For the last decade or so, Seth Godin has been one of the most influential thinkers on marketing and technology in the world. His blogs and podcasts are widely read by leaders in business, politics, and the nonprofit world, and he has written a small library of best-selling books. He’s so popular because he’s able to analyze and define trends in ways that are quickly understandable, and point you in directions to act on those trends regardless of whether you have a marketing department with a budget of $40 million a year, or it’s just you and a laptop sitting in a Starbucks as your office.
One of my favorites of his books also happens to be one of the greatest book titles of all time: Meatball Sundae, in which he shreds the idea that you can generate viral success with anything if you simply throw enough enticing digital marketing tools at it. Some things simply don’t lend themselves to that, he argues, and trying to do that anyway is like making a meatball sundae: the whipped cream and sprinkles and hot fudge and maraschino cherries that make ice cream sundaes so delicious and popular are all pretty disgusting if you’re starting with a bowl of meatballs instead of ice cream!
Our New Testament lesson today is one of the most popular passages in the entire Bible, so it’s easy to forget or overlook that Jesus seems to be offering a meatball sundae with them. This section of teachings is generally called “the Beatitudes,” adapted from a Latin word that means “happy” or “blessed.” And it’s called that, of course, because Jesus offers a series of teachings about who is blessed in faith and society, and that immediately starts sounding like a meatball sundae.
Because both happiness and blessings are generally wonderful things that make life more enjoyable, but Jesus isn’t starting with a delicious bowl of tasty treats like “hard workers” or “positive thinkers” or “generous givers” or “kind neighbors” upon which the enticing garnishes of happiness and blessings are layered. Jesus is starting with people who are experiencing the very opposite of happiness and blessings: the poor in spirit and those who mourn.
And as he goes on, many of the others he singles out in the Beatitudes are probably also poor in spirit and/or mourning, at least some of the time, simply by the nature of what they do. If you “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” you’ll spend some time being poor in spirit and mourning about how little you get to eat and drink sometimes, about how little righteousness seems to be available.
If you are a “peacemaker,” you’ll definitely spend some time poor in spirit and mourning over how so many people would so much rather build conflict and violence and division and exploitation than peace. “Being persecuted for righteousness’ sake” is certainly not something we associate with being happy or blessed. And even being merciful or “pure in heart” is likely to lead to being poor in spirit or mourning because of how little reciprocation or partnership you’ll probably experience.
And yet, the Beatitudes in particular and this sermon of Jesus in general are important enough in his ministry that both Matthew and Luke include it in their Gospel accounts, and for the most part, they agree. The big difference is in the very first Beatitude, though. Matthew, as you heard, records Jesus as saying “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke, however, simply recounts him saying, “blessed are the poor.” And, frankly, for a long time I thought Luke’s version was probably the more accurate and the more important one.
One of the most notable and radical elements of Jesus’ ministry is his unswerving love and care for those who are poor, not just in spirit but in terms of economic resources. And one of the most notable and radical departures from Jesus’ teachings by Christians has been thinking that love and care for those who are poor is somehow optional or even undesirable, or that it is at best something that we do to those who are poor rather than with them: meeting their basic material needs with efficiency and even concern, but failing to build authentic relationships with them or to work to change the systems that create and maintain poverty.
So I’ve tended to dislike Matthew’s version because it seems like a convenient spiritualizing of Jesus’ teachings in a way that is much more comfortable for us: avoiding the challenges of material poverty and why we allow people to live in it in favor of a spiritual poverty that is a human condition rather than an economic one.
But I think I’ve been wrong about that. Not about the shortcomings of Christian ministry with those who are materially poor, but about the importance of Jesus’ concern with spiritual poverty. Because the truth is, those who are poor in spirit and those who are mourning are some of the most neglected and isolated people in our world. Which is ironic, given just how many of us find ourselves poor in spirit. But there is so much social and cultural pressure to hide that reality, to pretend like it isn’t there, or at least to function that way outwardly so that others are none the wiser; to always answer “fine!” when someone asks how we are, no matter how big of a lie it is, which just makes us feel all the more isolated or alone.
In fact, there’s so much pressure to avoid that reality that people often try to spin this phrase about the “poor in spirit” to mean something positive or at least constructive; even Billy Graham once fell to that temptation, arguing that we should substitute the word “humble” for “poor” in this passage and then understand it as a spiritual virtue to be emulated.
But Jesus said poor in spirit, not humble; the Greek word here means destitute, deprived, reduced to begging. Jesus isn’t talking about something that is sweet or beautiful; to be poor in spirit means to be impoverished, to be made spiritually poor by something or someone, some circumstance or experience or reality.
It means what happens to you when you are trapped in a toxic workplace or a dead relationship; it means the toll that living a constantly over-committed, hyper-stressed life takes on your soul and spirit; it means the isolation that comes from continuing to grieve when others have returned to “normal life,” which will never be normal that way again for you; and it certainly means the spiritual dimension of economic poverty, of the drain on our hearts and spirits of constantly just trying to make ends meet and feeling like we never get even, much less ahead.
Now, when Jesus says those who are poor in spirit are blessed, of all things, he doesn’t mean that or any of these other experiences are themselves a blessing, and he certainly doesn’t mean that we should have to say we’re fine, particularly to God, when we really aren’t fine. Nor is it a blessing because it comes with some kind of transactional reward: if you’re poor in spirit, then you get the kingdom of heaven. That would be pretty much the classic definition of a mixed blessing, something that has advantages and drawbacks.
But that is not what Jesus is offering. The Beatitudes are all mixed blessings in a very different sense: they are mixed because in those situations God does not pull us out of difficult circumstances or make them go away, but neither does God leave us to them. Instead, God enters right down into them with us and stays there, bringing blessings in the mix with us. That is the whole meaning and purpose of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ in the first place. And there is no circumstance or experience or reality that can outlast or overpower the blessings of God’s presence and love and grace.
So: if you are poor in spirit; if you are mourning, or hungering and thirsting after righteousness, know that you are blessed not because of or even in spite of any of those things. You are blessed not even because you have the kingdom of heaven; you are blessed because the kingdom of heaven has you, and will never leave you alone or behind, but is always in the mix until we are all rich in spirit, and filled with comfort and peace, and feasting on righteousness together.