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In the Sermon on the Mount, the master teacher offers a master course on true piety. People often think that the sermon is a series of moral lessons, a “how-to” guide on practical religion. However, the main purpose of this pointed discourse is to challenge the traditional perception of holiness. Christ declares that true righteousness is not determined solely by the presence or absence of good deeds, but by the state of an individual’s heart. Though the Pharisees kept the Mosaic Law religiously (irony intended), Jesus denounced them as wicked, whitewashed tombs (Matthew 23:27). For their law-abiding deeds were performed with a hidden, self-glorifying intent.

The Beatitudes, which serve as the sermon’s prelude, proclaim that true righteousness is found in a heart of spiritual brokenness: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). To be poor in spirit is to recognize that you have no spiritual goodness at all. One step further, it means recognizing that you don’t even have the option or ability to do anything remotely righteous. This truth reminds me of an encounter I had while traveling overseas in Asia. I heard stories about a group of tragic beggars. These individuals were crippled from head to toe, had no means to earn money besides begging on the sidewalk, and were at the total mercy of passing strangers for any semblance of income. Someone who is poor-in-spirit is like these beggars on a spiritual level.

Realizing your spiritual poverty drastically shapes your character. An individual who fully recognizes their destitute state will mourn over their wretched condition as one mourns for a dead lover (Matthew 5:4). And the grief over one’s bankruptcy is what fosters genuine humility and meekness (Matthew 5:5). Understanding our innate emptiness is what compels an individual to beg for God’s mercy and grace (Luke 18:9). And it is this plea for help that grants us the righteousness of Christ (Philippians 3:9). Only when you recognize the profound depths of your spiritual poverty will you recognize the profound heights of Christ’s riches (Ephesians 1:7-8).

Jesus’ message is so needed today because religiosity has the power to cultivate pride. Though no one would openly admit, we can innately believe that our good deeds make us “better” people before God. Left unchecked, as we grow in knowledge of theology and Christian practice, our pride can grow until our bodies can’t support the weight of our big heads (1 Cor 8:1). And before we know it, we’ve gained the Pharisees’ condescending nature that we so readily condemn in church.

The Beatitudes teach us that true righteousness is only gained by recognizing that you have no righteousness at all. When Jesus spent time with tax collectors and prostitutes, the religious leaders of the day scoffed at Him. In their mind, there was no way that a religious person—let alone a religious leader—would associate with such a wicked crowd. But Jesus’ response is so sobering: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). The kingdom of God is found in confessing such spiritual bankruptcy. The way up is down. All the way down.