It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. That is the premise of Mike Rowe’s Discovery Channel show, “Dirty Jobs.” Mike Rowe explores the country looking for people who are not afraid to get their hands dirty. Doing the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us. In his Technology, Entertainment, and Design (or TED) talk Mike talked about how his show helped redefine our culture’s definition of success, that being in our society “clean” or white collar jobs are defined as “successful” and dirty jobs are not. Mike used to be a professional opera singer but found that he wasn’t doing anything that felt “meaningful or personal.” He got the idea for his show from his grandfather who was tradesman and was one of those guys who could take apart an engine or watch and put it back together without the instructions.
The jobs Mike based his show around were dirty, dangerous, and sometimes just disgusting. Take for example the story of Rob. He sold blood worms as bait for a living. Rob looks like the type of guy that you might cross the street if you saw him coming toward you. But Rob owns two nice houses that he paid for with cash. Or take for example the story of Less Swanson from Wisconsin. He was a septic tank cleaner. One show Mike was working with Less, in a pumping station, up to their waistes in the most unspeakable filth in the hot summer. Mike turned to Less and asked, “Less what are you doing here?” Less responded, “What do you mean this is what I do?” Mike asked, “What did you do before this?” Less replied, “Honestly I was a guidance counselor and psychiatrist”. Surprised Mike asked, “Really why did you leave?” Less replied “I was tired of dealing with other people’s……” Well guys it is what farmers put on their fields.
Mike sought to turn our world’s expectations of success upside down with his show “Dirty Jobs.” And that is what Jesus is doing today in the Sermon on the Mount, he is challenging who the world thinks are blessed, as opposed to those who are blessed in the Kingdom of heaven, the Kingdom of God .
I find it interesting that we offer require youth going through confirmation to memorize the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostle’s Creed, but rarely do we ask them to memorize the beatitudes. Perhaps this is because we as adults don’t know how to take them. Some scholars have argued that these teachings are so radical that they are not meant to be applied to this life but are instead meant for a different dispensation, such as the millennium or the return of Christ. The poor in spirit (or the poor as Luke puts it), those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for justice (or just hunger as Luke puts it), the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted. These don’t seem like particularly blessed people to me. These seem like pushovers, unpatriotic pacifists, losers, bleeding hearts, and generally people who really are not in touch with the way the world works.
And what does Matthew mean by “poor in spirit” anyway? Luke simply says “blessed be the poor.” At least there we know who Jesus is talking about because you can measure how much money or stuff people have. But how can you measure a person’s spirit? The Greek word for poor here does mean someone who is destitute, desperate, the English word beggar might be an appropriate translation. The word blessed most literally translates into “happy.” Many commentators point out how this word expresses more than just mere emotion. And while this is true we must also realize that no one around us will see us as blessed if we are constantly complaining and frowning all the time. Billy Graham, in his book, “The Secret of Happiness,” quotes the Amplified Bible Translation of this passage; “Blessed-happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous that is, with life joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of their outward condition, are the poor in Spirit (Graham, 13).
The obvious question is whether poverty of spirit is related to economic poverty? Can I have a beggar spirit while still keeping my nice house, car, boat, or swing dance classes (name your luxury). To quote Erik Kolbell, author of, “What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life; “I believe we find in Scripture that when all is said and done spiritual poverty has absolutely nothing to do with material poverty-and absolutely everything.” (Kolbell, 30).
How can this paradoxical statement be true? Kolbell invites us to imagine two people who might have heard Jesus Beatitudes the first time he preached them. To quote Kolbell; “Let’s imagine that in the crowd that day we find one Palestine’s prosperous merchants, say, a trafficker in fine silks and linens. Let’s imagine him a self made, self satisfied, self assured man of means who earns his living off of beauty and then surrounds himself with it.” “perhaps he hears Jesus’ words and thinks of the times his own spirit has been laid low by personal misfortune; a business deal gone bad, his youngest child’s mysterious illness, the death of a friend, or dark, disturbing doubts about how he’s regarded by his peers.” “Perhaps poverty of spirit is impervious to wealth and therefore irrelevant to any discussion of the injustices of class distinction; it is not a thing of the purse but of the heart and mind. He hears the preacher’s words and believes one day the sadness that seems to be insinuating itself into his soul will be somehow lifted, his step will be light again, and he will still be the man of eminence he’s dedicated his life to becoming.”
