Blessed are the poor in spirit

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 24; 1 Corinthians 1:20-25; Matthew 5:1-12
Church of Scotland, Geneva, Auditoire de Calvin, January 29 2023

The Black Knight

King Arthur is on a quest. He comes to a bridge. The bridge is guarded by the Black Knight.

“None shall pass,” says the Black Knight, in a tone that brooks no argument.

“I have no quarrel with you, good Sir knight,” says King Arthur, “but I must cross this bridge.”

”Then you shall die,” says the Black Knight. “I move for no man.”

There’s nothing for it but to fall to fighting with swords.

Arthur chops off the Black Knight’s arm. But the Knight just scoffs: “I’ve had worse.”

So Arthur chops off his other arm, but the Black Knight refuses to yield.

Arthur chops off his leg. “Right,” says the Black Knight, “I’ll have you for that!”

“What are you going to do, bleed on me?”, says Arthur, and he chops off the Knight’s other leg.

As he crosses the bridge, the Black Knight cries after him. “Come back here and take what’s coming to you. I’ll bite your legs off!”

This is a very silly scene from a very silly film: Monty Python and the Holy Grail; and when you’re older, maybe your parents will let you watch it.

But it reminds us of an obvious truth. If we haven’t got any hands, there’s not a lot we can do; and if we haven’t got any legs, there’s even less.

It’s a problem.

When Jesus passed through Galilee, two thousand years ago, he walked on his own two legs; and with his own two arms he embraced the blind man, the boy or girl, and the beggar.

But that was then and this is now. Jesus hasn’t gone away and left us, but he’s not here today in exactly the same way as when he was walking with his friends in Jerusalem or the Galilee.

Teresa of Ávila was a famous Christian woman who lived six centuries ago, at the same sort of time as John Calvin, after whom our building is named.

Teresa tells us:

Christ has no body now but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which He looks compassion on this world
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good
Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world.

Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, is here with us, but even more importantly, he is here through us. The risen Christ works through us to make a better world.

Cue for a song: CH4 351, Jesus’ hands were kind hands, doing good to all.

Poor in spirit

Blessed are the poor in spirit, says Matthew in the first of the beatitudes with which he begins the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the poor, says Luke, at he begins the Sermon on the Plain.

Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the poor in spirit. What’s the difference?

10 days ago, I settled down in my armchair to watch a programme on the origin and the end of the universe and promptly fell asleep.

I woke up in time to watch an interview with internationally acclaimed film director Ken Loach,[1] who starting in the 1960s has made a whole raft of socially critical films, exploring questions of justice, freedom and power.

At the Cannes film festival in 2016, his film, I, Daniel Blake, won him for the second time the Palme d’Or.

The most moving scene in the film involves Katie Morgan, an unemployed single mother with two children.

Katie and her kids have moved from London to Newcastle, where she promptly falls foul of the UK benefits system and is forced to turn to a foodbank.

The woman who welcomes her there asks a colleague to put together a food parcel, but she doesn’t put it quite like that.

She says, “Jackie? Would you be able to help Katie with her shopping today, please?”

Katie can’t wait. While Jackie is busy fetching her groceries, she grabs a tin of baked beans and starts eating them with her bare hands.

Katie hasn’t eaten for four days. She’s been starving herself to feed her children.

When Luke says “Blessed are the poor”, he is talking about Katie. The poor we meet in our New Testament are characteristically not just less well off. They are in desperate need of help to sustain their lives. Their poverty is not relative deprivation or disadvantage but real, grinding distress.[2]

And that’s Katie. She really is poor. Abjectly, miserably poor.

When, on the other hand, Matthew talks about the poor in spirit, he is talking about the woman who receives Katie at the foodbank. She’s not poor, at least not in the way Katie is.  But she is poor in spirit: she helps Katie in her distress, and she tries to preserve what little remains of her dignity:

It’s a question of attitude or approach. “Can we help you with your shopping?”

The line is a line in a film, but because Ken Loach tries to make his films realistic, it’s a line drawn from real life. He told his interviewer: “What sensitivity to do that to someone who’s begging for food.”


What Loach calls sensitivity is what the prophet Micah calls compassion or mercy, or – as I should prefer to say – solidarity.

Whatever we call it, it’s what the Lord requires of us.

Our reading from Micah is like a call and response in music or in prayer. It’s also a parable of what God does for us in Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

The Israelites are slaves in Egypt, but God brings them out and sets them free. And then Micah tells his people what God expects of them: to do justice, show compassion, and walk humbly.

