Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Jonathan Arnold, Dean of Divinity at Magdalen College, Oxford on 7th January 2018 at the Benefice Service in St Mary’s, Garsington.
Readings: Isaiah 61: 1-11; Luke 18: 9-14
The Beatitudes are an extraordinary set of declarations which seems at odds with all rational and accepted assessments of world hierarchy. These challenging statements are part of a larger discourse by Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount, and occur, in Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness and his calling of the first disciples. In other words placed, by Matthew, and by Luke, as being early on in Jesus’s ministry. They are a radical, counter-cultural and counter-intuitive set of declarations. In a world where Roman political power dominated the known world, including the Middle East, Christ’s words subvert received notions of power. He replaces physical, military, financial and political power with the idea that those who have the least earthly power or might are at the heart of an even greater strength, that of divine and eternal blessing.
Early Christianity was a movement that challenged ideas of worldly strength. The poor and marginalised followers of Christ could not compete with the military might of the Empire, but they could find a more profound strength in Christ’s words of comfort, that those who suffer, who grieve, who are persecuted, who are meek, are most to be valued. Each of the Beatitudes is not a separate category of person, so that I am poor in spirit, you are meek, she is mourning, and he is merciful etc. For at various and simultaneous times we each inhabit one or all of these blessed states, none of which manifest themselves in self-gratifying feelings of pride. Each state of being of the beatitudes has an aspect of humility and powerlessness. Such subversion of earthly values led to the crucifixion of Jesus himself and of many of his followers for centuries after. So what do these remarkable statements mean for today’s highly politicised world, in which we have not only powerful Empires but super powers ruling over us? So this sermon series begins with ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’
Last year, on Radio 4’s Today Programme, the journalist John Humphries was looking back on his 30 years as a presenter. In his review of the past three decades he played an extract from his first interview with Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. In the interview she revealed something of her outlook on life, which is something we would not expect to hear from any British politician today. She said:
‘The fundamental reason for being on this Earth is so to improve your character so that you are fit for the next world.’
The phrase is remarkable, not only because, since Tony Blair’s government declared that they ‘don’t do God’, British politicians have rarely talked openly about their faith. But also because the phrase reveals something of Thatcher’s own soteriology, i.e. the theories concerning how we obtain salvation (in other words – the kingdom of heaven), and also something of her ideology of individual striving in order to gain character and achieve a greater future – an ideology that was at the heart of her policies. Theologically, however, I find the words problematic, because she so earnestly believed that by striving to improve one’s character on this world we can earn our place in the next. It is a theology that was proclaimed as long ago as the fourth century AD by Pelagius and it was refuted as heresy by Augustine of Hippo and by many others since.
Our readings today provide us with an alternative understanding of where our place is in the scheme of creation and what might be ‘the fundamental reason for our existence.’
The famous words from Isaiah 61: ‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me’ were ones with which Christ self-identified (according to Luke). The one who frees the oppressed, binds up the broken-hearted, proclaims liberty to the captives, is God. And, we read, it is the humble and lowly, on whom God acts, who are then redeemed and raised. They gain a garland instead of ashes and a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. By God’s free love they become the people whom the Lord has blessed.
And who are these recipients of such blessing? Refugees, the homeless, the poor, the prisoners, the bereaved, the weak. These are the people who are ‘poor in spirit’. There is no equivalent word to ‘blessed’. ‘Barak’ in Hebrew or ‘Makarios’ in Greek. It does not exactly mean happy, nor worthy, nor honoured, nor justified, nor anointed. It can mean sacred, holy, most highly favoured or fortunate. At the time when Jesus spoke the words it had the connotation of wealth, contrasting with the idea of poverty – not just financial poverty, but a poverty of spirit that recognises the true meaning of poverty. Whatever interpretation we give to the word, it denotes an action upon us that we neither earn nor deserve. It is freely given love.
Recognising the poverty of our spiritual lives, however, is easier said than done. A wise monk, and my spiritual director, once warned me, when I had made that difficult decision to respond to the call to priesthood and get ordained, to be careful, for now, he said, there would come temptations like I had never known before. He was right, there is nothing like the priesthood to tempt you into spiritual pride.
The Pharisee in our New Testament lesson who thanks God that he is spiritually superior to everyone else is guilty of the worst kind of Pelagian spiritual pride, but the tax collector’s prayer gives us a real insight into what it mean to be ‘poor in spirit’. He tells us that our only genuine response to the self-giving sacrificial love of Christ is repentance and humility, or poverty of spirit. Poverty of spirit is not defeatism or depression. It is recognising that our lives, well-being, gifts, talents, prosperity, our families, friends and all that we do are instigated, dependent and sustained not by any power that we possess but by a loving being whose only agenda is love – love that brings equality out of injustice, peace out of conflict, salvation out of rebellion and heaven out of hell. That love, most powerfully and paradoxically expressed through the seeming weakness and fragility of the baby Christ-child, adored by the Three Kings at Epiphany, a weakness that foreshadows the vulnerability of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The epiphany of the incarnation means that we are beneficiaries of the love that cannot be comprehended, but may be part of our experience, once we recognise that being poor in spirit is to be delivered from the fallacy that we can control our world by our own self-appointed power; it is to live out the imperative to love God and one’s neighbour trusting that, only when we accept the reality and fragility of our brief lives and rely upon a greater reality, is when we start the process of accepting our tiny roles within the history of this universe and are thus released from the burden of our egoism and find that we are, indeed, in our poverty, most richly loved and blessed.