“He may be right, but before we jump to his side of the aisle let’s consider how the same words might’ve been heard by someone else who was there that day, someone of lower estate. Let’s now imagine that someone where else in the crowd is a seamstress, a woman in her late teens, of little means, who works long hours with primitive tools in the manufacture of beauty for the pleasure of others, her days spent hunched over this merchant’s fine linens. It is a daily tease for her, this work that she does. She is so near to elegance, close enough to touch it, smell it. Indeed, she even creates it, only to have it slip through her weathered hands at day’s end in exchange for a few meager denarii, about seven cents’ pay at a time when an average worker earned ten times that amount. Her fingers are gnarled and her back bowed. Her eyesight is bad and she is old beyond her years. She returns home each night to a tiny one room brick hovel where the roof leaks and there is never enough firewood. She has scant resources to feed her two children, let alone herself; and she worries about where the money will come from to pay this years taxes.
The preacher tells this woman that the poor in spirit are blessed, that the kingdom will be theirs, and she glories at the prospect of a life lived beyond the hell of poverty and all she associates with it, for to her poverty of spirit is a lack of things, but it is also the degradation and diminution of self worth that accompanies that lack. It is trying to be a good provider to her family but knowing that as often as not she will come up short and feel the chafe of personal failure in the clutch of her throat, or seeing the little pleasures enjoyed by other households and despairing over how she can explain to her children that she cannot afford so much as a piece of candy or simple toy at holiday. She despises people’s pity yet depends on it for her survival, so each time she accepts the benevolence of strangers she feels her fragile pride whittled ever thinner. She’s angry at them for this, though of course she’s really angry at herself. But now she hears that all this will one day be but a dim and dreary memory because a better time beckons, a time when her needs will be seen to, her family provided for, her dignity restored. I am the poor in spirit, she believes, and the Kingdom is at long last mine.” (Kolbell, 28-29).
In spiritual poverty, we can declare, in the words of Kolbell; “with full faith and confidence that I will not be defined by the car I drive, the reputation I hold, the company I keep, or the dinner party I did or did not get invited to because spiritual poverty is liberation from the authority I assign to these and other things to serve as a measure of my worth and the faith and willingness to look elsewhere for it.” (Kolbell, 30). Billy Graham, has this to say about spiritual poverty;” Each of us has a body with eyes, ears, nose hands, and feet. This body has certain legitimate desires and appetites: the appetite for food and drink, the appetite for sex, and the appetite for fellowship. Each of these has been given to us by God, to be used as He intended. At the same time, they can be distorted and misused, eventually bringing sorrow and ruin to our lives.
But the Bible teaches that a person is more than just a body-each of us is actually a living soul. Our souls are created in the image of God. Just as our bodies have certain characteristics and appetites, so do our souls. The characteristics of the soul are personality, intelligence, conscience, and memory. The human soul or spirit longs for peace, contentment, and happiness. Most of all, the soul has an appetite for God- a yearning to be reconciled to its Creator and to have fellowship with Him forever.” (Graham, pg 33).
Blessed are those with beggar spirits. Happy are those who recognize their need and are not afraid to ask. Happy are those who see everything they have as a gift of grace and are thereby willing to extend that Grace to others. We may have different views on what causes material poverty or how to best serve the materially poor but the moment we start debating who is “deserving” vs. “undeserving” I think we fall outside of what Jesus meant by poor in spirit. Because in reality, no matter how hard we work or how hard we don’t work, what station in life we are born into, or what our occupation is, everything is a gift of grace that we don’t deserve. We can all think of that big break that could have gone the other way, the friend or family member who if they hadn’t have favored us, that door would not have been opened to us. Poverty does breed desperation and poor decision making. But Wealth also breeds apathy and a lack of empathy. .There is a disease of the soul for the poor and for the rich. The only cure is grace, the only cure is recognizing our own poverty of Spirit. The only cure is to come whether we are rich or poor, young or old, a mega church or a family church, to our Heavenly Father for our daily bread, knowing that if we make room in our spirits, he will give us the Kingdom. For as Romans 14:17 declares “the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy, in the Holy Spirit.” And as for me I am not too proud to beg, to pray, to hunger, for what the Lord is offering. How about you? In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.