When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor” in Luke’s Gospel a radical flipping of the script was being unleashed that had incredible ramifications for all his listeners.
Let me explain.
During the time of Jesus the predominant thought that guided people’s understanding of “who was righteous” and “who was a sinner” boiled down to the evidence of one’s life. Naturally, the wealthy and the religious leaders presumed to carry God’s blessing because of the evidence of their wealth and social status. They were living “blessed” lives and therefore must have done things right, kept the Law, followed God and God’s principles.
On the other side of the coin – if you were poor then obviously you lacked God’s blessing and all that one could say is that you were “cursed of God,” which meant you were “a sinner.”
These “blessing” and “cursing” ideas all stem from passages like Deut. 28 which essentially say, If you follow the commands of God you’ll be blessed…but if you break the commands of God you’ll be cursed.
Living under the weight of “being cursed” must have been incredibly difficult. It is natural to think that those living in poverty must have thought their situation in life stemmed from God. God must be against us. We must have done something wrong.
The shame would have been paralyzing to the people. While, on the other side of the narrative, the rich would have had plenty of backing to justify their status and power in society which enabled them to keep the divisions of purity as “the righteous” (access to God) and economics as “the blessed” (access to communal flourishing).
So when Jesus opens this incredible community renewing discourse (the sermon on the plain) his words would have been completely unexpected and alarmingly refreshing. By saying, “Blessed are the poor…” he is completely flipping the script on what was understood as the evidence of God’s blessing.
As Richard Horsley says in Covenant Economics:
In opening the covenant renewal speech with blessings Jesus pointedly addresses the people’s debilitating belief that the poverty, hunger, and general misery were God’s curses for their own sins. By transforming the blessings and curses that had worked to make the people feel hopeless, proclaiming blessings on the poor and hungry but woes against the wealthy, Jesus declares God’s new action in the present and future to deliver the people from their oppression. Jesus declared God’s new action of deliverance, giving the people a new lease on life.
Jesus is flipping the script by dismantling the religious purity code, giving the people back their access to God and empowering these oppressed communities of struggle to redefine their worth and their future in light of their present opportunity as central actors in God’s unfolding narrative of redemption.
Life had been so hard for these people as the oppressive forces of Rome and Rome’s allies (religious leaders) tore their communities apart, stole their land, disabled their access to economic sustainability and even cut off their access to forgiveness. These rural communities were falling apart, families were disintegrating and the future was evaporating. Anger, hopelessness and despair must have been so tangible. These proclamations would have certainly given them a new lease on life!
Jesus is saying – “this is not your fault and God is not against you.”
Those words have incredible power to release us from the tyranny of shame and doubt.
But he does not stop here. By saying, “woe are you who are rich” Jesus directly puts the blame of the people’s suffering at the feet of those who were “righteous.”
As Horsley says again:
This is no philosophical discussion of the general human condition of poverty and suffering. Jesus speaks as a prophet, like Moses of old, pronouncing the blessings of God’s imminent action of deliverance , the coming of God’s direct rule. That he also pronounces woes on the wealthy suggests that there is a relationship between the poverty of the poor and the wealth of the wealthy. The latter have been exploiting the former. The fundamental concern of the Covenant, its principles and mechanism, of course, was for the economic viability of each family in the villages that constituted the people of Israel. The blessings announce God’s new action to restore such justice. The woes call down God’s condemnation on the wealthy whose actions have brought about the people’s poverty and hunger.
So what does all of this mean to us today? In 2015?
As one who works alongside a community of struggle it breaks my heart to hear the rhetoric of hate and blame from those outside our community. We humans seem to have this propensity for blaming poverty on the poor.
Our culture is no different from Israel’s. Those who are wealthy and have “made it” are seen as blessed while those who are living under the weight of poverty are seen as “cursed” or “sinners” or “lazy” or…
To live under the weight of constant name calling, racism, social and economic isolation, militant policing and unjust policy is incredibly difficult. Further, to see oneself as the cause for one’s situation in life (when it is clear the situation you find yourself in is the result of intentional oppression and isolation) is paralyzing and dehumanizing.
Jesus was flipping the script then, and he is flipping the script now. Blessed are the poor! It’s not their fault. God is not against them, God is for them – really, really for them! God is dwelling within these communities of struggle and inviting them to be part of the greatest movement in the history of humanity! This is good news.Jesus was flipping the script then, and he is flipping the script now. Blessed are the poor! Click To Tweet
As followers of Jesus today we need to immediately cease and desist from blaming the poor for their poverty. Nope, stop…don’t do it. We need to join in with communities of struggle, break down our purity walls and the divisions of economic and social isolation and be part of their blessing. Furthermore, we must do all we can so that we will not be “rich.” How do we do this? I think the best way to abstain from being rich is by practicing radical generosity, counter-cultural simplicity, social solidarity, mutual-cooperation and mutual-accountability with under-resourced communities.
If we live this way, then maybe we can be part of what God is doing in this great flipping of the script called the Kingdom of God.
—[Photo: Simon Powell, CC via Flickr]