‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘
I had spent years in parish ministry before I learned that I was perhaps misunderstanding the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
Many thousands of times, I must have recited the line, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ and thought it a prayer for whatever was necessary for daily life. Only in my late-30s did I learn that another way of reading the prayer was possible, that it was about much more than hoping for the necessities. The tense could be changed and the line could become, ‘give us today the bread of tomorrow.’
The prayer was about more than just having enough in the present, it was about the future coming into the present lives of the people. It was about the things to which people looked forward becoming real. Those who prayed earnestly just to have enough for survival would find their hopes of a better future fulfilled in the present moment.
Of course, such a reading of the prayer would not have been convenient for those who were anxious that nothing would change, for changes would have challenged their power and their wealth. People struggling to get by do not have time to think, do not have time to ask questions, do not have time to seek to change the way that things are. It was much better that people prayed, ‘give us this day our daily bread,’ than they prayed the much more troublesome ‘give us today the bread of tomorrow’.
The pushing of God’s Kingdom into the future has been a feature of twenty centuries of church history.
People were told to believe and to obey and then, if they did so, they would receive their rewards in Heaven. People endured hardship and exploitation and suffering in the hope of the promise of a reward in the world to come. Should they have dared to question or to disobey the teaching of the church, then they would burn in the eternal fires of hell.
Students in history lessons at school are often baffled at stories of the medieval centuries, they cannot understand the power of the church, they cannot understand why people would be prepared to live in poverty while the clergy lived in opulence. Why did people tolerate the injustice? Why did they respect the authority of a church that served only itself?
Jesus does not push God’s Kingdom into a distant, unknown future, he does not tell people to tolerate injustice so that they can be rewarded in an afterlife.
It is hard to imagine that Jesus would not have had some sympathy for the complaint of Karl Marx that religion was the opiate of the people. Jesus had no time for the religion of his time, he challenged the religious leaders and he paid with his life for his refusal to be silent when threatened by priests.
The Kingdom is not something in a remote, unseen future; the Kingdom is something that Jesus brought into the here and now.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,’ says Jesus in the first of the lines that we call the Beatitudes.
The later lines are an anticipation of things to come, ‘they will’ says Jesus on each occasion, but the first Beatitude is expressed in the present tense. He does not say ‘theirs will be the kingdom of heaven,’ he says ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
Just as the words of the Lord’s Prayer ask that the bread of tomorrow be given to people today, so the Beatitude states that the kingdom of heaven is present today, that it is present with the poor in spirit, it is present with those who are ground down, it is present with those who are oppressed.
If the kingdom of heaven is present among the poor in spirit, then Christians must recognize the presence of the kingdom, and they must seek to serve the poor because in doing so they are acknowledging the presence of God.
To claim to be Christian and not to seek to care for the people of his kingdom is a nonsense. Jesus is explicit that these are people who are blessed, he is explicit that these are the people for whom God has a special regard.
If the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit, then a different church is needed. Bishops and hierarchies need to go, Jesus’ way of doing things needs to become a priority.
If the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit, then it will not be found unless it is sought among those people.