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©Douglas Beyer 2000

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THE HAPPINESS OF THE DESTITUTE
Matthew 5:3

In 1418 the Council of Constance decreed, "If any cleric or monk speaks jocular words, such as provoke laughter, let him be anathema." The decree itself sounds funny to modern ears. Nowadays some clergy try to be stand-up comics. They are better at entertaining than inspiring.

Laughter takes many different forms. It can be dirty and cruel, but it can also be healthy and holy.Happy!

There is enough tragedy in the Bible to make it the saddest book ever written, but instead it is the joyfulest.

After the old prophet, Nehemiah read the holy scriptures he said, "Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength" (Nehemiah 8:10).

Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount with a classic recipe for happiness, commonly called the "Beatitudes." The English word, "blessed" with which each begins in the well-known King James Version has acquired a stained-glass sound that causes us to forget its original meaning, which my Webster's Unabridged Dictionary gives as, "enjoying happiness or bliss." On the other hand, the word "happy" is too weak a word to say all that Jesus meant. Its root is "hap," the same as in "happening." It suggests the kind of happiness that is dependent on happenstance or circumstance.

The blessing Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount is an all-weather kind of happiness that the storms of life cannot blow away.

We need to hear this now more than ever. Never have people spent more and tried harder to be happy. And never has happiness seemed further from their grasp.

Their problem is they are looking for happiness in all the wrong places. Instead of listening to Jesus, they have created their own list of beatitudes from which they vainly try to suck happiness:

  • Blessed are the wealthy, for theirs is the kingdom of earth.

  • Blessed are those who play, for they shall be amused.

  • Blessed are the strong, for they shall rule the earth.

  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after sex, for they shall be full.

  • Blessed are the just, for they need no mercy.

  • Blessed are the pure, for they shall be seen.

  • Blessed are the peacekeepers, for they shall be called the children of God.

  • Blessed are those who are praised for their righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

  • Blessed are you when people shall flatter you and praise you and shall say all manner of nice things  about you constantly. Rejoice and be
    exceeding glad, for great is your reward on earth.

Such is the Revised Standard Perversion of this world's beatitudes. They are counterfeit keys which do not unlock doors to the house of happiness.

Jesus offers you a completely different set of keys. I admit that they will look very strange to you at first, but in the end they will work better than the ones you have been trying to use.

The first beatitude is a big surprise to those who think that happiness is spelled m-o-n-e-y. Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

Matthew 5:1Now, let's be honest. In spite of two thousand years of Christian ideals, this first word from Jesus in the famous Sermon on the Mount does sound strange to your ears, doesn't it?

What kind of poverty is a blessing? At first you might be relieved to notice that Jesus doesn't say "Blessed are the poor in purse," because you know that's not a happy thought. To be unable to pay your bills is a "blessing" you'd rather do without. Right? But your relief is cut short by a quick look at Luke's report of these beatitudes. He says nothing about being "poor in spirit." Instead, he quotes Jesus as saying, "Blessed are you who are poor" (Luke 6:20). Period! And just to be sure you don't miss the point he goes on to say, "Woe to you who are rich" (Luke 6:24).

Furthermore, Matthew's version isn't really any easier to accept: "Blessed are the poor in spirit." The really impoverished people aren't the ones without a dollar but the ones without a dream, not the financially broke but the spiritually broke. Can it be that the broken in spirit are actually happier than the strong in spirit?

The difference between the wording in Matthew and Luke is probably due to Luke giving the words of Jesus while Matthew gives his meaning. The word for poor went through several changes in definition. Originally it meant simply "having no money." Then it came to mean "having no money, therefore having no influence." Then it meant, "having no influence, therefore down-trodden and oppressed." Finally it came to mean, "lacking all earthly resources, therefore completely trusting God."

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is not glorifying material destitution. He is using a commonly recognized financial reality to uncover a not-so-easily recognized spiritual reality. He is speaking to those who have faced their utter helplessness, whether it be in material or spiritual things… or both. He says to them there is more hope for you than for those who are still deceived by their riches into thinking they also have a title deed to the kingdom of heaven.

