Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God.
This is a familiar line from Jesus’ teaching.It is the first of the Beatitudes.
But woe to you who are rich for you have received you consolation.
It is followed by a somewhat less familiar line from Jesus’ teaching. Luke recalls that for each of his blessings, Jesus gave a corresponding “woe.” The poor are matched against the rich, the hungry against the full. Those who weep paired over and against those who laugh. And the hated, excluded and defamed are set against those of whom everyone speaks well. The idea which Jesus is trying to convey is simple enough. Even though it runs against conventional ways of seeing things. The implication of it all is that present appearances can be deceptive. What appear to be difficult or distressing circumstances, things that normally would thought of as a curse, are a blessing And Luke reminds us of what Jesus says: What appears to be fortunate circumstances are not a blessing but are in fact a curse. This is the great reversal which the kingdom of God brings about. It is, as Jesus declares elsewhere, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
But there are not four different groups of people here who are the beneficiaries of that reversal. There is essentially only one: the poor. Hunger and sorrow merely fill out the picture of poverty. Hunger and sorrow are the likely consequences of poverty. And the strange thing about Jesus’ announcement of blessing on the poor is that he makes it in the present tense. He says: Blessed are you who are poor. The blessing which Jesus announces is not something that is postponed to some indefinite future. Despite all appearances to the contrary the poor are blessed now. For yours is the kingdom of God. This is the essence of Jesus’ preaching. This is his single most important message. It is the announcement of the presence of the reign of God. God is here now. The beatitude: “blessed are you who are poor” announces that the kingdom of God is already here, among the poor. The poor are blessed because God is with them and amongst them.
The message to those who would look for God is that the place you should be looking is amongst the poor, and with those who are hungry and sorrowful. It is interesting that when Matthew reports Jesus’ teaching, in the more familiar form of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, he recalls an extra word: blessed are the poor in spirit. The blessing on the poor is qualified with “in spirit.” Recognising that even among the poor, as they actually exist in the world, even among the poor there are and there will be those who reject that allegiance with God. It is perfectly possible to be poor and prefer wealth, as the world measures it, to prefer wealth to the reign of God.
But the essential point remains. And it is one which is consistent throughout the Bible. It is something which is found beyond just Jesus’ radical teaching: God is on the side of the poor. If you are looking for God in this world there is only one place for you to look. God is to be found among the poor, the sick, the rejected, the outcast.
Jesus’ teaching, and the beatitudes in particular, have often been used in ways which could be called “anti-humane.” Jesus’ radical words, the words of promise about the kingdom have often been used to reinforce the status quo, the world as it already is. Jesus is frequently interpreted as if when he says “blessed are the poor” he meant that it
was good in a way that meant that poverty and its effects didn’t need to be addressed. It can be implied that his word of blessing was sufficient. As if when he says “the poor you shall always have with you” he was saying like it was a
good thing and that it was therefore pointless trying to end poverty. In the hands of those who are not poor, the rich and the powerful, Jesus’ teaching has often been used to hold the poor in their place and silence their demand for present relief and for justice. Jesus’ words have been used in such a way as to suggest that all his teaching, and the
beatitudes in particular, that all his teaching has to offer is “pie in the sky when you die.” It has been implied that the blessings which Jesus promises are postponed indefinitely, while those who are rich and filled and laughing now continue to enjoy the life they have in the face of poverty, hunger and sorrow among many, even most, of the rest of the human race.
But it is always a question of how we read the Bible, and of who gets to speak for God? Whose interest does any interpretation of Jesus’ teaching serve? Of course, interpreting Jesus’ words in a way which seeks to leave the world as it is serves the interests of the rich and the powerful. If Jesus’ words are not interpreted as a demand for change, it implies that present wealth and power are some kind of divine right! And therefore, in spite of what Jesus says, wealth is a blessing. But that is to fail to grasp what the first beatitude means: Blessed are you who are poor for your is the kingdom of God. We must remember the present tense of that blessing. The place where God’s reign already exists in the world is among the poor. When God speaks in the world his voice comes from that direction. God does not speak on behalf of, or in the interests of, the rich and the powerful. God speaks for the poor. Which is why the second two beatitudes present as yet unfulfilled promise:
Blessed are you are hungry now for you will be filled
Blessed are you who weep now for you will laugh
This is the voice of the poor and their demand for relief. This is the demand of the hungry to be fed, and of those in sorrow and painful circumstances to be lifted up. Again Matthew helpfully recalls a qualification in Jesus’ words: “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” In that version of Jesus saying it is clear that what he is talking about is the demand of the poor for justice. The words of Jesus should not and cannot be used to retain a status quo in the world, where some suffer hunger while others have more than enough. What the beatitudes indicate is: That God’s reign is with the poor; God is on their side. So that when the poor of the world demand justice it is the voice of God which is speaking!
This brings us to the fourth pair of blessings and woes. That fourth pair seems to stand slightly apart from the others
Blessed when people hate you, revile you and defame you on account of the Son of man.
Which is correlated with:
Woe to you when all speak well of you.
Which would appear to address those who would represent Jesus in the world. In other words the last beatitude is addressed to Jesus’ followers specifically. They are addressed to the church. They are words directed at us. The great temptation is to want people to think well of us, especially since we are naturally concerned to try and persuade as many as we can to join in with us. And we sense that we probably can’t do that by rubbing people up the wrong way. We need people to like us. But Jesus issues us with a call to prophetic speech.
Nothing which Jesus says in the beatitudes had not already been said by the prophets. It is not that God’s allegiance with the poor and dispossessed was newly minted with Jesus. That had always been God’s position. God had always demanded care of the poor, the widow, the orphan and the immigrant. And the prophets had always demanded this. God hasn’t changed. The presence of Jesus merely gives God’s words a new reality and greater force. Jesus’ followers are called to the same mission, to allow God’s voice to be heard from among the poor.
Of course there are probably 100 ways in which Christians can speak which might upset and anger people. And 99 of them aren’t because we had spoken with the voice of God. Just being annoying is definitely not the mission of the church. But if the church has accepted its true calling it cannot fail to annoy. The message of the Gospel angers those who are rich, because the church would and should exist as a reminder that wealth is all they are getting, they have received their consolation, and even the rich know that that is not enough! The Gospel irritates those who are full,
because they fear the hunger that others suffer that the church is reminding them of. The Gospel dismays those who laugh, because they cannot bear the sorrow that exists in the world that the church points to. When the church speaks, with the prophetic voice Jesus call it to, it cannot fail to upset the equilibrium of those who currently enjoy what the world has to offer. But when the Church does speak like that it realises the truth of the blessing which Jesus speaks:
Blessed are you. . .
God Speaks from among the Poor by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0