Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio



  Matthew 5:3-12

  Psalm 86:1-7

      On this first Sunday in Lent, we begin a series of messages on what are commonly called “The

Beatitudes;” the “blessed are they” statements.  The beatitudes actually serve as a prelude to the

Sermon on the Mount, preserved in chapters 5 through 7 in Matthew’s Gospel.  Some of the same

Beatitudes – with slight variations – are also found in the 6th chapter of Luke.  But for our purposes

over the course of the next several weeks, we’ll depend heavily on Matthew’s account.

      Matthew places this most renowned of sermons early in the chronology of Jesus’ ministry.  Je-

sus had been baptized by John in the Jordan River.  He’d endured forty days of temptation in the

wilderness.  He’d begun His teaching in Galilee to rave reviews.  And He’d begun the process of

choosing and calling those who would become His inner-circle.  Before long, Jesus’ fame had

spread far and wide.  People came in huge numbers to hear His teaching and to be healed of their

afflictions.  On one particular occasion, the crowd was becoming so overwhelmingly enormous

that Jesus retreated to a high place where He sat down.  In typical rabbinical fashion, surrounded

by His student followers, He began to teach.

          (Read Matthew 5:3-12)

   There has been a lot of scholarly debate over the word which begins each of the nine beatitudes.

So we’ll start there. The Greek word which is translated “blessed” in our English Bible is makarios

(makarios) -- makarios are the poor in spirit;  makarios are those who mourn; makarios  are

are the meek.  The force of this Greek word is hard to capture with a single English equivalent. 

Translators of just about every version of the Bible use the word “blessed.”  But this doesn’t quite

get to the fullness of the meaning.  A few translators begin each beatitude with the word “happy.”

Oxymoronic as it may strike us, happy are the poor in spirit; happy are those who mourn; happy

are the meek.  The late Scottish commentator William Barclay suggested a way of understanding

“blessed” in this context, drawing from the Aramaic which is even further nuance:  Blissful are the

poor in spirit….are those who mourn….are the meek; filled with happiness to the point of hardly

being able to contain it.  Think of a little baby.  We tickle his toes.  We smile at her.  And she is so

filled with utter bliss that she just screams out in unrestrained joy.  All parents know that blessed

sound.  Webster defines bliss as complete unmitigated happiness, such as we might imagine in

paradise; a happiness inside which no outside circumstances or situation can quench.  For this

sermon series, I broke out my Greek lexicon and found yet another meaning of makarios: happy

and fortunate in the sense of being a privileged recipient of divine favor.

      So how do each of the nine beatitudes of Jesus begin?  Blessed; happy beyond what one could

possibly imagine; favored and privileged by God…. are who?  The poor in spirit; the mourning, the

meek, and so on.  Herein lies the mystery and the challenge of the beatitudes.  How might these

beatitudes have sounded to the original hearers that day, proclaimed from a mountain pulpit?  How

do these beatitudes sound to us?  Blessed, blissful, privileged, favored….. are the poor?!  the grief-

stricken?!  the persecuted?!  Jesus, we like your teaching and all, and we sure like the way you can

heal the diseased and demon-possessed.  But something here doesn’t square.

      Well, Jesus could hardly have opened His sermon with a more startling statement:  “Blessed are

the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Luke records it this way:  “Blessed are the

poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”  Very few folk would see poverty – of spirit or of material

things – as a blessing.  Not many would claim that there is any bliss to be found in destitution. 

Poverty has, in fact, been called “a great enemy of human happiness.”  Many, and especially those

of Jesus’ original blue-collar, lower middle-class audience, would be inclined to speak of the curse of

poverty rather than of the blessing of poverty.

      Yet here is Jesus proclaiming that blessed are the poor; the poor of substance and/or spirit.  And

to make it all the more shocking, the word ptwcos (ptochos) which translates “poor” means dirt

poor; poor as poor can get; so poor that there is absolutely nothing more to be lost; bottom of the

hole.  Jesus says blessed, blissful, divinely-privileged are those who are rock-bottom poor – spiritual-

ly, physically, materially, emotionally; those who are absolutely bankrupt…… “for theirs is the

kingdom of heaven.” 

