becoming poor (in spirit) 1/4

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The question of poverty looms large in both the Old and the New Testament. The question of poverty confronts us in an especially powerful way in the life and teaching of Jesus. And so over the next few weeks we want to spend some time wrestling with the question of poverty – more specifically, we want to think about what it means to become poor.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. We will probably recognize these words as coming from the Sermon on the Mount. But this morning we should perhaps remember that both Matthew and Luke have versions of the Sermon on the Mount. And in the gospel of Matthew, the sermon begins with Jesus saying, as we’ve already read: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus speaks of the poor in spirit – of those who exhibit a kind of character, or a certain attitude in daily life. But in Luke’s gospel Jesus speaks of those who are poor in a very real and concrete sense. He speaks women and men who can’t make ends meet, who don’t always know whether there will be food on their table. These are two very different statements from Jesus – two very different approaches to the question of poverty. Poverty of spirit – a certain attitude or character. Versus poverty in a concrete sense, where there is profound material need.

As we try to re-imagine our lives and our world around the reality of poverty – as we take seriously the teachings of the risen one, we are going to look at each version of the Sermon on the Mount. We begin with Matthew’s version, where Jesus declares: Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Now as we try to understand these words of Jesus, we are actually going to begin by taking a huge step back from the text. We are going to reflect for a moment on our culture and our lives. And I’d like to do so first of all by way of a book that I read this past week. The book is written by the Israeli author, Amos Oz. He’s a novelist and essayist and short story writer. And the book I read this week was a collection of short stories entitled Scenes from Village Life.

All of the stories in this little collection centre on the fictional village of Tel Ilan – and each focuses on a different person or situation in the village. Now I don’t know enough about Amos Oz as a writer, or enough about present-day Israeli politics to know whether these stories a parable of modern Israeli life. But even if they are such parables, the stories are universal in nature. One reviewer of the book affirms points to the universal nature of the stories while also leading us toward the subject we are looking at this morning. The reviewer had this to say: “In exquisitely controlled prose, renowned Israeli author Amos Oz reminds us of the creepy unsureness that underlies all ’village’ life, rural or urban – and not just in Israel.”

“In exquisitely controlled prose, renowned Israeli author Amos Oz reminds us of the creepy unsureness that underlies all ’village’ life, rural or urban – and not just in Israel.”

Each of the 7 stories or vignettes in this collection is defined by uncertainty, unsureness, and mystery. Not one of the stories comes to any kind of resolution – they all conclude with open-ended ambiguity. One of the stories is entitled ‘Digging’. It features a middle-aged woman named Rachel, her aged father, and a boarder who lives in a guesthouse on their property. The aged father suffers from dementia and he is convinced that he hears digging at night – he is convinced that there is someone digging the foundations out from under the house.  The daughter dismisses his complaints. But not much later, rather strangely, the young boarder makes a similar complaint – he hears digging at night. The uneasiness and delusions are apparently spreading. Finally, the short story concludes with Rachel hearing similar sounds one night as she lies in bed. She can’t find the source of the sounds. As soon as she sits up in bed, the sounds seem to recede.

Let me just read how the story concludes, with Rachel walking around outside in the night, trying to find the source of the sound;

Rachel, in her sandals and night-dress, goes around to the side of the house, stoops between the pillars that support the house and shines the flashlight into the space under her floor: It lights dusty cobwebs and alarms an insect that scuttles away into the darkness. She straightens up and stands, surrounded by the deep stillness of the night.

Nothing stirs the row of cypresses separating her yard from the cemetery. There is no hint of a breeze. Even the crickets and dogs have momentarily fallen silent. The darkness is dense and oppressive, and the heat hangs heavily over everything. Rachel Franco stands there trembling, alone in the dark under the blurred stars.

And so the story ends. Admittedly this particular story ends rather starkly. But in each of the stories there is a feeling that things are unfinished and uncertain. At the end of each story the reader is left with the impression that there is much beyond the character’s control – that there is much that the reader does not understand.

Artists, at their best put us in touch with life in all of its dimensions – they put us in touch with life’s beauty, its darkness, its joys, its uncertainties. And what Amos Oz does with this particular set of stories is to put us in touch with the unpredictability and uncertainty and fragility that is a part of human life. That is certainly not the only thing to be said about the human, but it is something that must be said about the human.

There is uncertainty in our relationships.

There is fragility in our bodies.

There is unpredictability in the economy and in nature.

There is much that we do not understand or control.

And because of this, one of the important questions that arises in our lives and in our culture is the question of what we do with this uncertainty and mystery and lack of control. What do we do with it? How do we as a culture confront this difficult truth of the human? What do we do with what the reviewer referred to as the great unsureness of village life – whether urban or rural?

