Good News to the Poor
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
Almost all of us in this room have been to another nation where they speak a different language. In that visit, we probably all found out, at one point or another, that the language barrier wasn’t as big a deal as the different customs or assumptions we had or others had of us. Even if we all spoke English perfectly well, that doesn’t mean we could understand each other.
When I was in Calcutta in 1985, I was 19 and pretty clueless about my own culture and I only knew what I was told about this new culture. At one point, I sat on a fiberglass table with seats, but I sat on the table with my feet on the seats. An older Indian gentleman stormed over to me and demanded that I take my feet off of the seat. “You wouldn’t be doing this in your own country!” he said furiously in wonderfully accented English. I sat properly, feeling that it wasn’t the proper time to inform him that I would exactly sit like that at home and had many times.
Another time when Diane and I were in Bangladesh on our trip to the World Mennonite Conference in 1995. I was by myself in a baby taxi and the driver and I were stopped at a stop light. A man in a suit approached me on a divider in the intersection and asked me if I wanted a girl. I said, no, I don’t, I am a Christian. He said, “Oh, you want a Christian girl? No problem, I can get you a Christian girl.” I was just beginning to explain to him that I didn’t want any kind of girl, when the light changed.
In these cases, there was a clear misunderstanding going on, but it didn’t have anything to do with language. We just looked at the world in a different way.
Of course, we have that same problem with the Bible. There are many instances in which, say, a gospel text makes perfect sense to those who are of a first century Jewish culture, but it seems extremely subtle or just weird to someone outside of that culture. There are times when the majority of the people look at a passage and say, “Well, it can’t mean what it seems to say, so what exactly IS it saying?”
Even so, this passage that was just read, the beatitudes, one of the most honored religious texts in the world, people look at it and say, “Well, Jesus is saying something important, and we think we like it, but it can’t be talking about POOR people. I mean, some poor people are great. But most are just… dirty. And we like them, but it isn’t like we think God is giving them some amazing leadership role or anything.”
So, early on, the beatitudes were “interpreted”. And it made sense because right off in Matthew’s version of the beatitudes we hear “blessed are the poor in spirit” and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. “Oh, Jesus is giving us a SPIRITUAL interpretation. Okay, so let’s see if we can figure it out.” And that’s just what the second and third and fourth and fifth centuries of the church did. Interpret the beatitudes so it would make sense with the church’s other teaching.
The general spiritual interpretation of the beatitudes that is generally accepted now is this:
-The poor in spirit are those who recognize their own spiritual poverty, who see that they are helpless without God.
-The mourning are those who sorrow over their sin and their separation from God.
-The hungry are those who seek God’s righteousness, but can’t reach it
And the promise is that God is there to fill the gap for us all, to reach out to us because we find that we can’t reach out to him.
There, now you’ve got the four spiritual laws, a fine compact Calvinist sermon all in just a few verses, let’s move on to the next spot.
And I can see how a person reading Matthew might get this spiritual interpretation. But Luke really messes with that. We will cover Matthew another time, because there are some special things going on in that version, but let’s just talk about the Beatitudes in Luke for a moment.
First, note the crowd that Jesus is speaking to. Well, if you don’t have a Bible, you probably can’t. That’s a problem in most churches is that it is hard to look at the context. So let me just read it for you:
A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.
So the group that Jesus was speaking to were from distant places, all more than a day’s walk away, at least. Tyre was about the distance of Albany from here-- 40 miles. Jerusalem was about the distance from Salem, about 75 miles. But they were walking, so it took some time. Probably more time, because most of these people were sick in some way. They had diseases, mental illnesses, disabilities and they had all come to be healed. If he wanted to talk to them, that would be just fine.
So Jesus gathered up the whole lot of them and said, in Luke’s version,
You poor people are lucky!
For these folks who had to walk such long distances just to get healed, they knew exactly who he was talking about. He wasn’t talking to people who felt impoverished before God. Who felt unholy. Well, perhaps they did feel that way, but when he said, “Blessed are you poor”, they didn’t immediately jump to a spiritual interpretation. Because they were poor. Literally poor. People who had to scrape by all their lives and couldn’t catch a break. People who were shamed by everyone around them-- their family, their neighbors, complete strangers would mock them because they were the lowest of the low, dirt under everyone’s feet. They knew what it meant to be poor. The weird thing is that Jesus called them “lucky”-- that’s really what the “blessed” means in everyday language. In Greek it literally means “happy”. Jesus said, “You impoverished people sure are lucky because you own the kingdom of God!”
Now, that WAS news. The poor getting the kingdom of God? Really? That doesn’t make much sense and someone really needs to tell all the priests that. Because these are the poor that the priests kicked out of the temple-- the outcasts, the unacceptable, the diseased, the mentally ill. Frankly, these people were dangerous to others in the temple. But Jesus says that the kingdom of God is theirs.
Then he says “You who mourn are actually happy!
Again, that’s literally what the Greek says. It means more like the first that these mourning people are lucky, but it literally says that they are happy. The play on words is amazing here. But again, no one thought of a spiritual meaning of the word “mourn”. They knew that they mourned. Their lives are miserable. Some of them have lost everything due to disease, some have lost family members, most don’t have friends or lost the ones they had and on top of it is the poverty, the homelessness, the disconnect from all society. They had a lot to cry about. Jesus tells them, “You’re lucky because you will be comforted.” And they understood that too. Because Jesus was there. And he was going to heal them. He was going to give them a second shot at life. Maybe, possibly, their mourning is at an end. Maybe, if this disease is cured, if this mental illness is gone, if this injury is gone, they can obtain some self respect, gain a standing in their community and have some friends.