      But the Greek word ptwcos has another layer of meaning.  It describes one who is not only po-

verty-stricken, but one who has come to terms with his or her poverty; one who has acknowledged

her or his inadequacy; one who recognizes that so much of life is outside their control; one who

has been forced by circumstances in life to become so dependent on God that he or she is indepen-

dent of everything else.

      Years ago, when I was serving as a student pastor at the Mt. Nebo Church in Pittsburgh, I got to

know a parishioner by the name of Pete.  Pete was afflicted with severe COPD which slowly sapped

his life from him over the three years of my ministry there.  Pete had always had all the money he

could possibly want.  He enjoyed power and prestige in his career as an executive with Sherwin-

Williams Corporation.  He had lived in a beautiful home.  He never had much need for God, nor set

any future thoughts on the Kingdom of God.  His wife Harriett would have to drag him and his oxy-

gen tank to church every Sunday, and he made sure everyone knew how much he didn’t want to be

there; his arms crossed; a scowl on his face.  It was only as his illness robbed him of his last ounce

of strength, and most of his once-massive bank account, that Pete lay in a nursing home.  And out

of his utter destitution – spiritual, physical, material, emotional – Pete was compelled to put his

total trust in the God he had spent his whole life sidestepping or scowling at.  For Pete, there was

nothing else.

      Yet had you seen or spoken with Pete in his final weeks of mortal life, you would have thought

to yourself, as I did:  Blessed, blissful, fortunate is poor Pete, for his is the kingdom of heaven.  And

for Pete in those last days, it wasn’t some sweet by and by, pie in the sky sort of bliss and blessed-

ness.  He was already luxuriating in the Kingdom of God; the fullness of God’s presence; basking in

and soaking up every word of Scripture I read him at his bedside.  Once tightly-crossed arms were

unfolded, and his hands were clasped in prayer.  The scowl was gone, replaced by a softness and

tenderness in his visage.  There was a sparkle in his sunken eyes.  He was possessed of a peace I had

never seen before in anyone; a peace he had never been able to attain via power, or money, or

independence; a peace he could have never even imagined, and a peace which his circumstances

could not trouble.

      “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  This first beatitude con-

tains within it a whole attitude of life, and three basic maxims about life oriented to the Kingdom of

God.  First, it teaches that the way to power, in a spiritual sense, lies in the realization of helpless-

ness; that the way to victory lies in the admission of sin and brokenness; that the way to godly wis-

dom begins with the concession of our own frailty and inadequacy in the face of life’s most pro-

found challenges.  This beatitude affirms the basic fact that the first necessity toward the attain-

ment of the fullness of life – now and in the hereafter – is a sense of utter need for God.

     A second truth of life oriented to the Kingdom of God contained in this single beatitude is that

true wealth can never consist in the possession of worldly things.  The person who has nothing but

money, or personal power, or prestige with which to meet the harsh realities of life is actually a

poverty-stricken soul.  An essential element of worldly wealth is its insecurity.  Any of these things

can be lost, often unexpectedly and without warning.  We can go from mountaintop to rock bottom

in what seems a blink of the eye. Barclay states it well:  “This beatitude lays it down that the man

who has put his trust in that which his own skill or ingenuity can acquire has put his trust in the

wrong place, and that before life ends, he will make the tragic discovery that he has done so.”

      A third maxim about life which this beatitude teaches is that the way to ultimate independence

lies in absolute dependence, and that the way to true freedom lies in surrender where things of the

kingdom of heaven are concerned.  We come to God in the truest sense by giving our lives up to

God; in the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, by being born again or anew in a spiritual way.  We find

freedom to live our lives without fear of tomorrow by being dependent on God’s provision today; by

allowing God to do what we regularly ask:  “…give us this day, our daily bread.” 

      In its totality, the first beatitude instructs that the way to bliss, which the world can neither give

nor take away, lies in the recognition of our own need; our acknowledgment of poverty if you will.

Then, and only then, can we put our whole trust in God.  Only then are we likely to humbly and

totally accept the will of God, and in so doing, become bona fide citizens of “the kingdom of

heaven.”  Not in the sweet by and by, but even here and now, the kingdom of heaven can dwell in

our hearts.  Like 19th century Irish writer Oscar Wilde once asked, “How else but through a broken

and bankrupt heart may the Lord Christ enter in?”  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the

kingdom of heaven.”  Amen.