Of course there are many different ways that our culture responds to the uncertainty and unpredictability of life. But perhaps one of the main responses within in our culture is a kind of denial. The lack of control; the lack of certainty; the real ambiguity of life can make us uneasy and even fearful. And so in our culture

we try to convince ourselves that everything is under control,

we try to convince ourselves that every uncertainty can be answered,

we try to convince ourselves that every problem can be managed.

In a personal sense we cover up our weakness and uncertainty with masks of confidence and self-assurance.  Through the clothing we wear, the way we carry ourselves, through the words we speak, we try to convince ourselves and others that everything is under control – everything can be managed – nothing is finally uncertain in our personal life.

In a more complex sense, we as a culture try to cover up the uncertainty and the unpredictability and mystery of life through statistics – very simply by counting things. If we can put a number on something, if we can generate statistics around an illness or a problem, it gives us a sense of control and certainty and knowledge. If we can reduce some social problem to the formulas and columns of an Excel spreadsheet, it has become manageable.

Our denial of the mystery and unpredictability and ambiguity of life also comes to expression in our consumer culture. Shopping has becomes a means of distracting ourselves from the fragility and the brokenness and the uncertainty. Shopping for a new outfit, a new scarf, a new phone, a new appliance, a new pair of shoes gives me a sense of control – and helps to push more unsettling realities or questions to the back of our mind.

Now even though denial seems a part of our response to the real unsureness of life – there are moments when we break through to the truth, or when the truth breaks through to us – when we realize that everything can’t be understood or solved or control or answered. Whether through some personal experience, or through reading a news item, or through watching a play – we suddenly grasp the uncertainty and fragility that is part of life. Very often, of course, we don’t dwell too long with that fragility – it is too hard to face – and we return quickly to the habits of our culture – we return to the quest for certainty – we embrace the illusion that life is under our control.

Jesus went up on a mountain and he said: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

It seems to me this morning that the poor in spirit are those who understand the fragility of life;

the poor in spirit are those who understand that life is uncertain,

the poor in spirit are those who know that life is unpredictable.

Against the backdrop of those short stories of Amos Oz, the poor in spirit are those who understand that full control and knowledge are always beyond our grasp.

Perhaps at this point we can begin to see that Matthew and Luke are not so far away from each other. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the poor. Matthew and Luke are not too far from each other because the poor in spirit are often also simply poor. Those who live with profound needs in daily life are much more likely to understand the uncertainty, fragility, and unpredictability of life. If you don’t know where your next meal will come from; if you don’t know how you are going to pay for school fees; if you don’t know how you will provide for your family, then it is pretty difficult to buy into the illusion that everything is manageable, that everything is under control, that life can be contained.

The poor in spirit are those who understand the great unsureness of life. But to this we should perhaps add that the poor in spirit are also those who have abandoned the quest for false certainty. The poor in spirit are also those who refuse to put on the mask of confident self-assurance; the poor in spirit are those who refuse the lie that life can finally be managed and controlled.

A question for us: Can the comfortably middle class give up the illusion of control; can we give up the veneer of self-assurance; can we give up the need to appear put-together and competent. Is there any chance we could be the poor in spirit who dwell in the kingdom of God? Can we imagine ourselves becoming poor in this way? Can we imagine a world in which such poverty make sense to us?

But if we are going to become the poor in spirit, there is a final characteristic we cannot neglect. In the first place, the poor in spirit are those who understand the great unsureness of life. In the second place, the poor in spirit are those who have abandoned the illusion of control and certainty. But the poor in spirit are also those who have placed their life in the hands of a gracious God. As Psalm 20 puts it: Some trust in chariots and in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

When Jesus uses the word ‘blessed’ – he uses a word that has a broad and deep meaning.

The poor in spirit are blessed.

The poor in spirit are honourable.

The poor in spirit are in touch with the truly human way.

What is the final word?

Is the final word fragility? No.

Is the final word uncertainty? No.

Is the final word unpredictability? No.

The final word is Yes, and Amen. The final word is trust. And that is why the poor in spirit are blessed, and honourable, and in touch with the truly human life. Because they have learned to trust and are learning to trust.

Some trust in chariots and in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. We trust in the one who has raised his beloved Son from the place of ultimate uncertainty and ultimate ambiguity – from death to life.

If our relationships are marked by ambiguity and uncertainty – the poor in spirit will not deny that ambiguity and uncertainty – but they will trust that the God of love and compassion is at work in their relationships.

If our bodies are marked by a decisive fragility – the poor in spirit will not deny that fragility or flee from it – but they will trust that the God who raised Jesus from the dead meets us in our brokenness and brings healing.

If the economy and the natural world confront us with our lack of control and certainty – the poor in spirit will not seek false security – they will understand that the God of Jesus Christ numbers the hairs of our heads, and holds us in his care.

For many of us, in some sense perhaps for all of us, this will all sound naïve and simple-minded. But in the kingdom of the risen Jesus, where up is down and down is up. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

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