Blessed are you poor!
I've had a tough week:
- On Monday I was robbed again. My wallet has been stolen by the same guy two weeks running!
- I had to deal this week with the painful letter written in our Diocesan Newpaper regarding our legal situation.
- More serious by far is my dad's situation in hospital
- Perhaps most tragic of all - the election of Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister of Israel.
I've got a picture of Sharon, and pictures of other scenes from the current crisis in the Middle-East. These pictures reflect an enormous human tragedy - great suffering, great pain, great injustice.
How do you feel about these people we see being brutalised - would you call them innocent victims or are they violent terrorists themselves? You might think of them as religious fanatics? Or are they simply as helpless victims of a situation beyond their control? One thing you would most likely not call these people, I think, is 'blessed'. But it seems that Jesus does: 'Blessed are you poor' says Jesus, 'blessed are you who weep'.
These words are amongst the most well known words Jesus ever spoke. Admittedly, they are better known in the form in which we find them in Matthew's gospel - 'Blessed are the poor in Spirit'. And yes, that seems to make a little more sense to me - 'Blessed are the poor in Spirit'. I'm never quite sure what it means to have poverty of spirit, but it sounds like a blessed state - more blessed, at any rate, than simple downright pain and poverty.
The temptation is to romanticise poverty at this point - 'Ah, the poor! They might not have the money we do, but they have a depth of spirit and a closeness to God that we just can't appreciate'. That may be true of course, but it doesn't make poverty pleasant, and I don't think that it has anything to do with what Jesus is talking about.
It's easy to romanticise poverty when you're not poor. It's like those who go on about how easy people in prison have it - 'they're much better off than I am - three square meals a day and all the comforts of home...' A man in Long Bay said to me once 'These people say how us guys are so much better off than they are, but I haven't seen any of them come and offer to take my place yet!' Prison looks great at a distance. Poverty can look very romantic at a distance.
'Poverty is a state of mind' someone told me. 'No' is my reply, 'it's a state of vulnerability'.
I had an 'ah ha' experience in this regard some years ago. I was raising awareness on living conditions in '3rd world' countries with TEAR. We held a sleep-out in Sydney Square - myself and two girls - in a cardboard shack, created to resemble the shanties of the urban poor. I took the Friday night shift. We got attacked three times during that night by groups of roving youths who roamed the city streets in the early hours of the morning looking for trouble.
Mind you, the biggest learning experience came at dawn the next morning when I realised that, while I'd thought we had been alone, we had actually been surrounded by people all night - sleeping in doorways, under steps, in public toilets, everywhere. Some had slept alone, though many slept in groups - for the sake of safety! Poverty is a state of vulnerability - to the elements, to disease, to starvation, to violence.
'Blessed are you poor' Jesus says! 'Blessed' in what sense', I hear these people reply - these people, the descendants of Jesus' original audience. They don't look particularly blessed! Tired, hungry, angry, in pain, in torment - yes - but not 'blessed'. This sort of poverty is not a blessed state. It's an accursed way to be, surely!
The point that Jesus is making, I believe, is not that the poor are blessed because they have the privilege of being poor, but that they are being blessed because God is going to see to it that they are not going to be poor much longer.
We need to see these sayings in context, as part of Jesus' proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God. This was Jesus' gospel says Mark: 'the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the good news.' (Mark 1:15) This was His message.
If you have been unclear up to this point as to what exactly was the message of Jesus, grasp it clearly today. Jesus preached the Kingdom of God. He did not preach justification by faith. I don't think that he would have disagreed with that, but that was Paul's message. Neither did he preach salvation in His name. That was Peter's turn of phrase. Jesus' own message was simple: the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe.
The preaching of the Kingdom of God was Jesus' announcement that a new world was dawning - a world of true justice and real and lasting peace. The old world is passing away, and God's world is beginning - a world that is the way it always should have been.
This is a world where 'each man sits peaceably under his own fig tree' as Micah saw it. A world where, in Amos' vision, 'the ploughman would overtake the reaper'. A world where there will be no more crying or pain, where the lion and the lamb will lay down side by side, where people will beat their swords into plough shears and won't study war no more, where the earth would be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
A couple of weeks ago, if you were here, we looked at Luke 4, at the sermon Jesus gave in Nazareth, where Jesus proclaimed the coming Kingdom using the image of the ancient Biblical Jubilee - the acceptable year of the Lord.
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."
The Jubilee, you may remember, was that institution in ancient Israel where, every fifty years, all the land was redistributed equally amongst the people. All debts were cancelled. All slaves were freed. Everything was shared out evenly again. This Jubilee was 'good news to the poor' because it meant that they weren't poor any more. And, of course, it was, in a sense, bad news to the rich; because it meant that they weren't any richer than anybody else any more!