God in Christ sets us free from all that imprisons us, and then tells us to go and do likewise.

But there’s a twist in this message. We shouldn’t think of these three things – justice, compassion, and humility – as arbitrary or external rules imposed on us by an authoritarian God, a Vladimir Putin or a Benjamin Netanyahu ensconced on a cosmic cloud.

What God wants for us is to be fully human, to be fully ourselves; and what Micah offers us is a thumbnail sketch of what that means.


The hymn the choir sang this morning as an introit, the congregation sang a few weeks ago.[3]

It’s all New Zealand all the way down: written by Shirley Erena Murray, who has given us more than 20 hymns in our hymnary, with music by Colin Alexander Gibson, who I’m sorry to say died last month.

We sang it again today, partly so you could hear the proper tune, Colin Gibson’s tune, but mostly because of what it says, and what it tells us about ourselves.

It calls us to care for the homeless and the refugee, as indeed we should; but it doesn’t presume that we ourselves are homeless or refugees. It locates us, like most folk in most congregations in Switzerland, Scotland, or New Zealand, as members of the comfortable middle classes:

“… we who have roof and rent and bread,
sure of a place to rest our head…”

Some of us don’t even have to rent. We own our own homes. Some of us even have swimming pools.

I don’t say this to make anyone feel guilty, not even myself. There is nothing meritorious in being poor and miserable; comfort is not complacency, or doesn’t have to be; and guilt is generally a useless passion.

What I mean is that we need a real effort of imagination to free ourselves from  the confines of our comfort; to see the poor, and especially the poorest, as they really are; and then  to stand in solidarity with them. That is what it means to be “poor in spirit”.


In the previous chapter of his Gospel, Matthew borrows a line from Mark to summarize the preaching of Jesus.

Mark says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Matthew is laconic. He gives us the short, short version. He says, simply, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

But in the beatitudes, Matthew spells this out in a series of short, punchy sentences:

Good news now for the poor in spirit; good news now for those who mourn; good news now for the meek and lowly; good news now for those who hunger and thirst for justice; good news now for the merciful and compassionate; good news for the pure in heart; good news now for the peacemakers; good news now for those who are persecuted for the sake of justice.[4]

Good news now, because God is acting now to put a wrong world right, to put a crooked world straight. God has acted in Jesus; and God continues to act today, in and through us.

The beatitudes are just the beginning of a sermon that fills three chapters in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s unlikely that Jesus ever preached this sermon in this form. At 2,400 words in our English translation, it  is, even by Church of Scotland standards, long.

What we know of the preaching of Jesus is not like that. He preaches in short stories, or parables, with a sting in the tail. And he preaches in short, pithy sayings we could fit into a Twitter post, were we foolish enough to be sucked into so destructive a medium.

Much more likely is that Matthew has drawn together teachings of Jesus from diverse sources and shaped them into a message that is more like a pamphlet than a sermon.

But already in the beatitudes we can see that the gospel, the good news, is radical, counter-cultural, and subversive. It is radical because it goes to the root of what is wrong with our world. It is counter-cultural because it rejects the false values of this world. And it is subversive because, were we to take it seriously, it would turn our world upside down.

For it tells us we cannot be friends of Jesus unless we are friends of the poor.


Martyn Turner draws cartoons for one of my favourite newspapers, the Irish Times. A good cartoon is like a good parable: it shows us the world as it is and usually it has a sting in its tail.

This month, the World Economic Forum met, as it annually does, in Davos, the Alpine resort town in the canton of Graubünden; and Martyn drew a cartoon to mark the occasion.[5]

A sign for the Forum says, “The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer.”

An Alpine peasant looks at the sign and  remarks to his peasant wife, “At some point they have to decide whether it is a problem to be solved… or a mission statement.”

The Sermon on the Mount is our mission statement. Often it must seem like mission impossible. But it is, says Matthew, the only way to live.


[1] This Cultural Life. John Wilson interviews Ken Loach. The video is not available outside the UK, but an audio version can be found here:
[2] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans, 2005).
[3] CH4 195, “Here to the house of God we come” Shirley Erena Murray (1931-2020), author. Tune: Khao I Dang, Colin Alexander Gibson (1933-2022).
[4] Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, ad loc. Nolland says “Good fortune”, but I prefer to stick with “Good news”.

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