Monday, October 28, 2013

Blessed are the Poor

The Gospel for All Saints Day begins with a difficult teaching of Jesus.  “Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”  (Lk. 6:20)  For one thing, we do not normally associate being poor with blessedness.  It gets stranger when we realize that the Greek word translated here as blessed literally means happy.  What Jesus is saying is, “Happy are the poor.”  We certainly do not normally associate poor and happy. 
The strangeness of this teaching may have a lot to do with why the church started trying to soften it right from the very beginning.  Matthew has Jesus saying something along the same lines, but with a difference:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  (Mt. 5:3).  Poor in spirit somehow makes it a little easier to take, although being poor in spirit is no more something I would normally associate with blessings and happiness than being just plain poor.  But is this really a softening?  Or is it more of an invitation?
I had the joy of speaking to the Diocese of Kansas this weekend at its convention.  As you have heard me do many times, I spoke about relationships of solidarity with people who are poor as being sacramental in nature, a way Christians experience the real presence of Christ in exactly the same way we do in the Eucharist.  As is almost always the case when I speak on this topic, someone asked me if the priority on Jesus’ concern for the poor in the Gospels was not really a priority on the poor broadly understood to be any type of need and not really about being poor literally.
Well, maybe.  What I’ve come to wonder, though, is if Matthew really understood the change to “poor in spirit” to be a softening of the way Luke put it, in other words, a way of saying the same thing as what has been attributed (incorrectly) to Mae West:  “I’ve been rich and unhappy and I’ve been poor and unhappy.  Rich is better.”  (What she actually said was “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor.  Rich is better.”)  If so, that would certainly be a big difference between the teaching in Matthew and the teaching in Luke. 
What I’ve come to believe, though, is that Matthew isn’t changing what Luke recorded at all.  He’s making it an invitation to the rich to take on the spirit, which is to say the very life and breath, of the poor.  Luke’s version is more exclusive.  It only extends the blessing to “you who are poor.”  Luke’s version acknowledges there are some who do not receive it because they are wealthy.  But in Matthew, the blessing is opened to all.  The rich, too, have the opportunity to take on the spirit of the poor.  If anything, Matthew makes the teaching more generally applicable by not letting the rich off the hook. 
Blessed indeed are the rich, for they are given the opportunity to become one with the poor.  And in that is the kingdom of heaven.  It’s just an entirely different Gospel if we don’t have to struggle with the blessedness of the poor.

1 comment:

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