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Faithlife Corporation

Poor and Happy

Notes & Transcripts

Walt Disney believed his famous California theme park was “the happiest place on earth.” After a trip to Disney World in Florida with Cathryn and the kids, I might agree. We stayed at the beautiful Wilderness Lodge and enjoyed five days with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Pluto. Who wouldn’t have a smile on his face with friends like that? Check your gloomies at the park gate. For sure, Disney is a place for blessed and blissful people. But is it the happiest place on earth?

A new report released by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development says happiness levels are highest in northern European countries.[1] The Paris-based group of 30 countries with democratic governments provides economic and social statistics and data. Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands ranked at the top of the list in first, second and third place. Others in the top 10 list of the world’s happiest places include New Zealand, Canada, Belgium and Switzerland. The United States did not place in the top 10.

Why did these countries rate the best? Researchers point to their overall economic health. The countries that scored the highest on the happiness scale also have some of the highest gross domestic product per capita in the world. The way people balance work and life and low unemployment were also major contributors to one’s happiness.

Honestly, there were no poor countries listed among the world’s happiest places. Are you surprised? And given the cost of a Disney vacation, not many poor families can afford it. So if Disney is “the happiest place on earth,” it’s not for the poor. How then could Jesus say “happy are the poor,” or did he?

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit”

Most of us would not speak of poverty and happiness in the same sentence. Actually, many believe, at some level, the highway to happiness is lined with wealth and abundance. But surprisingly, poverty is exactly what Jesus links with supreme blessedness and exalted happiness in this first beatitude. Is he crazy or what?

First, let’s conduct a word study. The Greek language has two words that it uses to describe someone who is poor. Penes describes the working man who makes just enough to put food on his table, clothes on his back, and a roof over his head. He provides for his family but there are no frills. No trips to Disney World. Living paycheck to paycheck, he is poor but not destitute. As you might guess, this is not the word Jesus uses in verse 3.

Ptochos, on the other hand, describes a condition of absolute and abject poverty. This is poor like a beggar or a homeless person. It is the kind of poverty that brings a person to his or her knees. Penes describes the person who has nothing extra or fancy while the ptochos person is so poor he has nothing at all. When Jesus talks about the kind of poverty that is required for entrance into the kingdom of heaven, he uses the word ptochos.

Now that we’ve complete our word study, what kind of absolute poverty is Jesus talking about? Is it intellectual, emotional, financial, material, psychological or spiritual?

A common error regarding this beatitude is to think Jesus is delivering a pithy, socioeconomic commentary that praises those who suffer in material poverty. This view adds to the skepticism the world has of the Jewish Rabbi and his teachings. Some say the whole Sermon on the Mount is idealistic and points to Jesus’s psychological imbalance. “What kind of person would say things like ‘happy are the poor’ and ‘turn the other cheek’?” say critics of Jesus. Others believe Jesus is a radical whose moral teachings might have challenged the inequalities of his day, but that he wasn’t practical. Jesus is well respected, they say, but not followed.

Well, Jesus is neither impractical nor psychologically out of balance. He taught that the “poor in spirit” are blessed, not the poorly educated, or the poor in health, or even the poor in wealth. He taught his disciples that spiritual poverty is required for entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

Some tried to apply this beatitude by pursuing monasticism, which became popular among Christ followers early in church history. People like Anthony, the son of relatively wealthy parents in 300 A.D. and St. Francis, who belonged to the wealthy merchant class of Assisi in 1200 A.D., believed a life of poverty and solitude gave them entrance into the kingdom of God.

Inspired by the story Jesus told about a rich young ruler, Anthony, for example, sold all his possessions and gave the money to the poor. He then chose to live in caves and tombs with a hermit who taught him and others the monastic way of life.

Although history commends these men for their commitment and conviction, they and many others often misunderstand Jesus’s words about poverty and the kingdom. Many who sought to live a life of poverty believed the act of giving up their possessions earned or merited their favor with God. They thought they were living a ‘poor in spirit’ life but actually the opposite was true.

What the Monks failed to realize is this: you cannot merit God’s favor by selling your possessions and living in abject poverty any more than you can use your wealth to purchase your way into heaven. In the kingdom of God, the poor in spirit are rich and the rich in spirit are poor. So what exactly does Jesus mean when he says “blessed are the poor in spirit?” Perhaps an illustration from Scripture will help.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

The story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14 provides one of the most vivid contrasts between spiritual pride and spiritual poverty. Luke says Jesus told this parable to an audience of people who were “confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.”

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed abut himself: ‘God, I thank you thank I am not like the other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Get the picture? Two guys show up to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee and the other is a crooked tax collector. One is a religious professional and the other is a professional rip-off artist. One boasts of his religious accomplishments and the other willingly admits he is a sinner. One leaves the temple condemned by God and the other leaves justified. One is proud in spirit while the other is poor in spirit. Do you identify more with the Pharisee or the tax collector?

The proud Pharisee was infected with the same disease found in the Church of Laodicea, which is one of seven churches to which Jesus wrote a letter in Revelation 2-3. While this church actually existed in the first century, many Bible scholars believe it also represents the church as it will exist in the last days before the return of Jesus Christ.

Jesus spoke harshly to the people of this church, calling them neither cold nor hot but lukewarm. Because of their tepid spirituality, Jesus said he was going to spit them out of his mouth. He was disgusted with them. Here’s why,

“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17).

Jesus delivers a scathing rebuke! To a people whose wealth had blinded them into believing things were just fine between them and God, Jesus says they are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.

