“Blessed are the poor”

While some have argued (and hoped!) that this beatitude was meant to be taken metaphorically, reflecting the poor in spirit, or pious, that seems pretty doubtful; Jesus repeatedly urged his disciples and everyone who would listen to care for those who were suffering because they lacked money, food, shelter, or medical care. Other Bible scholars warn that we should take care lest we use rational arguments to make Jesus’ original meaning easier to swallow. If indeed the financially poor are blessed, what are we to make of this beatitude?

First, it follows that we should treat the poor as if they are worthy—that is, to share what we have and to prevent unnecessary suffering for those who have little in the way of money and other resources, since they are held in high esteem by God.

Second, as contrasted with Nebuchadnezzar, who could never enter the kingdom of God because he could not give up his riches, the poor have no such impediment. They have no painful decision to make, no sacrifice that is required in terms of giving up the comfortable life to which they’ve become accustomed.

Third, this verse has caused concern for many people who worry that God actually prefers the poor to those with resources or even wealth. After all, Jesus did remark that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. This colorful phrase was used to make a strong point, i.e., that the kingdom of heaven may be difficult for a well-to-do person to make sacrifices for, because material comforts so quickly become viewed as necessary. Jesus told stories, such as the servants with the talents, illustrating God’s mandate that the greater our talents (resources, including psychological, physical and economic), the greater our responsibilities to use them to the glory of God and the benefit of our fellow human beings.

Are we blessing—or cursing—the poor?

How would Jesus guide a child towards understanding this beatitude? Use your imagination. Picture Jesus as the wealthy middle-class parent. How would he refer to the poor? How would he explain poverty to his child? How would he guide him or her to respond to stories about the poor, or to beggars on the street? Would he tell the child, “well that’s what happens when you don’t work hard” or “they could do better but they’re just lazy” or “they just want a handout”?

It is tempting to hope that Jesus would simply reframe the problem as so many Christians do today, saying that the poor may be suffering now, but are actually lucky (that is, don’t need or deserve help in the here and now) in the long run because they are “blessed”. If so, neither Jesus nor his child would need to worry any further about the poor, and of course wouldn’t have to share or help. After all, Jesus did say later in his life that “the poor you will always have with you”, in the context of the woman who dried her tears from his feet with her hair. It would be comforting if we could assume that this statement meant, “oh well, stuff happens”, so that we could feel like good Christians while voting against a decent minimum wage or health insurance for all.

But alas, it’s pretty obvious, upon even a cursory glance at the Gospels, that Jesus never failed to condemn selfishness and indifference towards the poor.

What we must keep in mind is that the beatitudes were given during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ longest and primary articulation of this new kingdom of heaven. As such, they were delivered to the crowds, and every word was meant to make people think, to make them re-think their assumptions, and to challenge their spiritual devotion. In light of his many references to the needs of the poor (and the greed of the ruling class) revealed his concern for them, he almost certainly wished to soothe the poor, to give them a life raft of sorts in a world wherein they would always be the have-nots.

However, this beatitude also seems addressed quite pointedly to those who were not poor. Jesus was saying that the poor are valued, even blessed, by God. Aren’t we, then, to likewise see the poor as worthy people?

Money and Power—Signs of God’s Approval?

In Jesus’ time, afflictions and misfortunes were viewed as signs that that the person had lost favor with God, whereas health and wealth were considered indicative of God’s praise. I’m afraid that modern Christianity has fallen into just such superstitious thinking. Popular televangelists and best-selling authors have made a fortune with the happily-received message that God will reward faithfulness and “purity” with earthly riches—money, nice homes, SUVs, dividends, Jacuzzis, you name it.

This idea—that God works much like a vending machine, wherein you insert piety and “godliness” to receive the wealth, popularity, power or votes that you crave—has also, as in Jesus’ day, relieved us of any sense that we may simply be more fortunate than others. For instance, while it used to be common knowledge that financial success is much easier when one is born to a wealthy family than a poor one, and that one never “deserves” this or that family at birth—that is, that your family’s wealth or poverty is a matter of chance, not a sign of divine approval—today we’ve all but lost our grasp on such realities.

The idea that we need only pray to “enlarge our territory” in order to fill our coffers with power and wealth, and that any power or wealth we already have is a sign of God’s endorsement of us and God’s desire that we have these things, handlily relieves us of any obligation to share what we have with others. After all, we need not feel ashamed of hoarding while others starve or sleep under the interstate or have no medical insurance because, after all, our blessings have been “given” to us by God for being so very virtuous!

The Prayer of Jesus

When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor”, he not only refuted these assumptions, but actually reversed them in one mighty swoop. With one short phrase, he turned upside down the notion that money reflects a person’s righteousness. How his listeners must have felt to hear that not only is this not true, but that lack of money makes it easier to enter the kingdom of heaven!

Now imagine Jesus as the parent of a poor child. This beatitude would lead Jesus to remind his child that he or she was not only worthwhile, but blessed by God. A child growing up in a poor tenement would thus not feel altogether poor—for isn’t the worst poverty that feeling that one is unfavored or unnoticed by God?--and would not be hindered in his or her future actions by such negative assumptions.

In both cases, Jesus would surely remind his child that poverty is a material condition, one which results not from divine edicts but, as Mother Teresa said, “because people don’t share”. Yet he would also model for his child the certainty that God favors the poor, that poverty has nothing to do with God’s lack of approval or the now-popular word, “grace”. Jesus would point out now, as he did then, that human greed and injustice lead to poverty, and that anyone who wishes to enter heaven had better make sure that he or she gets rid of those all-too-common sins of the heart.

By Dr. Teresa Whitehurst

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