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Friday, August 29, 2014

Blessed Are the Poor (That’s not You)

This is a sermon I wrote back in 2002.  I’ve dug it up from the basement and dusted it off a little bit…

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“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: 20 – 21

This section of scripture is not for you.  This scripture passage is not for me.  This scripture is not for us – not directly. 

The beatitudes as recorded by Matthew are better suited to those of us living in America today.  We can claim to be the poor in spirit, the hungry for righteousness, the peacemakers (even if our continually increasing reliance on militarization would seem to belie those claims).  But we cannot claim to be the poor, not as Luke has defined them.

A good question might be – “why is Luke’s version of the beatitudes different than Matthew’s?”  It is very likely that Jesus preached this sermon on several occasions to different groups of people in different locations.  The two authors have combined the various sermons in slightly different ways so as to emphasize different parts of Jesus’ message.  Matthew included more of the blessings.  Luke left off some of the blessings but balanced them with curses.  Matthew focused on spiritual aspects, Luke on physical. If you want warm fuzzies, read Matthew’s version of the beatitudes.  If you want a confrontational challenge, check out Luke’s.  If you want balance, read both.[i]

Preachers, teachers, pastors, and priest have usually preferred to stick to Matthew’s version – choosing to talk about the poor… in spirit and the hungry… for righteousness because, for the most part, the preacher, teachers, pastors and priests are not among the poor, and Luke’s version of this sermon causes us to feel more than just a little uncomfortable.

“Luke’s blunt talk about the ‘poor,’ we are instructed, must be interpreted in light of Matthew’s fuller ‘poor in spirit,’ a classification to which we can all aspire since it has none of the rude realities of ‘material poverty’ (lack of food, clothing, shelter, employment) attached to it.  ‘Spiritual poverty’ in fact becomes a Christian virtue, and we are encouraged to affirm a life-style that puts no premium on goods and possessions but equally does not suggest that we need to get rid of them (Brown, 89).” Reading the beatitudes only from the gospel according to Matthew is a way of letting ourselves off the hook without requiring any sort of compromise to our materialistic lifestyle.

In the New Testament there are two different Greek words used for “the poor.”  The first of which is penes. This simply describes “the man for whom life and living is a struggle, the man who is the reverse of the man who lives in affluence (Barclay, 248).”  That is most of us.  We live from day to day, week to week, paycheck to paycheck.  We sometimes struggle to make ends meet.  We don’t often have the money to afford the “nicer things.”   We don’t drive flashy cars.  We don’t wear designer clothes.  But we do have a home to live in, food to eat, and clothes to wear.  We have hospitals and doctors available to us.  We have clean water to drink.  If we are “poor” we are penes poor.

The word used by Luke in his version of the beatitudes describes those who don’t have any of those things.  The word is ptóchos and it comes from the verb: to cower.  “It describes abject poverty, which has literally nothing, and is in imminent danger of real starvation (Barclay, 248).”  They are the oppressed, the abused.  The poor, according to Luke, are those who have absolutely nothing, and have no help and no hope.

“The poor in the bible are the helpless, the indigent, the hungry, the oppressed, the needy, the humiliated.  And it is not nature that has put them in this situation; they have been unjustly impoverished and despoiled by the powerful (Brown, 89).”

They are the Restavek children in Haiti, orphaned children who are taken in by individual families with detrimental results.  These boys and girls are reduced to lifestyles that are close to slavery.  They spend their days doing chores – toting water and working the fields – without pay. They get leftovers to eat and are regularly abused (Campolo, 12).

They are the poor, the hungry, the weeping.  They have been beaten down, their land has been stolen from them and their children taken.  Their husbands have been killed, their dignity trampled.  And because they have nothing on earth they have come to put their trust – their complete and total trust – in God to provide and protect.  They are blessed, not because they are good, but because God is good. They are God’s people because their faith is in him.

But, an easy life is not promised to us.  Immediate vindication is not promised.   The hungry, who are hungry now, will be filled in the future.  Those who are weeping now are promised that they will laugh later.  If they are hated and abused now, they will have great rewards in heaven.  It’s all in the future.

