It is no coincidence that the very first statement of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount was (and is) “How happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The more I contemplate this saying, the more I am convinced that these few words are the starting point and even the summary of all of Jesus’ teachings.
One way to understand this phrase is that only the poor in spirit have the openness, the humility, and the absence of impediments to truly hear and heed Jesus’ teachings, to accept these teachings as an invitation to a new and wonderful way of seeing and being. Jesus’ teachings are not a chore, not a test of will. They are a great gift.
A few Sundays ago, I talked about how being “poor in spirit” enables us to give outcomes over to God, while we are simply trusting God by living righteously as Jesus invites and describes.
Last week, Page talked about Jesus’ invitation to us to live a life free of condemnation of others.
Following Page’s start, this Sunday I want us to talk about Jesus’ teaching that we must not try to deserve God’s love, that our righteousness is a product of God’s love, not that God’s love is a product of our righteousness. And I want us to consider how destructive to ourselves and to others is our refusal to give up comparing our own righteousness with others. (There is a lot of Pharisee in all of us.)
In preparation, I invite you to see and hear again one of my very, very favorite stories in the New Testament:
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ 48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
Questions for your consideration before Sunday:
- Why is it so difficult for you and I to accept that the meaning of verse 47 is that this woman was showing great love because she was forgiven, not that she was forgiven because she was showing great love?
- What was so scandalous about her conduct toward Jesus?
- Why was this woman so very grateful to Jesus? Had they encountered one another before this dinner? What had he said to her? Or done for her? Anything?
- Which one are you—the Pharisee or the woman? Key: What are the critical differences between them? Their conduct? Their attitude toward themselves? Their attitude toward others? Their understanding of God?
- How would you respond to a scandalous and unconventional and upsetting show of the love for God in your presence? How would this church?
Sunday, I can help us answer item 2. above, based upon contemporary scholarship into archaeology and writings and the increasing understanding of the social conventions of Jesus’ time. But you must answer items 1, 3, 4 and 5 for yourself. And much of your answers will depend upon how “poor in spirit” you are—how capable of accepting and affirming that your righteousness does not entitle you to any more of God’s love or gifts than anyone else, and that your sense of your own righteousness will only get in the way of living in and by God’s love.