why are the poor blessed and the rich cursed?

child_poverty_tears_ah_51884

I have heard the phrase “blessed are the poor” many times before.  Growing up, I always heard the phrase qualified as, in Matthew’s account, “blessed are the poor in spirit.” (Matthew 5:3a)  The former phrase has frequently been explained away to me as not being literal, i.e. not having anything to do with the amount of money you have, and rather about having a heart of desperation for God.

Now although the latter (longing for God) is true, only in the past year or so have I been challenged to consider that the connection to the former (amount of resources one has) may not be so easily dismissed.

In the Luke account the passage reads: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” – Luke 6:20b

The language is quite direct here.  Jesus is talking about a specific type of person: a person who is poor.   Of course, especially in light of Matthew 5, this could also mean a person who is poor in spirit or is in need spiritually.  It may be hard to insist though that Jesus is ONLY speaking figuratively here since the context of this phrase, that comes in a series of blessings, are all shocking statements that go against what we’d expect to be the blessed state (hunger, weeping, and being hated as being blessed in God’s kingdom).   If the statement about the poor is only figurative, considering parallelism, then the rest of the statements are also likely only figurative, which becomes difficult to maintain.

However, what makes it most difficult to deny that Jesus is speaking of a literally poor person is the following statement, in a contrasting series of statements by Jesus in the SAME message: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” – Luke 6:24

Jesus is directly contrasting the poor to the rich, the haves and the have nots.  When we read this statement of the rich it is harder to explain it away as referring to someone who is rich in spirit.  The rich have “received (their) consolation” meaning they have already gotten something of worth.

What then can such a statement mean, that in God’s kingdom the poor are blessed and the rich are cursed?   We may be quick to qualify that, certainly (and rightly so), being poor doesn’t make you more godly, but are we as quick to say that being rich doesn’t make you more godly?   Poverty is not good in it of itself but, let us consider, NEITHER is wealth. Do we even see the trap of riches?  We must be suspicious of a tendency to want to explain away statements of poverty and to ignore the warnings of wealth.  If anything, Jesus is making a stronger statement here about the dangers of wealth than the dangers of poverty.

What I think Jesus is saying in these statements is not that poverty is a godly end we should attain to but rather calling our attention to the condition toward God that poverty and riches engenders.  Being literally poor tends to makes one desperate and being literally rich tends to make one consoled.  Which is easier to say? “I have nothing without you, God” and you don’t know where your next meal is coming from OR to make the same statement knowing you have plenty of goods to spare?  Who is more likely to be in touch with their need for God, a person who is poor or a person who is rich?  Are we desperate for the Kingdom of God as a poor person might be or are we alright with our kingdoms now?

Lord, let me long for you as if I am poor, and let me give to others as if I am rich.

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5 thoughts on “why are the poor blessed and the rich cursed?”

  1. Good word – I find that “need doesn’t move heaven, hunger (meaning spiritual hunger), moves heaven” – perhaps re-evaluating our definition of wealth is necessary. Realizing where our treasure is, there our heart is too. Thanks for reminding us to check-ourselves and to stir our hunger for the Greater Things.

  2. Lk. 6:20 begins with “And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: ‘Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.'” Thus Jesus is not saying all the poor are blessed, but that poor disciples are blessed. (And rich disciples are not, according to 6:24.)

    In Lk. 18 is a contrast between the rich ruler, whom Jesus tells to sell his treasured possessions, give to the poor, and come, follow him–but who declines, for he is very rich (18:18-23), over against disciples like Peter, who says “we have left our homes and followed you” (18:28). Then in Lk. 19:1-10 Zacchaeus becomes a poor disciple by giving half of his goods to the poor, and restoring fourfold what he had taken by fraud.

    So Jesus is not primarily concerned about an inward condition toward God when he speaks these words. To look inwardly is to once again favor Matthew’s blessing for the poor in spirit. Actually, Matthew’s phrase can be translated as the “poor in the Spirit” (which would point to a poor Messiah, like Jesus in the desert, calling disciples to leave their homes and businesses to follow him, in Mt. 4, just before Mt. 5). The Spirit has also been a focus in Mt. 3, where John the Baptist says Jesus will baptize with the Spirit, and the Spirit descends on Jesus (from heaven), anointing him as the new king of the kingdom of (and from) heaven. Those disciples who follow him in his lowly (poor) way in the future will receive his Spirit and like their king be “the poor in the Spirit.”

    1. great point about the audience of disciples. also appreciate how you bring other scriptures to bear. definitely, worth exploring and gives lots to think about, especially in terms of the economy of God’s kingdom.

      still not too convinced to swing the pendulum the other way and disregard figurative meaning as well (can we hold both a reading of inward AND outward condition together or must we only hold onto one? certainly hunger and weeping is rooted in an inner condition?).

      not exactly sure what you mean by “poor in the Spirit” as opposed to “poor in spirit.” unless of course you mean “poor BY the Spirit”, in which case i can see your point. it seems “poor in the Spirit” seems to imply having less of the Holy Spirit as opposed to “full of the Spirit” used many times to describing those in line with Jesus (Jesus himself, Stephen, Barnabas, etc.).

      “poor in spirit” reminds me of passages in the OT (Isaiah 57:15, Prov 29:23) of “lowly in spirit” which is not necessarily only for the poor (or else what then of of King David and some of the patriarchs who were quite rich?). just trying to think the implications through. thanks for the opportunity for dialogue.

      1. I think the hunger of Lk. 6:21 would also be especially the (inner, but) physical condition–as a contrast to the rich, who are full now, in 6:25. But the weeping of 6:22 would certainly include an inner mental condition of mourning.

        By the poor in the Spirit, I mean Jesus and his disciples, who have the Spirit and are thus “in the Spirit.” And they are also (physically) poor, as part of their choice to seek first the spreading of the kingdom and its righteousness, rather than seeking and pursuing a better livelihood, or the “finer” things of life, like the best food, drink, and clothing.

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