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Hooked on the Kingdom (part 1)

January 26, 2012

Never been happy with the customary handling of the Sermon on the Mount? Same here. Let’s take a fresh look at it then, starting with the Beatitides.

What we’ll discover, I think, is that in the Sermon Jesus is not laying down a new ethic. Though he is atop a mountain of sorts, He’s not Moses 2.0 laying down a new Law. Yes, He’s commenting on the Law of Moses. But He’s not beefing it up, raising its standards. He is speaking to Israel as Israel–Israel’s King–calling to memory and clarifying the way its always been, for Israel, under the Law. It defines them, as a people, as a nation, as those on a mission. They bear a responsibility before the world, corporately. And that responsiblity He is taking on, as Israel par excellence, their King. And for the world, as King of kings.

What He is about to tell them is good news. It will all take some sorting out, but they’ve all been sitting waiting for centuries, and things are moving now. It’s going to take some extraordinary shape, but it all fits with what the Law and the Prophets and the Writings have declared all along. The Messiah is here, and the people have reason to rejoice.

Who has reason to rejoice? He’s going to tell them who. That’s what the Beatitudes do, I think. We miss the point when we see in them a how-to, some variation on the Four Spiritual Laws. These blessed states, qualities that will be rewarded? No, that really doesn’t fit consistently. Burdens that will be compensated? Still not quite it, I think.

Let me suggest that the unifying theme of them all is for whom is the announcement good news? The Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12) are the “hook” of the Sermon, an introductory section which hints at the content to come and whets the appetite so that the hearers will listen attentively. Somewhere in it He mentions you, and you prick up your ears.

A word about “blessed,” the word they all have in common. You’ve heard it means “happy,” which is perfectly true. Understand though that it is the classic sense of happy, which is objective not subjective. We find the same thing in the Declaration of Independence: “pursuit of happiness.” It isn’t descibing how anyone actually feels, but what situation someone is in. We seldom use “happy” for this any more; we cover it with lucky, fortunate, to be envied, in a good situation. Those in such a condition, ought to be glad about it, true, but whether they are or not, life has handed them a pretty sweet deal, so to speak. The man with land and wealth and family and influence is “happy” in this sense, even if he’s an emotional wreck despite his “happiness.”

Poor (in spirit)

We have a problem right from the start, in my opinion. I really cannot fault the straightforward translation “poor in spirit,” because that’s the way the words read. But a cardinal rule in translation is to avoid renderings that produce either (1) wrong meaning, or (2) zero meaning. And zero meaning quickly gets filled in with wrong meaning. It just seems to me that “poor in spirit” approaches zero meaning in English. You’re frequently told the whole thing amounts to “humility,” by a kind of semantic snowball, where the words pick up additional content as they roll along: poor becomes needy, needy becomes “recognizes their neediness,” this becomes “recognizes their neediness for a savior.” Thus you have a good Calvinist, with a firm grasp on the T. Knowing his unworthiness is what makes him worthy. I think not.

So what is “poor in spirit”? Offhand, I’d say more English speakers, unfamiliar with the standard line, would assume it means “depressed.” In French people tend to think it means “feeble minded,” as I discovered when I inadvertantly insulted someone I was intending to help. As it happens I ran across an English usage yesterday in George Eliot, who can spin a mean phrase, let me tell you. I also found a second example, both from the earlier part of her novel Middlemarch.

Yet Dorothea had no distinctly shapen grievance that she could state even to herself; and in the midst of her confused thought and passion, the mental act that was struggling forth into clearness was a self-accusing cry that her feeling of desolation was the fault of her own spiritual poverty. (Ch. XX)

Will wrote from Rome, and began by saying that his obligations to Mr. Casaubon were too deep for all thanks not to seem impertinent. It was plain that if he were not grateful, he must be the poorest-spirited rascal who had ever found a generous friend. (Ch. XXX)

For Eliot, a poor spirit seemed to mean a deficiency of character. This, of course does not tell us what Jesus meant, in Aramaic presumably, translated for us already into Greek.

