By John Rieping | Published 6 June 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Four years ago, an unexpected terror held me inside its giant metal grasp. I speak of a spin within a Ferris wheel.
Though such amusement rides are not known for stealth, this one managed to ambush me at the annual Horned Toad Derby in Coalinga, California, about an hour and a half drive southwest of my hometown of Madera.
As a journalist for the Coalinga Recorder weekly newspaper, I thought a turn of the wheel would offer the highest perch from which to photograph the fair-like park. And this was so.
What I had forgotten is my accident a month before in which my Honda Civic DX had flipped into a soft dirt field during my morning commute. My acrobatics crushed my car and produced a sensation like that a roller coaster or Ferris wheel would.
That day I discovered I no longer enjoyed such a feeling as I once did.
As unreasoning fear filled me, I forced myself with the aid of silent prayer to stay outwardly calm and even took several photos. But I could not relax until I stepped again on solid ground.
A sense of vulnerability and lost control isn't always welcome, which makes it all the more surprising that less than two millennia ago a Jewish rabbi named Yeshua (aka Jesus) called such a state "blessed."
From a mount and on a plain, Yeshua taught his followers: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:3; cf. Luke 6:21)
As he spoke Aramaic, the word for poor would have been ányâ, which means "bent down, afflicted, miserable, poor" (scholar John Peter Van Kasteren). To be poor meant to be vulnerable to abuse by the rich and the mighty.
So what does it mean to be like this in spirit?
A similar Aramaic word, ánwan, suggests an answer. Based on the same root as the other one above, it means "bending oneself down, humble, meek, gentle" (ibid).
It is not the circumstance of being vulnerable that the rabbi called blessed. It is the embrace of it, whether or not it is necessary to be so.
This is a hard teaching in any age, past or present. For none of us like to be vulnerable. Rich or not, we want to be secure, respected, and strong. In them, we see the path to happiness.
Oxford University scholar and priest John Henry Newman (A.D. 1801-1890) once wrote, "All bow down before wealth. Wealth is that to which the multitude of men pay an instinctive homage. They measure happiness by wealth; and by wealth they measure respectability ... It is a homage resulting from a profound faith ... that with wealth he may do all things.
"Wealth is one idol of the day and notoriety is a second ... Notoriety, or the making of a noise in the world, ... has come to be considered a great good in itself, and a ground of veneration."
How little times change.
Yet it is to the vulnerable, the poor in spirit, that Yeshua promises the "kingdom of heaven," not the comfortable (Luke 6:24-26). Property, health, fame, power, or achievement cannot win it.
How can we embrace poverty of spirit?
The answer is indirectly given in the same lesson by Yeshua. For he continued: "Blessed are those who mourn ... Blessed are the meek ... Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness ... Blessed are the merciful ... Blessed are the pure in heart ... Blessed are the peacemakers ... Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake." (cf. Matthew 5:4-11)
In short, be willing to "weep with those who weep" (cf. Romans 12:15), restrain your power out of concern for others, be unashamed of goodness, show mercy to the undeserving, keep God your top priority, make peace with those who wrong you, and do what is right even if society tells you it is abominable.
Even more challengingly, Yeshua asked his followers, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you... Give to every man who asks of you." (cf. Luke 6:27-28, 30; Matthew 5:38-48)
It is impossible to take seriously such ideals and remain comfortable and secure. We will be bruised, hurt, and exposed instead of safe behind the walls to which we cling.
But beyond those walls lie those poor in reality, not "in spirit." The hungry, strange, sick, imprisoned, and others -- God in distressing disguises (Matthew 25:31-46).
Let us love.