I recently learned of a book entitled The Other Wes Moore.  The book tells the true stories of two men. Both men are named Wes Moore. Both grew up in Maryland. Both were raised by single mothers. Both had run-ins with police as youngsters. But that’s where the similarities end. One Wes Moore became a graduate of John Hopkins and a Rhodes Scholar. He eventually served as a White House Fellow under former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. The other Wes Moore was sent to prison. He is serving a life sentence for his involvement in the killing of a police officer. The book The Other Wes Moore tries to understand why these two men with the same name and similar backgrounds had such different lives. The author concludes that the difference was caused by one thing: one Wes Moore had people on his side, and the other did not. Though the successful Wes Moore’s father died when Wes was only three, he had other family members and teachers who intervened in his life and supported him. The imprisoned Wes Moore saw his father only three times. It was during the third and final visit that this Wes Moore’s father looked up from a drunken stupor and asked, “Who are you?” One Wes Moore grew up with people who were on his side. The other did not. That made all the difference.
The impact of having people on your side is probably what led James to write this: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (Jas. 1:27 ESV). This is a famous line in the Bible. James is summarizing what biblical faith is all about. If someone asked you to summarize biblical faith in one sentence, what would you say? Here’s what James says: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. The care of widows and orphans is central to biblical faith. Why?
James is not the only writer to focus on widows and orphans. Throughout Scripture widows and orphans are singled out as the most worthy of attention.
- In the Bible’s second book God tells the Israelites, “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.” (Ex. 22:22 ESV).
- The Psalms celebrate God as “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows” (Ps. 68:5 ESV).
- When God defines true religion in Isaiah 1 he says those following it will “bring justice to the fatherless, [and] plead the widow’s cause” (Is. 1:17 ESV).
Why this emphasis on orphans and widows? Kenneth Bailey, who spent years in Middle Eastern culture, writes that the primary problem for widows in ancient times was that they had no one to protect them. They were single women living in a man’s world. And with no husband by their side, they had no voice and no power. They had no one on their side.
The same was true for orphans. Widows faced a challenge because they were women living in a man’s world. Orphans faced a challenge because they were children living in an adult’s world. And with no adult mother or father by their side, they had no voice and no power.
Widows and orphans experienced the worst form of poverty—having no one by their side. They were singled in Scripture because they had no one in their corner. In both Old and New Testaments, these two groups experienced poverty at its worst. There was no one as poor as a widow or an orphan. Why? Because not only did they lack possessions, they also lacked people to help them acquire possessions. Widows and orphans experienced the worst form of poverty—having no one by their side.
With this in mind, we come to the first beatitude of Jesus, the last beatitude in our series: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:3 ESV). It’s important to remember that these first four beatitudes are descriptions and not prescriptions. Jesus is not prescribing certain behaviors for us to adopt. He’s not urging us to become “poor in spirit.” Instead, Jesus is describing people who are listening to him. Jesus looks out among the crowds and sees the “poor in spirit.” Who are they?
Jesus is not simply talking about people who are humble or lowly. That’s often how we translate “poor in spirit.” But ultimately, to be “poor in spirit” means to be so poor that the poverty is not only felt on the outside, it is also felt on the inside. People who are “poor in spirit” are people who could not be any poorer. They are experiencing the worst poverty. They are not just poor “in wallet” but also poor all the way down to their “spirit.” Jesus is talking about people who feel poverty deeply. These are the poorest of the poor.
And as we’ve just heard, the Bible describes the worst form of poverty as that which results from having no one in your corner. Widows and orphans are the poorest of the poor because they have no one on their side. The same is true for those whom Jesus describes as “poor in spirit.” Jesus is talking about the poorest of the poor. They not only do not have possessions. They also do not have people to help them acquire possessions. They live alone on the fringe of society.
As we’ve seen in this series, Jesus is addressing people who do not have the Jewish religious leaders on their side or the Roman political leaders on their side. Everywhere these people look they are left out. At the temple, they are overlooked. At the judge’s bench, they are ignored. They are only getting the crumbs while everyone else is getting the pie. But not only are they the “have-nots” in society. They do not even know a “have” who can help them get what’s missing. No Jewish religious leader or Roman political leader is going to come to their aid. No official at the temple or judge at the bench is going to get their back. Jesus is talking to people so poor they not only lack possessions, they also lack people to help them acquire possessions.
