Sermon on the Mount 2 – Poor in Spirit

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“The foundation of all is poverty of spirit,” according to John Wesley. This is the first step to living in God’s kingdom.

Bonhoeffer seems to see it, if not as a first step, as a sort of first reality. It is the first way to describe the new reality into which Jesus’ band of disciples have entered. Here, it seems to me, emerges one of the ways in which the historical context of the expositor of the text influences their commentary on the scriptural text. Both Bonhoeffer and Wesley seem to envision a dual audience for the Sermon–the original one composed of disciples and crowds in Matthew’s gospel, and the one they picture reading or hearing their words in their own day. For Bonhoeffer, this undoubtedly includes young pastors in his underground seminary, men who have left safety and security behind to pursue a calling to live an authentic Christian life and proclaim the gospel of Christ in the midst of an overtly hostile society.

So, while Wesley’s explanation of “poor in spirit” is clearly that of an evangelist calling people to conviction and conversion, Bonhoeffer reflects with solemnity on the weightiness of the calling to which the disciples have answered, “yes.” Both of these interpretations yield important insights.

Bonhoeffer

Concerning Jesus’ use of the term “blessed” in these eight sayings, Bonhoeffer says that the self-denial and sacrifices “they have made… are not blessed in themselves. Only the call and the promise, for the sake of which [the disciples] are ready to suffer poverty and renunciation, can justify the beatitudes.” The call to Christ and the promise of God’s kingdom are the only sufficient reason to enter the life described in the beatitudes.

On the first beatitude, regarding poverty of spirit, Bonhoeffer comes across almost as favoring Luke’s rendering (Luke 6:20, “blessed are the poor”). He writes, describing the disciples, “For his sake they have lost all. In following him they lost even their own selves, and everything that could make them rich. Now they are poor… they have no other hope but him who called them.” Connecting this insight into the original disciples’ situation with the particular relevance to the young pastors under Bonhoeffer’s tutelage at the underground seminary at Finkenwalde is no difficult task. Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ comparison of the kingdom of heaven to a pearl of great value is illustrative here (Matthew 13:45-46). The one who finds the pearl sells everything he has in order to possess it. He impoverishes himself in every other way in order to gain that which he considers most valuable. Disciples of Jesus will do the same, sometimes literally.

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Wesley 

John Wesley, pressing for evangelistic revival, emphasizes the spirit of a person as the location needing a palpable sense of poverty. This is the first step. We cannot understand, engage, or enter God’s kingdom without a deep awareness and conviction that we come before God with nothing to merit acceptance. Wesley insists that we need not pursue material poverty in order to gain poverty of spirit. This could become a pitfall for self-righteousness. Instead, the poor in spirit are the truly humble and the helpless, those who know they fall far short of the glory and will of God and who acknowledge that they are powerless to remedy their situation.

Wesley observes, therefore, “that Christianity begins just where heathen morality ends; poverty of spirit, conviction of sin, the renouncing ourselves, the not having our own righteousness (the very first point in the religion of Jesus Christ), leaving all pagan religion behind.” Other religions teach salvation—life-giving connection to God—through moral performance or religious observance. Christianity teaches receiving salvation when we know we are morally and religiously insufficient before God. Against this backdrop, the amazing love of God in Christ stands in beautiful contrast. This is why poverty of spirit is blessed and the first step to the kingdom of God.

Sermon on the Mount 1 – Introduction

This spring I’m working through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) in the company of John Wesley and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in their works, Thirteen Discourses on the Sermon on the Mount (Wesley, available here) and the middle section of The Cost of Discipleship (Bonhoeffer, available here). I’ll be posting short reflections and collections of insights and quotations here as I go.

Mt5_blog picWesley and Bonhoeffer come from different eras. Wesley, the son of priest in the church of England, lived in eighteenth century England. Bonhoeffer, from a line of prominent intellectuals, lived in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet there are connections. Both men ministered at odds with the state church. Bonhoeffer led an underground church and seminary that was opposed a morally and spiritually compromised church in Nazi Germany, while Wesley led a revival movement in a spiritually dead church. And both men embraced the call to discipleship in the Christian life. From Bonhoeffer we hear the stern invitation, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” And from Wesley, we receive a belief in the powerful love of God to transform and perfect in us “holiness of heart and life.”

