Amos 5:11-12 (NRSV); Luke 6:17-26 (NRSV)
January 24, 2010
I let my wife Amy do most of our Christmas shopping this year because I’m smart. I did, however, make one trip to Toys “R” Us. And I found that though I did not want to grow up, I had—I was no longer a Toys “R” Us kid. I also found what I was sure would be my children’s favorite Christmas present—a globe.
In the middle of a mess of toys, many of them involving techno-wizardry, I was pleased to find an old-fashioned globe—the kind with light blue oceans and multicolored countries, green and orange and pink and purple and yellow. It was the kind of globe I grew up with. Now, I want my children to have a global vision, like the psalmist who sang, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1); I want my children to see beyond geographic boundaries and ethnic differences, as Jesus did when he instructed his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). And what better way to teach this perspective than with a globe? So, I bought one of the globes; and I was sure my children would recognize this globe as the best Christmas gift on earth.
Well, Christmas morning came, and my children scrambled to the living room to open their presents. And I watched. I watched as they gravitated not to the gift I had purchased, but to the gift my wife had purchased—a Wii. I was quite disappointed—until I played Guitar Hero.
The Wii has gotten a great deal of use; but we did use the globe the other day. It was useful for a serious discussion. We used it after the earthquake in Haiti. I put the globe on the table at dinner, and before we prayed, we located Haiti and talked about the terrible tragedy there. Our conversation focused our prayer.
Part of our conversation was about poverty. I explained that the people of Haiti were poor, and that their poverty had made them especially vulnerable; I said that it was the combination of poverty and an earthquake that had led to the situation there. But I did not say, “Blessed are the poor.”
Would you have said, “Blessed are the poor”?
Last year when we indwelled the Gospel of Matthew we heard Jesus say, “Blessed are the poor” (Matthew 5:3). Today in the Gospel of Luke we have heard Jesus say, “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20). Is it ever inappropriate to quote Jesus? Don’t you trust him?
It seems to me that we have a quandary here. On the one hand, we rightly want to trust Jesus; on the other hand, we’re not sure we really believe his words. “Blessed are the poor”—say what?!
If you’re not yet with me, then the clip we are about to watch from the movie Slumdog Millionaire is especially for you. Our small groups will be watching more of this movie this week, discussing not only the subject of poverty but also the themes of sacrifice, forgiveness, and redemption. The scene we are about to see shows the slums of Mumbai, India, which is where the film’s main characters live. As you watch it, ask yourself, “Are these people blessed?”
[The opening two minutes of Slumdog Millionaire are shown.]
“Blessed are the poor,” right? Why, then, do we not want to live in such conditions? Would we not be divinely favored were we so poor? Why don’t we want to live in the conditions some of us saw a few years ago in New Orleans after Katrina? Why are we sending a mission team to Mexico to alleviate poverty if the poor are blessed and the wealthy are woeful?
In short, what the heck is Jesus talking about?
As we wrestle with his words, we would be wise to avoid a number of misreadings of the teaching in question. Whatever else Jesus may be doing with these blessings and woes, he is surely turning conventional wisdom on its head. The temptation to interpret this unconventional wisdom in ways that domesticate it is the temptation to evade Jesus. Jesus wants to unsettle us; he wants to get our attention. As one commentator puts it, “[H]ere is a way of thinking at odds with what many imagine to be the case in the world, but this is precisely the point.”
One misreading that misses the point is the interpretation that spiritualizes the poverty in view, thereby making the teaching in question more palatable. It goes something like this: “When Jesus said, ‘Blessed are you who are poor,’ he really meant, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’—he really meant blessed are the humble.” In other words, Matthew got it more right than Luke—it’s in Matthew that we read, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Surely Jesus was not speaking about people suffering physical poverty! Luke just left out two key words.
This misreading assumes that Matthew’s beatitudes and Luke’s blessings and woes are descriptions of the same teaching, and that Luke made a mistake. Another possibility, though, is that Matthew and Luke have recorded two different teachings of Jesus on two different kinds of poverty. Perhaps Matthew’s description of Jesus teaching on a “mountain” (Matthew 5:1) and Luke’s description of Jesus teaching “on a level place” (Luke 6:17) are not incidental details. In fact, it seems likely that Luke does have in mind physical poverty, as it is this kind of poverty about which he is consistently concerned. It is in Luke, for example, that we find Jesus describing his ministry with words from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). It would be easier to think that Jesus was referring to the humble when he said, “Blessed are you who are poor”; but Luke gives us no reason to take this easy path.
