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.