Background

Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist in Matthew 3 and tested in the wilderness in Matthew 4. After success against the temptations of the devil, Jesus begins his public ministry, including preaching repentance (4:12-17), early calling of disciples (4:18-22), and healing (4:23-25). In the passage just prior to the Sermon on the Mount, he is attracting large crowds due to his reputation as a healer.

Audience of the Sermon

The audience for the Sermon is a mixture of the crowds and the disciples. At this point in Matthew’s narrative, we are not yet referring to the Twelve with the term, “disciple,” as there are further calling passages in the chapters that follow the Sermon, and the Twelve are not named as such until chapter 10. The number of disciples is so far ambiguous. It is simply a way of distinguishing a difference in character and commitment: the disciples are committed followers/students/apprentices, the crowds are curious and interested. In 5:1-2, Jesus is directly teaching the disciples in the presence of the crowds. By 7:28-29, the crowds have clearly been listening carefully as well.

Purpose of the Sermon

The Sermon on the Mount is both “kingdom ethics” for disciples and an invitation for the crowds. Christianity is not a secret society, the instruction on how disciples of Jesus are to live is given in public. Because humankind is intended to live in God, the Sermon teaches the true way of living for humankind.

Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer points out that the disciples are those who have responded to the call of Christ and obeyed his word, while the crowds (Jewish residents of rural Israel here) are heirs of the promise of God. “Hence the aim of this beatitude is to bring all who hear it to decision and salvation,” says Bonhoeffer.

All are called to be what in reality of God they are already. The disciples are called blessed because they have obeyed the call of Jesus, and the people as a whole because they are heirs of the promise. But will they now claim their heritage by believing in Jesus Christ and his word?

Bonhoeffer presses this question on us personally too: Will we now claim the heritage of God for us “by believing in Jesus Christ and his word” here in the Sermon?

Wesley

Wesley sees the Sermon as instruction for disciples, but also are revelation of God’s will to humankind: “with what amazing love does the Son of God here reveal his Father’s will to man!” Wesley wants us to know that holiness is the way to true, soul-deep, happiness and views the Sermon as an exposition of that reality, if we will recognize and receive it as such.

Happy are the mourners, the meek, those that hunger after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart. Happy in the end, and in the way; happy in this life, and in life everlasting! As if [Jesus] had said, ‘Who is he that lusts to live, and would fain see good days? Behold, I show you the thing which your soul longs for! See the way you have so long sought in vain; the way of pleasantness; the path to calm, joyous peace, to heaven below and heaven above!’

Wesley might ask us, then, if our eyes are open. Do we see clearly that true happiness is taught here in the Sermon? For those with eyes to see, he trumpets: “Behold, I show you the thing which your soul longs for!”

The Life-Giving Word

I run in the path of your commands, for you have broadened my understanding. (Psalm 119:32)

The verse above resonates with me because of the vivid picture of running within the path. Making the imaginative leap to our lives is not difficult. Like the conservationist carefully clearing and marking the trail or like the parks personnel diligently planning and laying the walkways, God’s Word creates a path for us to walk within. If the path seems confining, spiritual and moral wilderness is the alternative. The right path is a gift.

What I love best about this verse is how the boundaries of a path and the broadness of the person’s understanding are matched together. Other translations use images of a heart freed or enlarged. Both ways of rendering the original Hebrew phrase gets at the same idea. See the contrast? When our path has clearer boundaries, wisdom broadens. The reverse is also true. When our path’s boundaries are blurred or non-existent morally and spiritually, wisdom shrinks. Hearts are chained, not freed.