Once we accept that Jesus is indeed teaching that persons suffering poverty are blessed, we become vulnerable to another temptation—the temptation to misread what Jesus says as underwriting the status quo. This misreading goes something like this: “If the poor are blessed, then why should we try to change their condition?” That Jesus did not want to be heard in this way is indicated by his earlier use of Isaiah. Jesus read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” But he did not stop reading there; he continued: “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18). Jesus was not content to speak words of blessing to the poor; he also desired “to let the oppressed go free”—whether from poverty or other forms of oppression. Jesus showed the same concern for the poor that Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Amos had shown before him.
It has been said (and I think it’s true) that Jesus makes implicit commands in his blessings. When he teaches that the poor are divinely favored, for example, the desired effect is that his disciples (including us) would treat the poor accordingly—that is, that we would treat them well. Fred Craddock writes, “As pronouncements on the lips of Jesus, these statements are performative; that is to say, the words have power and perform or make true the kinds of life presented in the statements.” Jesus knew that language has great power; he knew that language not only describes, but also does—that it is not only descriptive, but also creative.
Jesus was ahead of his time with this understanding of language. In recent decades, a sociological theory called social constructionism has developed; it’s a theory that points to language as something that not only describes the present, but also creates the future. Put simply, the language we use influences what our future will look like.
Last summer I was at the beach in Capitola with my son Aidan, who already talks about learning how to surf someday. While we were there, we saw some older boys sliding in the surf on what are called skimboards—thin mini-surfboards. Aidan talked me into getting him one. At the surf shop, a guy showed us how to use the skimboard, including how to apply the surfwax (the brand name of the surfwax was Sex Wax, which led to questions from Aidan that I care not to recall at this time).
On the beach, I watched Aidan struggle mightily to figure out how to slide on his skimboard—there was big spill after big spill. Despite these spills, I said, “Aidan, you’re doing great!” And I said it again and again. Do you know what happened? He got better and better—and quickly. What would have happened had I said, “Aidan, you’re terrible”? Aidan’s skimboarding future probably would have developed differently.
Words matter. When Jesus, the Word made flesh, said, “Blessed are you who are poor,” he was not so much describing what he saw as he was creating a new reality. The term Christians have used to describe this new reality is “the kingdom of God.” As followers of Jesus, we are invited to participate in this coming kingdom’s emergence.
When we choose to participate in God’s kingdom work of blessing the poor, we will be tempted by one more misreading of these blessings and woes. This last misreading goes something like this: “Blessed are the poor when we make them wealthy.” The danger of this misreading is that it suggests the poor would be blessed if only they became like us.
There is no way to take the teaching and example of Jesus seriously and conclude that he sees acquiring riches as a worthwhile goal: “[W]oe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24). It is one thing to seek to alleviate poverty by sponsoring poor families in Romania, or by helping small businesses get off the ground in rural Africa, or by giving money to relief efforts in Haiti—we rightly do all these things. It is another thing, though, to encourage the pursuit of riches, thereby perpetuating the myth that wealth leads to happiness—a myth that has mesmerized the culture we breathe. When we impose this culture on others, we are “playing God in the lives of the poor.” In his book Walking with the Poor, Bryant Myers of World Vision writes:
[T]he non-poor [that would be us] have a great deal in common with the poor from a biblical perspective. The non-poor are also made in the image of God, are also fallen, and are also being offered redemption. Sadly, it is harder for them to hear this good news than it is for the poor. This is true partly because they enjoy, knowingly or not, playing god in the lives of the poor.I suspect another reason it’s hard for us to hear the gospel is that our wealth blinds us to our need for God. Jesus had no such problem, partly because he walked not with the rich, but with the poor—blessing them with his presence. Insofar as we walk with the poor, we may bless them; but we will surely be blessed by them, “for [theirs] is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
 Joel B. Green, “The Gospel According to Luke” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 1864 n.
 Fred B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 87.
 Bryant L. Myers, Walking with the Poor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 89.