One consideration we must not overlook is that in a similar message recorded in Luke, at a parallel point Jesus simply says “poor” without “in spirit.” (Luke 6:20) And he will contrast this with “rich” in v. 24. Can’t be completely a different idea from the Matthew version, can it?

Something I’d love to float (though I’ve never seen it suggested by anyone, and I understand that novelty is no recommendation for such things) is could we have misread “in spirit” as a modifier of “poor” when it is meant to modify blessed? So instead of “Blessed are (the poor in spirit),” we’d have “Blessed are the poor (in spirit).” I.e. “Blessed in spirit are the poor.” Well, I’m not much persuaded by this, but its something to mull over, perhaps, before we toss it out.

What I’ve suspected for a while is that Jesus is at once talking about poverty as in being poor not rich, but is considering it at a deeper level. Perhaps in Aramaic He simply used the word for “poor” and Matthew found its meaning so rich (if you’ll pardon the pun) that he had to render it with a fuller expression. This would explain how Luke parallels it simply with “poor.”

At any rate, it would seem to go back to back to the sense of “afflicted,” not just poor but crushed down, as we see so often in the Psalms:

Let not the downtrodden turn back in shame;

let the poor and needy praise your name. (Psalm 74:21)

For I am poor and needy,

and my heart is stricken within me. (Psalm 109:22)

And in particular this one:

He raises the poor from the dust

and lifts the needy from the ash heap,

to make them sit with princes,

with the princes of his people. (Psalm 113:7-8)

Aha! Here we have something approaching our first beatitude. Good news for the pauper is that they will be made princes: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The poor, the needy, the afflicted, the downtrodden, the one of meanest estate has reason to rejoice that King Jesus is on the move. Glory for Him is salvation for us. Welcome to the royal family.

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32)

Mourn

Here we see a similar treatment to the first beatitude. How often have you heard this one transmogrified by stuffing it with extraneous information? Thus “mourn” is specified to “mourn over sin,” which we understand as repentence, something you need to get you saved, right?

Let’s keep Ockham happy, shall we, and stick with the simple idea of being lugubrious, doleful, sorrowful, for any of the manifold causes that life on this mortal coil hands us. Pain and suffering, loss and regret, bereavement and deprivation. Luke has his version: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. (Luke 6:21). Sorry if this is not spiritual enough, but this blessedness is not a reward, it is a grace:

He will swallow up death forever;

and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,

and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,

for the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 25:8)

(Read Isaiah 25 in its entirety. See if you do not think it foreshadows Jesus’ Sermon.)

And of course we see the same promise later:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

(Revelation 21:4)

The grace we receive (and it is good news) is that we “shall be comforted.” We have a King who is here to work a plan to restore the cosmos to its rightful owner, see to it that the kingdom of this world becomes the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, but He is also our great High Priest who is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses.” (Hebrews 4:15)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

Meek

Okay, this at least is a positive character quality, right? Meekness is even listed within the fruit of the Spirit in Gal. 5:23 (where ESV, NIV, NLT et al. render it “gentleness.”) Yes, but it is still not quid pro quo, a reward for well doing. It is a grace.

This one has a clear OT antecedent:

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!

Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.

For the evildoers shall be cut off,

but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.

In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;

though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.

But the meek shall inherit the land

and delight themselves in abundant peace.

Wait for the LORD and keep his way,

and he will exalt you to inherit the land;

you will look on when the wicked are cut off.(Psalm 37:8-11, 34)

This is good news for Israel, good news for us. In a world where the aggressive take all, the non-assertive get nothing. But in the Kingdom of Christ, we have the whole earth bequeathed to us. The promise to inherit the land becomes, as fulfilled in Christ, an inheritance of all the world.

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. (Romans 4:13)

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. (Romans 8:16-17)

To be continued in part two.

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