A PARADOX

This is obviously a paradox, but that is the way much of life is. The only way to goodness is through confession of badness. The only way to knowledge is through admission of ignorance. The first century Roman teacher, Quintilian, said of his students, "They would become excellent scholars if they were not so fully persuaded of their own scholarship." {Footnote, Barclay's Daily Study Bible} Likewise, many would become Christians if they were not so fully persuaded of their own piety.

The main barrier that prevents people from enjoying God's salvation is not unrighteousness but self-righteousness (Romans 10:1-3). That was the problem the Pharisee had when he went to the temple to pray. He was too full of himself to receive what God had to offer. In spite of all his prayers, fasting and alms, he missed the blessing of God (Luke 18:10-14).

Jesus said he didn't come to call the "righteous" people, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). The happiness of the sinner who repents reaches all the way to heaven, leaving the so-called "righteous" in unrepentant melancholy (Luke 15:7).

The much neglected third verse of the hymn, Rock of Ages, catches this truth.Rock of Ages

        Nothing in my hand I bring
        Simply to thy cross I cling
        Naked, come to thee for dress,
        Helpless, look to thee for grace;
        Foul, I to the fountain fly,
        Wash me, Savior, or I die.

Eugene Peterson translates this beatitude: "You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule" (The Message). The only hopeless cases are those who refuse to declare moral and spiritual bankruptcy and fall to the mercy of God. The happily blessed people are those who say, "Nothing in my hand I bring. Simply to thy cross I cling." Theirs is, indeed, the kingdom of heaven. Max Lucado calls them "Beggars in Godís soup kitchen."

A PRESENT POSSESSION

Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom." In the King James Version "are" is in italics showing that it was not in the original manuscripts. The verb was inserted to make it easier to read. But what Jesus literally said was "Happy… the poor in spirit!" It is more than a simple indicative sentence: it is an exclamation. It is not a pious hope or glowing promise of what shall be, but a declaration of what is. It's not a "lay-away plan," but a present possession.

Jesus said, "The kingdom of heaven belongs (present tense) to them" (TEV). It belongs to them here and now because they are citizens of the kingdom and submit to the authority of God. When you speak of "my country" you do not mean that you own it or run it. What you really mean is that you belong to it. You obey its laws and pay its taxes, you defend its rights and promote its interests. Likewise, if the kingdom of God is your kingdom, you belong to it. You are loyal subjects of the King.

The kingdom of God belongs to those who know they are spiritually poor not only because they are subjects who submit to God, but also because they are sons and daughters who share the riches of God. You are more than citizens of the kingdom; you are heirs of the King. He shares his glory with you, forms his character in you and works his purpose through you.

Finally, the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who know they are spiritually poor because they are celebrants who rejoice in the power of God. It is, in fact, a kingdom to which you belong. Your king has declared, "All power in heaven and earth is given unto me" (Matthew 28:18). Your king is the King of kings and Lord of Lords. Every Sunday (and week days too!) you celebrate his victory in the defeat of his enemies and yours.

The King of kings has two thrones: one in the highest heaven, the other in the lowliest heart. Isaiah gives us the triumphant word of God, "I am the high and holy God, who lives forever. I live in a high and holy place, but I also live with people who are humble and repentant" (Isaiah 57:15). Blessed and happy here and now are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

A PERMANENT POSSESSION

What you now possess you will possess forever. Jesus said, "Your hearts will be filled with gladness, the kind of gladness that no one can take away from you" (John 16:22 TEV). No one can take it away from you because no one gave it to you. No circumstance can take it away from you because no circumstance gave it to you.

The security of your joy comes from the fact that God accepts you unconditionally. You did nothing to make God start loving you. You can do nothing to make God stop loving you.

Contrary to what you may have heard, happiness is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. Basketball player Dennis Rodman can be "Bad as I wanna be." You can be as good as you wanna be. You are as happy as you make up your mind to be. It doesn't depend on what you have, but on what you are. How can you be anything other than profoundly happy looking up out of your destitution and discovering that God is your Father, Christ is your Savior, and the Church is your brothers and sisters?

 

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