Christian writers return again and again to Jesus' sermon on the mount to establish a foundation and direction for our spiritual lives.
Matthew's Gospel is formulated around five major sermons. Scripture scholars generally agree that these discourses are made up of a number of Jesus' teachings from various times and settings in his public life.
The first discourse begins in chapter five, with the Beatitudes.
These verses focus on basic attitudes that reflect the values of God's kingdom. Jesus presents these attitudes and values in paradoxical sayings. Listeners are challenged by the apparent contradictions: how can anyone be considered "blessed" if he is poor or mourning or meek?
Jesus' usual pedagogy is not to impose rules, but to invite thinking. He shies away from imposing values or constraining obedience. Instead he invites people to reflect on what he says and make a personal decision. He urges his listeners to "repent," that is, to think things through and regret their bad choices.
True conversion cannot be coerced. Effective and lasting change of heart comes voluntarily, from within.
Take, for example, the first beatitude: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God."
On several occasions Jesus warns his followers about riches and possessions: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth" (Mt. 6:19), "You cannot serve God and mammon" (Mt. 6:24), or "Go, sell what you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven" (Mt 19:21).
On first hearing it sounds absurd to congratulate those who are "poor in spirit" (I suspect the "in spirit" is a recognition that even a financially poor person can be greedy and focused on wealth.) But on second thought congratulations are due to those who can let go of the riches of the world in order to be open to the treasures in heaven "where neither moth nor decay destroys, not thieves break in and steal" (Mt. 6:20).
Jesus' teaching in general and specifically his first beatitude invite us to confront the seeming contradiction and discover the truth.
The poor in spirit are those who are open to letting go of any possession, whether material or spiritual, so that they can be enriched by the things of heaven.
This poverty of spirit includes the willingness to let go prejudices, pre-conceptions, practices, plans, prescriptions, and possibilities --all possessions-- in order to free onself to be blessed with the riches God has to offer.
The young Jewish philosopher and mystic Simone Weil noted decades ago that the only obstacle standing in the way of our receiving God's gifts is our refusal to accept them.
She recognized that a hand grasping the material goods of this world is incapable of receiving the spiritual goods of the world to come.
To acquire heaven we must be willing to let go of earth.
Congratulations then are due to those who have the wisdom and courage to yield the worldly for the sake of the heavenly.
The rich young man could not bring himself to give away his possessions in order to become Jesus' follower. He went away sad.
Jesus knew it was a most difficult choice. He said it was harder to thread a rope through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Even his closest associates asked, "What's in it for us?" And Jesus promised, "And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life" (Mt. 19:29).
Spiritual writers return again and again to Jesus' sermon on the mount, and especially to the Beatitudes. Here we find the basic attitudes expected of those who would really be Christian.
And the first of those attitudes is described as poverty-in-spirit, the willingness to let go of anything that is an obstacle to following Christ.
Only the open hand can accept the gifts God has to offer.