Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3
Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Matthew 7:23
These verses are found at the beginning and the end of the most famous sermon of all times, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7). They present us with a striking contrast between two types of people: The poor in spirit, and demon-driving, miracle-working prophets. It is a strange irony that the former will inherit the kingdom of heaven, whilst the latter will be driven out.
The introduction and conclusion of the sermon presents a frightening contrast, and everything in between expands thereon. There are two roads, two houses, two foundations, two responses to Christ’s words, two ways of praying, two ways of fasting, two ways of giving, two ways of interpreting the law, two ways of storing up reward, two ways of judging and so on. The contrast is not between the vile, drunken sinners on the broad road leading to perdition and the few pious saints on the narrow road leading to life, as the famous painting depicts. No, the contrast is between two types of religion. The religion of the poor in Spirit and the religion of the self righteous. To miss this is to misunderstand the Sermon on the Mount.
‘Blessed are the paupers’, reads the Latin Vulgate, coming closer to the original Greek text. Literally, the blessed are ‘spiritual beggars’, people who are not just deprived, but utterly destitute. They understand their spiritual poverty, their wretchedness before a holy God, and so they mourn (verse 4) and hunger and thirst for a righteousness that they know they don’t possess (verse 6). Subsequently, God fills them. The progression in the beatitudes is clear.
In contrast, the sermon portrays the ‘hypocrites’ as those who take pride in their own righteousness. They base it on their observance of Mosaic Law, and believe that their acts of giving, praying and fasting are meritorious and impressive (6:1-18). They seek their reward in the here and now, and they do so by gaining recognition for their distinction in the matters of God.
The miracle-workers of Matthew 7 fall into this category. Their ability to take control in the spiritual realm, to prophesy and exorcise demons, presents us with a metaphor of the self-righteous person. He has God all figured out, can manipulate the spiritual forces, and thinks this will get him to heaven. As a result they have no need to subject themselves to the teaching of Christ.
Let us not be deluded. Let us join the beggars and mourners instead of fabricating our own righteousness.