too comfortable with them. There have been many explanations offered for what Jesus meant. Tomorrow, I will reflect on what Jesus said in his first Beatitude, and why he might have said it. But before we get to that, I think it’s worth letting the shock of Jesus’ words disorient and disturb us for a while. It’s easy for Jesus’ words to lose their edginess. In the words of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, we suffer the “consequence of the film of familiarity” where “we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.”
What does being blessed mean to you?
What do you think Jesus meant when he said that the poor in spirit are blessed for theirs is the kingdom of God?
Read Jesus’ Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). If you are familiar with them, try reading them in a translation with which you are not familiar. Reflect on the reactions they bring up in you. Note the things that seem odd or backward to you.
Lord Jesus Christ,
We are grateful that you have come to open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. Sometimes we feel that way when we read and hear your words to us. They startle us awake to a reality which we’ve not seen or heard before.
Help us to see and hear you rightly. As the Psalmist prayed, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9 NIV).
We ask in your name,
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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: “Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit, for Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:3)
During his adult life, Uli Chi has lived and worked in the intersection between business, the academy and the church. He has had the privilege of serving as past Board Chair of Regent College in Vancouver, BC, as current Vice Chair of the Board of the Max De Pree Leadership Center at Fuller Seminary, and as current Chair of the Executive Committee of the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University. He has also been involved in all aspects of local church leadership, including as a member of the adult ministries team’s teaching faculty at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle.
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