Then Jesus says, “You starving people are lucky, because you will be satisfied!”
Again, they aren’t looking for any spiritual meaning. They were hungry, starving. At that moment, they were so hungry. Perhaps in their home town, they were able to get some food on a regular basis, but on the road, in strange towns, who would give food to diseased people, outcasts, the mentally ill? They just want them gone. What Jesus is saying is clear-- he will give them food. They won’t be hungry.
Then Jesus talks about people who are persecuted. Again, people who had diseases and mental illness were not strangers to persecution, both by their family and by complete strangers. This is where we can see that when Jesus talks about the “poor”, he is speaking of the marginalized, the outcast, so not just people who are economically destitute, but groups of people who are socially destitute.
When Jesus talked about poor people, he meant literal poverty. Real suffering. Not just the spiritual imitation of it. But people who lived in economic and social hardship. That’s what Jesus was talking about. And this changes everything.
You see, because when Jesus preached the gospel, he was speaking specifically to the poor. “Gospel” means good news, or a victorious message. And this message, Jesus says a number of times, is for people who are poor, not for others.
Church Interpretation v. Jesus
Now when bishops and powerful church leaders got a hold of this, they said, “You know, Jesus couldn’t literally be talking about actual poor people. I mean, poor people are sad. Pathetic, you know? You can’t give them the kingdom. What would they do with it? And how would they talk with local pagan magistrates to mediate for the church? So Jesus had to mean something else.
But from the time of this different understanding of what Jesus is saying in the beatitudes, the church had to reinterpret the message of Jesus.
When the church spoke of the kingdom, they meant the church. That the body of people on earth, everyone who worshipped Jesus, was the kingdom of God. And they honored worship above all else. In organizing people, they would choose people who already knew how to organize, the wealthy leaders of their community who became Christians. They also taught the kingdom would be fully realized in heaven, after we die.
When Jesus spoke of the “kingdom” he meant a revolutionary movement on earth in which people would be committed to compassion and justice so that the poor would finally have a place that was for them. Jesus also said the kingdom is a place where the poor would hold places of leadership and the important people of the world would be at the bottom of the pack.
When the church spoke of “salvation” they spoke of God’s forgiveness of sin and a welcome in God’s community, but salvation wouldn’t really come until the future, when everyone could live with God and worship God.
When Jesus spoke of “salvation” he really meant “deliverance”. Deliverance from sickness, deliverance from mental illness, deliverance from hunger, deliverance from the police who attacks them, deliverance from prison, deliverance from slavery, deliverance from oppression. That’s how the poor understood that term. Heaven is nice, but freedom from slavery now is better. For the church, salvation looks like prayer or worship. For the poor, salvation is a loaf of bread, a place to sleep.
When the church speaks of love, they speak of welcome in the church. Of the “right hand of fellowship.” Of God sacrifice of his son for us all. Of supporting each other. By visiting each other. Gentleness and patience. Because that’s what we need. And there’s nothing wrong with that love, it is essential.
But when Jesus talked about love, he spoke of feeding the hungry, of visiting those in prison, not just to connect with them, but because if someone was in prison they weren’t fed or given clean clothes. Someone had to do that for them. Jesus spoke of providing housing. Because when a person is homeless, love for them is a safe place to live. And if we listen to them, or are gentle with them, that’s fine, but that’s not really meeting their need, is it? We have to have boundaries and we can’t love everyone, but Jesus is saying that the speech of love to the poor is giving them our food, giving them a place to live.
When Jesus spoke the gospel, he used terms the poor would understand, because he was speaking to them.
It wasn’t just Jesus who taught this, either. His brother, James, following his lead, taught the same:
The brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position
Listen, my beloved brethren: did not bGod choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?
The kingdom is for the poor. Salvation is for the poor.
That doesn’t mean that the people who are not poor can’t be involved. Absolutely they can. But they get in through the poor. The poor, for whom the kingdom was made, are the immigration offers who stamp our passport, giving us permission to enter the kingdom. We enter the kingdom by their permission. We will talk about that in a couple weeks.
Three Different Churches
In the days of American slavery, there were three kinds of churches. There were the churches that white people went to which spoke about heaven and love and joy. And that was fine. There were the churches that both slaves and masters went to, and they sang the white hymns and always spoke of the need for slaves to obey their masters. That was brought up every time. And then there was, on occasion, the church for slaves. And there, they spoke of freedom, they spoke of deliverance from chains, they spoke of not being hungry anymore, of the end of oppression.
Salvation, for those slaves, meant no more whips, no more chains, no more white people telling them what to do. It means building communities of freed slaves, people who loved each other and understood each other better than white rulers could ever do. It meant that they ruled their own people, they had leaders of their own community. It meant that no one would ever be enslaved, no one would ever be hungry, no one would ever suffer again.
This is the kingdom Jesus is talking about.
Lord, let your Spirit move. Let us listen to the Spirit of love, the spirit of justice. What is our part of your kingdom? If your kingdom is for the poor, where is our place, what is our opportunity there? Rather than inviting the poor, we need to be invited by the poor. Lord, Jesus, help us not just listen, but to live out your gospel. Help us know how to live out the good news to the poor.