In other words, in referring to the “poor in spirit,” Jesus is talking about people who have no one on their side. They have no one to count on. They have no one to lean on.
Roger Ridley is a street musician in southern California. Producers of an organization called “Playing for Change” heard Ridley playing for spare change on California streets. The song they heard Ridley singing was “Stand by Me.” The producers recorded Ridley singing his song. But then they found other street musicians around the country and the world, including Louisiana, the Netherlands, New Mexico, France, Brazil, Russia, Italy and Africa. “Playing for Change” recorded all these musicians playing “Stand by Me.” They then combined the music tracks. Roger Ridley, the California street musician, introduces the piece with this statement: “This song says no matter who you are, no matter where you go in your life, at some point you’re gonna need somebody to stand by you.”
These musicians are the “have-nots.” They are not playing on a stage in a performing arts center or recording in studios of a famous music company. They sing and live on the street. In fact, at the end of the video you see a man drop some spare cash into the guitar case of Roger Ridely. These people play for spare change. They have no powerful people in their corner and no significant celebrities on their side. And the one thing they can sing and play with passion is that the deepest need we have is the need for someone to stand by us. These musicians sing that the greatest wealth is to have someone on your side and the greatest poverty is to have no one on your side. No matter how much money you got, you gonna need someone to stand by you. To have that is to have it all. To lack that is to lack it all.
Mother Teresa, who spent her adult life caring for the poorest of the poor said this: “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or cancer. It’s the feeling of being uncared for, unwanted-of being deserted and alone.” The greatest poverty is to have no one on your side. We all need somebody to stand by us.
And to those with no one in their corner, Jesus says this: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:3 ESV). We’ve talked a lot during this series about what it means to be “blessed.” Frederick Dale Bruner writes that the word “blessed,” especially in this beatitude, can be translated in this way: “I am with you,” or “I am on your side.” Jesus is saying that God is on the side of those who have no one on their side. The kingdom of the Pharisees may be rejecting these people. The kingdom of the Romans may have forgotten them. But the kingdom of heaven has not. On the streets they are fringe. But in God’s domain, they are favored. God is on the side of those who have no one else on their side.
When these people pull out their tired and out-of-tune guitars, open up their case for some spare change, and start lamenting, “Please stand by me, stand by me” not a single person answers. Not a single person stops. With one exception—God. Through Jesus God says, “I will stand by you. I’m on your side.”
And we get to help turn this promise into a reality. God pledges to stand by those who are poor in spirit—and he uses us to do it. God stands on their side as we stand on their side. That’s really what the last four beatitudes are about. As we become merciful, as we become pure in heart, as we pursue peace, and as we become willing to sacrifice to do what is right, God stands by others through us. We become the flesh and blood behind these words. God’s promise gets incarnated through us. As we come alongside the poor in spirit, God himself comes alongside through us.
David Jordan is with us this morning. David is the Executive Director of Agape Child and Family Services. Through Agape, David leads a team of staff and volunteers to serve children and families through the Mid-South. Many of these children are orphans. And through Families in Transition, David leads a team of staff and volunteers to provide housing and ministry to homeless pregnant women and their children. In other words, David serves the poor in spirit. Our Special Contribution today helps fund Agape and Families in Transition. I’ve asked David to share how God is standing on the poor in spirit through Agape and FIT.
Our Special Contribution for World and Urban Missions today helps make Agape and FIT possible. Today we are asking you to give $150,000. That’s five and a half times what we normally give on a Sunday morning. That money will be used to fund Memphis Urban Ministry, HopeWorks, Agape, FIT, Lifeline, Member Services, Soma, Melanesian Bible College and Clinic, Shiloh Christian School (Philippines), Ukrainian Education Center, Bila Tserkva Church of Christ, and the Ministry of Theological Education. Through these ministries God is coming alongside the poor and the lost. Your gift today helps make that possible. Your gift today is how you can demonstrate that you are on the side of the poor in spirit.
 Deirdre Donahue, “Wes Moore: Author or Prisoner?” USA Today (5-6-10)
 Kenneth E. Bailey Poet & Pesant and Through Peasant Eyes Combined Edition (Eerdmans, 1976), 133.
 Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins (Orbis, 2005), 131.
 Frederick Dale Bruner Matthew Volume 1 The Christbook Matthew 1-12 (Word, 1987), 135
 Leadership,( Vol. 1, no. 4).
 Bruner, 136.