In Luke 6, we have a version of the “Sermon on the Mount” with some interesting variations. For example, Matthew has “Blessed are the poor in spirit“whereas Luke has: “Blessed are you who are poor.” Is that the same thing? Or is Matthew talking about a spiritual condition and Luke about an economic one?
That’s probably the case, to an extent. Luke’s narrative includes many accounts of the poor and destitute that the other Gospel writers don’t include.
But the “inner meaning” of being poor is of being disempowered and without human resources and this is the point where the Gospel writers connect. It’s the meaning of the Greek word ptochos, which needs a phrase like “completely lacking resources” to translate properly. The word “poor” here just doesn’t cut it.
It’s a challenging paradox. You are blessed when you lack any resources? Luke goes on:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
23 ‘Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 ‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”
What a powerful paragraph! It’s the sort of statement that you have to take on the chin. You can’t prevaricate or negotiate. You mustn’t start the explanation with a statement such as “Of course, what this really means is…” as if you know better than the Holy Spirit.
When you’re reading the Bible, it’s best to just be simple and straightforward, and to accept that the simple plain meaning is, generally speaking the right one.
For the reason that many scholars take this passage and start talking about economic versus spiritual poverty is a subconscious desire to duck its obvious meaning, that it’s a sin to be rich.
Well, that’s a bit over-simplistic, but it was worth saying to evoke that immediate response…
It’s truer to say that it’s a sin to be selfishly rich – to clutch what you have to yourself without a thought of others. Wesley’s old dictum in his sermon on “The Use of Money” is still true:
GAIN ALL YOU CAN -SAVE ALL YOU CAN- GIVE ALL YOU CAN
As he said, “You do not own the wealth that you have. It has been entrusted to you for a short while by the God who brought you into being. All belongs to him. Your wealth is to be used for him as a holy sacrifice, made acceptable through Jesus Christ.”
If this clear statement worries you in any way, then to you the New Testament offers one word. Woe.
James expanded on that a little: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you… You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter…” (James 5:1,5) The key word is “self-indulgence.” The rich man in Luke 16 was not castigated for being rich but for failing to notice the “poor man at his gate.” We are blessed so that we might bless. Rivers and not stagnant ponds.
For ultimately, this passage is not about money, but about the way we respond to what God is doing.
Luke’s gospel brings a consistent message of good news to those who least expected it; those who found themselves in the most unworthy position were offered preferential status in the Kingdom. Those who believed themselves to be the Cream of society are to be passed over in favour of the weak, the needy and the helpless. Jesus offered hope for those in the worst of situations.
This was good news to the vast majority of Jesus’ audience. 1st century Palestine was a mainly agrarian society that lived at a subsistence level of poverty. Meaning, they lived day to day in poverty and their next meal was not guaranteed. To such people, the line, “Give us this day our daily bread” had a level of intensity we can barely imagine.
And to these Jesus offers the Kingdom of God; those in the very grip of poverty. To these people, he calls them blessed and says in His Kingdom – the age to come – they will be honoured.
Points for Reflection
- Look at 6:20-26,comparing v20 and 24 as they contrast “the poor” with “the rich”. When you hear Jesus refer to “the poor”, what images does this conjure up? What sorts of people do you think of? What do you think it means the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor?
- Read Lk 18: 1-28. Why does the religious leader become very sad and walk away? What does Jesus say about the rich in vs. 24-25?
- In this country most of us fall into the category of being “rich”. How do we follow and obey Jesus’ teaching in the midst of our wealth?
- Joanna Weaver: “What did Jesus really mean?” we ask each other as we ponder the hard sayings of Christ at a Wednesday-night Bible study. “Surely he didn’t mean we need to sell everything we have and give to the poor,” we conclude, then go on to explain why we need to cut back on our mission giving until we’ve paid off the new Lexus. How can we get to a place where we are more convicted regarding our giving so we understand what true stewardship looks like?