So, what paths does God mark off clearly for us as Christians? Sex is an obvious one. The traditional standard of sexual intimacy within the context of marriage is the Christian teaching. Walking terrain beyond this path fails to free hearts and broaden wisdom. Experiences? Yes. Wisdom? No. Let’s be clear about that. But let’s be equally clear that God’s path includes boundaries for stewardship and generosity, forgiveness and reconciliation, justice and compassion. Stinginess, judgmentalism, self-centeredness, hard-heartedness, and pride are at least as pernicious vices. Probably more, in fact, since their root systems are concentrated in the heart, mind, and soul. If we don’t perceive ourselves “sinning in the body,” sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking that we aren’t in any wilderness at all.

Yet, God does give us commands: the Ten Commandments, the Great Commandment of love of God and neighbor, the fruit of the Spirit—most of all, the life and teachings of Jesus. Even better, God makes choosing and staying on this path possible by the power of Jesus’ cross and resurrection, and through the work of the Holy Spirit and the Church in our lives.

Want broad understanding? Expanded wisdom? Strong, free hearts? The Psalmist is clear. Run in the path of God’s commands.

Ben Witherington on “Why I’m a Wesleyan”

Dr. Ben Witherington III is one of the most prominent New Testament scholars in the world. In this brief video from my friends at Seedbed he addresses the topic, “Why I’m a Wesleyan.”

Now, I’m a generous orthodoxy sort of Christian (before the Brian McLaren book seized upon the phrase). I believe in creedal orthodoxy, represented by the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. And I believe in a generosity about the Body of Christ: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity, as the saying goes. But I also think it’s alright to put forward the distinctives of one’s own branch of Christianity’s family tree and make the case for its faithfulness to scripture, even over against other branches of the family tree, provided it’s done in love.

So, without further adieu… Here’s Dr BW3:

Review of Laying Down the Sword, by Philip Jenkins

My latest book review is up at Asbury’s resource site, Seedbed.com. It’s a review of Philip Jenkins’ fall 2011 book, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses.

The book deals with a difficult subject, the presence of troubling examples of, and even commands to participate in, extreme acts of violence. It’s a subject that represents a stumbling block to many.

Jenkins is a scholar with a good reputation. I read his excellent book, The Next Christendom, ten years ago. It calls attention to the shift in the “center of gravity” in global Christianity from the northern to the southern hemisphere with the exceptional growth of the Church in South America, Africa, India, and China.

Check out my review of Laying Down the Sword here.

Review of Practicing Theological Interpretation

My latest review is up at Asbury’s Seedbed.com resourcing site. The book is Practicing Theological Interpretation, by Joel B. Green. Joel was my professor for Introduction to the New Testament at Asbury. Great teacher and scholar. He is now at Fuller Seminary in California.

I enjoy reading Joel’s work. It’s challenging–you need your thinking cap. He has a wonderful command of the English language and never fails to offer penetrating insights and arguments. Practicing Theological Interpretation is no different.

What Leviticus Teaches About Giving

Most folks know someone who is picky. Picky about their tastes in food, movies, music, books, and decor. Picky about how things are done–properly or “by the book” or whatever.

I read Leviticus recently (with a bible-in-a-year reading plan). If you read Leviticus, one of the first features that strikes you is how picky God seems about the sacrifices the Israelites are to bring before him. Whether a grain offering or an animal offering, God is exclusively interested in the best. Consider: “If the offering is a communal sacrifice of well-being, the one who offers the herd animal–whether it is male or female–must present a flawless specimen before the Lord” (Lev. 3:1 CEB). And, “When anyone presents a grain offering to the Lord, the offering must be of choice flour” (Lev. 2:1 CEB).

That specificity is repeated throughout the instructions on sacrifices in Leviticus 1-7 (and even made more explicit in some verses). No wiggle room on this subject.

What’s going on here?

The best flour and animals without any blemish would have been the most valuable to the people. I don’t think this is about God being “worth our very best.” After all, he’s actually worth far more than we can give. But to give the most valuable animals from the herd and grain from the harvest would have been to exercise practical trust in God’s provision. It would have made such a financial impact, it would clearly and unambiguously demonstrate practical faith in God. Giving the flawless animal was actually a way of giving oneself to God, showing who one treasures and trusts.

The connection to our own giving is clear. Does what we give indicate practical trust in God’s provision?

God is picky. He is picky about having our heart to himself. And as Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:21 CEB)