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
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?
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.
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.
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
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.