Blessed are the Poor! Why?
Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the Kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Luke 6: 20b-21
What does Jesus mean by saying that the poor are blessed?
Here are three things I think it doesn’t mean, and one thing I think it does.
The poor are blessed because they are going to be rich in heaven.
In this case the blessing is a heavenly compensation for earthly suffering.
The poor are favoured by God. God has noticed their plight and decided to give them everlasting life once they die. This hope will sustain them on earth and prepare them for something better in heaven, once their miserable lives are over.
I think this is an appalling misinterpretation of Jesus’ teaching and mission. It’s easy to see how this message is convenient to the powerful. As Karl Marx rightly judged it makes Christianity an opium for the poor.
From Genesis to Revelation the bible is concerned with the liberation of the poor. Here are some examples of this:
Abraham is promised land and a flourishing dynasty.
Moses is called to set the slaves free and to take them to a prosperous land.
The laws of Moses provides for the destitute and cancels all debts every forty years.
The prophets denounce worship that ignores the plight of the poor and turns a blind eye to a corrupt legal system.
John the Baptist challenges the authorities to stop ‘poisoning’ the poor and vulnerable.
Jesus characterizes his mission as good news to the poor and the liberation of the oppressed.
Jesus heals the outcast, restoring them to community.
Jesus says the two greatest commands are to love God and to love the neighbour. Jesus illustrates the latter with the parable of the 'Good Samaritan'.
Jesus criticises the religious and secular authorities for their neglect of the poor.
The first church in Jerusalem is a community which shares all things in common and distributes funds to the most vulnerable.
Paul, James and John in their letters to the fledgling churches call for mutual respect and action based on the love of Christ, and denounce discrimination against the poor.
The book of revelation ends with a beautiful vision of God’s universal reconciliation in which all nations and people flourish together without any poverty. At the heart of the 'New Jerusalem' is a tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.
The poor are blessed because they don’t need to worry about money.
Here ‘blessed’ means ‘fortunate’. How fortunate are the poor not to be burdened by concern about their investments, or mortgage payments, or having to pay expensive education fees for their children!
This is a highly romanticised notion of poverty. If being poor is so wonderful then the rich would take advantage of this by giving up all their wealth. I don't see any evidence of that. This idea is of poverty is ridiculous.
There is no evidence that Jesus believed this.
The poor are blessed because poverty makes people virtuous.
This is a development of the second argument. It is imagined that not only is it an advantage not to have money, in fact being destitute is good for the soul. Poverty is good for a person, removing the sins of greed that accompany aspirational thinking.
Some of the saints of the church have embraced poverty, for example, St Francis of Assisi. However St Frances made a choice, and from a position of wealth. Furthermore he created a religious community where each poor friar had their basic needs met. Moreover, from this secure community the friars could develop their ministry and mission, which over the centuries has included setting the destitute free from their miserable condition. Franciscan poverty is poverty with a mission: to change the world for the better.
For the majority poverty is not a choice. It is a burden. It brings disadvantages, hardships and missed opportunities. It does not help a person to find their mission in life. As Maslow’s studies have shown to find meaningful relationships, esteem, belonging and self-actualisation, first one needs to have the security of shelter, water, food, a secure income and health.
History demonstrates how poverty is disruptive of social order, promotes crime, violence, civil unrest and war. There is no virtue in this type of poverty. It is a constant struggle for survival in a hostile and threatening environment. It is not good news.
The mission of the church has been to change an unstable, violent, unequal world to one which is just, and therefore peaceful.
So what is Jesus saying? I would paraphrase it like this:
The poor are blessed because God’s Kingdom is here.
The poor are blessed because in the Kingdom of God they are being liberated from the misery of poverty. They hungry will be fed, and the weeping rejoice because their basic needs will be met and their lives will be drastically improved for the better.
This is why the core Christian prayer begins, ‘Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’. The Kingdom Jesus is preaching is a quality of community life that is truly heavenly: where God’s blessings are poured on all when we learn to live according to God’s law of love.
This is why the poor gathered around Jesus and why they brought the outcast blind, lame, and others to him.
It is also one of the reasons that Jesus was executed. The idea of a just and equitable society may be a threat to the powerful.
Is Jesus teaching so scary? Is the command to love so difficult? I have hope for humanity. With God's grace all things are possible.