Matthew 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
One of my pet peeves is when someone says that the secret to becoming an elite athlete, whatever the sport, is effort. “If you believe in yourself, dream big, and put in the effort, you will achieve your goals.” Those statements are often backed up by the very athletes delivering the speeches. They did those things and achieved them, so that must be the formula. The notion of spending 10,000 hours, focussed on a specific sport or activity, became popular in the early 2000’s through books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. More recently, “How to Become Great at Anything: The Truth Behind The 10,00-Hour Rule” adds to this narrative. Simply put, the majority of people who reach the top of their field, spent a minimum of ten years acquiring and honing their skills. I don’t doubt this, but we can’t ignore what they started with.
In contrast, David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene makes a very strong case that elite athletes are genetic freaks. The reality is that if you are elite in a sport you likely have an unfair advantage. You may have a ridiculous VO2 Max (the maximum volume of oxygen that an athlete can use). You may be abnormally strong, abnormally flexible or perhaps you have fantastic eyesight (e.g. 90% of major league baseball players), or abnormal body measurements (investigate Michael Phelps; or “basketball & wingspan”). Please don’t get me wrong, I am one of the biggest proponents of encouraging hard work to reach goals, but it is unfair to set kids up for failure. As guardians of a short, powerful young man who, at 12, had bigger calves than me, 10,000 hours or 100,000 hours will never get him on the Olympic marathon team. But power sports, those he can do. Admitting that is not failure; it is humble and wise.
Today’s scripture is similar. It is interesting to note what Jesus’ very first teaching was in his lengthy Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). In Matthew 5:3, he says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That seems like an odd teaching. Afterall, later in Matthew 6:21, Jesus encourages us to seek spiritual riches: “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” But it appears that there is a spiritual poverty that we should be seeking. Those who are “poor in spirit” are those who are humble in spirit. When looking at the original Greek word for poor, ptōchos, it includes the idea of being “destitute of wealth of learning and intellectual culture which the schools afford”. This teaching would have flown in the face of the religious elite of the time, who flaunted their intellect and looked down on the common people (those people who gathered to hear Jesus’ teaching). Jesus was saying, not only is it OK if you are not religious scholars and experts, it is vital that you do not rely on what you bring to the table.
“The teaching of the Sermon on the Mount produces a sense of despair in the natural man— exactly what Jesus means for it to do. As long as we have some self-righteous idea that we can carry out our Lord’s teaching, God will allow us to continue until we expose our own ignorance by stumbling over some obstacle in our way. Only then are we willing to come to Him as paupers and receive from Him. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit….’” Oswald Chambers
It isn’t a coincidence that Jesus made this his first teaching. We must understand that poverty (i.e. we can’t do things with our own efforts) is the first principle that all other teachings are built upon. If you grasp this, you can receive the other teachings, because you realize you can’t do any of it on your own.