William Barclay paraphrases this first beatitude in a beautiful way by saying, “Blessed are the men who realize they are utterly helpless, and who put their whole trust in God.” The wealthy do not feel as though they are “utterly helpless.” On the contrary, they feel as though they “do not need a thing,” including God. Perhaps that is why God expresses such strong affections in his word for the poor and the poor in spirit.

Jesus stood in the temple and quoted from Isaiah to inaugurate his ministry saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because he has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). Why the poor? Because the poor know they are in desperate circumstances. They are utterly dependant on others to provide for them. They are needy. When the absolute poor hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it really does sound like good news. To them everything in life is a gift from the gracious hand of God.

In his book The Jesus I Never Knew, author Phillip Yancey says his former pastor Bill Leslie used to observe, “As churches grow wealthier and more successful, their preference in hymns changes from ‘This world is not my home, I’m just passin’ through’ to ‘This is my Father’s world.’” Yancey goes on to say, “In the United States, at least, Christians have grown so comfortable that we no longer identify with the humble conditions Jesus addressed in the Beatitudes – which may explain why they sound so strange to our ears.”

The first step, therefore, on the highway to happiness is an attitude that recognizes one’s spiritual bankruptcy before God. Like the old hymn writer posed, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.”

A Dog Named Zero

When I was a young boy growing up in Indiana, my brothers and I were friends with the Palmer boys who lived down the street. The Palmers had three boys just like the Joneses and our ages conveniently corresponded. The Joneses were always trying to keep up with the Palmers and vice versa. You name it, we competed in football, basketball, baseball and anything else we could find.

One day the Palmers brought home a new puppy. Everybody loves a puppy and this puppy was love from the first day it arrived. This puppy needed a name, but the first order of business, according to Mr. and Mrs. Palmer, was potty training.

So the Palmers took the puppy out in the backyard morning, noon and night. They put newspapers down on the floor of the utility room just in case he made a mistake and piddled on the floor. They worked and worked with this little puppy. They loved this puppy like no puppy had ever been loved. But it soon became obvious that this puppy from the pound was not a quick study. It was failing potty training! And it still needed a name.

One day I asked my friend Danny Palmer, “So, what did you name your puppy?”

“We named him Zero,” he said with a sad look on his face.

“Why did you name him Zero?” I asked.

“Because my dad says he scored a big, fat zero in potty training!”

In the same way, on a scale of 1 to 10 – the scale being the moral law of God expressed in the Ten Commandments – we all score a big, fat ZERO! In other words, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The prophet Isaiah said it this way, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” (Isa. 64:6). Yes, we are spiritual zeros apart from the merits of Jesus Christ! Nothing – absolutely nothing! – in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.

Think about it this way. If your spiritual condition apart from Jesus Christ was a bank account, you would have a zero balance. Nothing. Nada. Zilch! Admitting our spiritual poverty is one of the hardest things we will ever do. But it is the first step we must take before a holy God.

In his book The Secret to Happiness, Billy Graham writes, “We must admit we are poor before we can be made rich. We must admit we are destitute before we can become children (of God) by adoption. When we realize that all of our goodness is as filthy rags in God’s sight and become aware of the destructive power of our stubborn wills, when we realize our absolute dependence upon the grace of God through faith and nothing more, then we have started on the road to happiness.”

This beatitude, then, provides the spiritual mindset of those who would become followers of Jesus Christ. They must be poor in spirit, acknowledging that they can bring nothing before God that merits his approval or that can purchase entrance into the kingdom of heaven. The poor in spirit are those that rely totally and utterly on the gracious gift of God.

Charles Hadden Spurgeon, the great preacher from a previous generation, had it right when he said, “The first link between my soul and Christ is not my goodness but my badness, not my merit but my misery, not my riches but my need.”

The first beatitude also describes the attitude one must bring to break free of an addiction or what the writer of Hebrews calls “besetting sins” (Heb. 12:1 KJV). All sin is addicting, some more than others. The Celebrate Recovery program paraphrases this beatitude by having participants – alcoholics, drug addicts, sex addicts, gamblers, and more – admit, “I need help!” We cannot experience the victorious Christian life without admitting daily our need for the enabling power and resources of the Holy Spirit.

“For theirs is the kingdom of heaven”

 

 

 


William Barclay paraphrases this first beatitude in a beautiful way by saying, “Blessed are the men who realize they are utterly helpless, and who put their whole trust in God.”

In his book The Jesus I Never Knew, author Phillip Yancey says his former pastor Bill Leslie used to observe, “As churches grow wealthier and more successful, their preference in hymns changes from ‘This world is not my home, I’m just passin’ through’ to ‘This is my Father’s world.’” Yancey goes on to say, “In the United States, at least, Christians have grown so comfortable that we no longer identify with the humble conditions Jesus addressed in the Beatitudes – which may explain why they sound so strange to our ears.”

“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” (Isa. 64:6).

In his book The Secret to Happiness, Billy Graham writes, “We must admit we are poor before we can be made rich. We must admit we are destitute before we can become children (of God) by adoption. When we realize that all of our goodness is as filthy rags in God’s sight and become aware of the destructive power of our stubborn wills, when we realize our absolute dependence upon the grace of God through faith and nothing more, then we have started on the road to happiness.”

Charles Hadden Spurgeon, the great preacher from a previous generation, had it right when he said, “The first link between my soul and Christ is not my goodness but my badness, not my merit but my misery, not my riches but my need.”

 

 


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[1] World’s Happiest Places, http://travel.yahoo.com/p-interests-27761674;_ylc=X3oDMTFzODRwOWZjBF9TAzI3MTYxNDkEX3MDMjcxOTQ4MQRzZWMDZnAtdG9kYXltb2QEc2xrA2hhcHB5cGxhY2VzLTUtOS0wOQ--

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