Except for this one:  the poor who are poor now they have the Kingdom of God now.  The Kingdom of God is with them now.  The Kingdom of God is present in the lives of those who trust him.  The Kingdom is daily being built by those who rely on him and his strength.

The rich seem to be excluded from the Kingdom of God in the here and now, not because they don’t seem to perceive their need for the saving power and healing work of Jesus.  They have what they need, and if they don’t have it they can certainly buy it, or take it from someone who does.  Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.

That’s not to say that being rich is sinful in and of itself.  The bible never condemns the rich for being rich – but rather for being proud of their riches, for greed, for the abuse of others by the rich and powerful.  It just seems more difficult to get around their money. 

Where Matthew’s account has Jesus speaking to the crowds, Luke describes Jesus delivering this message to his disciples directly, “fixing his eyes upon them.”  It was addressed to them to strengthen them, and encourage them in a life of sacrificial giving.  Jesus called them to follow him – but he had no home, and no bed.  He had no job, no money of his own.  He was one of the poor.  He was one of the oppressed – despised by many, abused and murdered by the powerful.

 But blessed are you the poor, you the hungry, you who weep, you who are hated, despised and denounced as criminals.  Rejoice and leap for joy because this is how they treated the prophets.
These blessings upset our expectations.  They’re backwards.  They’re wrong.  The world does not bless the poor, it blesses and esteems the rich. 

Jesus’ message continues by further upsetting his listener’s (and our) expectations by delivering a series of woes and curses.

“It will be hell for you rich people, because you’ve had your fling.  It will be hell for you whose bellies are full now, because you will go hungry.  It will be hell for you who are so gay now, because you will sob and weep.  It will be hell for you when everybody speaks highly of you, for their fathers said the same things about the false prophets (Jordan, 31).”

We are not the poor, not the ptóchos poor, as Luke has described them.  But neither are the rich – not really.  So what do we do with this scripture?  How do we make it ours?  How do we read it?

We need to be willing to be poor – even if we are not – both physically and spiritually, admitting that everything we have (money, food, grace, forgiveness) comes from our good and gratuitous god and not through our own efforts. 

We need to be hungry.  In America we eat – too much, I think.  But we need to be hungry, for food nad for righteousness.  Food tastes better to the hungry.  We appreciate it more.  We need to accept grief and sadness as part of this world here and now.  We are not promised a happy life.  If you came to Jesus to be happy, you’re in the wrong place. In this world we will have trouble – not, as so many televangelists claim, health and wealth, and prosperity.  We need to be ready to be hated, despised, abused. (And by this I do not mean whining about people who say “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas…”) The prophets of God have been cut in two, boiled alive, thrown to the lions, burned at the stake, beheaded…

We also need to remember that we are responsible to the poor, the hungry, the mourning.  We are to help those in desperate need.  We are to relieve their sufferings and end their abuse wherever we can.  We are to bring good news to the afflicted.  We are to soothe the broken hearted and comfort those who mourn.

This text isn’t for us – not directly.  We are not the poor, even if we’re not exactly rich.  But we are followers of Jesus.  We are his disciples.  We are to take his message and let it transform our lives so that the Kingdom of God is made more and more evident in the world today.

Blessed are you who are poor for the Kingdom of God is yours.

Barclay, William, New Testament Words, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, PA 1964.
Brown, Robert McAfee, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible through Third World Eyes, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, PA 1984.
Campolo, Tony, Following Jesus Without Embarrassing God,  Word Publishing, Dallas, TX 1997.
Nickolof, James B, editor, Gustavo Gutiérrez: Essential Writings, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 1996.
Jordan, Clarence, The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts, New Win Publishing, Inc. Clinton, NJ 1969.

[i] If I were writing this sermon today I’d draw this distinction a little less starkly – it is not as if Matthew’s gospel is focused on spiritual aspects of the faith to the exclusion of physical realities – there is a notable insistence “on the need for concrete and ‘material’ actions toward others and especially toward the poor,” in Matthew.  – Gustavo Gutiérrez (Nickoloff, 162).

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