This is the vision of Jubilee. And this was the vision that Jesus claimed was being fulfilled in his own ministry. A new world is dawning - the world you dreamed about - a new world of justice and peace. The old world with all its inequalities and discriminatory practices - that world is passing away. A new era is dawning and this is good news for the poor, but 'woe to you rich' because your privileged times are coming to an end!
Everything is being turned upside-down in Jesus' new order - the first are going to be last, and the last shall be first! As Mary had prophesied, God is 'bringing down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly'. Everything is being turned upside-down, and the poor are going to be rich and the rich are going to be poor, or if we take the Jubilee vision more literally, everyone will get an equal share, so that there will be no more rich or poor at all!
Now that's the gist of the passage I believe, but we wouldn't be doing it justice if we didn't see also that Jesus' words have a special significance for the disciples.
Yes, Jesus' words of comfort and warning are a part of his big picture of sweeping changes that are overtaking the whole universe, but... we should note that Jesus' words are addressed, in this instance, not just to any group of poor persons, but more specifically to that poor group of persons who had thrown in their lot with Jesus - his poor disciples.
The primary target group is clear from the way the passage is introduced: 'He looked up at his disciples and said:' (vs. 20). It's also made abundantly clear in the fourth and final bracket of blessings and curses:
'Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.' (vs. 22-23)
It is clear, in this instance, that Jesus is focusing not simply on any group of poor persons, but rather specifically on those persons who are poor and reviled because they are disciples.
Indeed, the expectation here and elsewhere in the gospels is that the disciples are poor. Some of the disciples may have been poor when they met Jesus. Most of them though became poor through meeting Jesus. 'They threw away their nets', it is said of Peter and James and John. They threw away their only means of livelihood, and followed Jesus!
This pattern is repeated again and again in the gospels. Levi leaves his tax office with the money still on the counter. Zacchaeus declares 'half my goods I give to the poor' when he comes to Jesus. On the other hand, the rich young ruler (Luke 18) finds that he can't let go of his riches, and so he can't become a follower of Jesus.
The general picture in the gospels is that wealthy people who come to Jesus shed their possessions like autumn trees shed their leaves. Why? Because they've enlisted themselves as citizens of this topsy-turvy kingdom with its upside-down values, where the first are last and the last are first. In Jesus' Kingdom personal wealth and power doesn't mean anything. Giving your second shirt to someone who didn't have any, on the other hand, now that is something really significant!
In our world, nice guys finish last, and you 'do unto others before they do you'. But in Jesus' Kingdom, everything is in reverse.
Someone suggested that the Kingdom of God felt a lot like what he felt like each year when he filled out his annual tax return. 'All through the year I get very excited whenever I get some extra income from some unexpected source. Conversely, every time I part with some money to give to some charitable work it causes me some pain, especially if it is a large amount of money. The only day that this is not true is on the day I fill out my tax return. There, every time I see extra money that's come in, I moan. And I add up with glee every cent I've given to charity - the more the merrier!'
That's what the Kingdom of God is like. Everything is turned upside-down. The disciples are poor because they have invested themselves completely in this life of the new world.
As far as I can see, being a rich and comfortable Christian was not something that Jesus envisaged as an option. On the contrary, he looked up at his disciples and said 'blessed are you poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours'.
Of course it is impossible for me to say these things without feeling fairly hypocritical.
I'm reminded of the story Kierkegaard told, when his lordship, the most highly Reverend Archbishop of Copenhagen came to preach, dressed in fine robes and decked in ornaments from head to foot. He moved to the lectern and reads his text: 'God hath chosen the weak things of this world to mock the great'. And nobody laughs, says Kiekegaard.
I feel much the same - speaking of how the disciples must give away everything for the sake of the kingdom. I'm surprised that nobody has laughed (well, sort of thankful really). I'm not really poor, and neither are most of you!
I'm sure more could be said here, but I'm also not wanting to fool myself. Jesus gave us a very straightforward way of being able to tell where a person's heart is. 'Were your treasure is, there will your heart be also.' We make the mistake all the time of thinking that the best way of working out where someone is at spiritually is to listen to what they say about themselves. Jesus gave us a much simpler test. Take a look at their treasure - not just at their cash, but at all their resources - of time, vocation and material wealth.
Have I put my 'all on the alter' (as the old hymn said)? Have I really thrown in my lot with Jesus and his impoverished disciples, shedding myself of the trappings of this world for the sake of my commitment to the world to come? Have my resources all been handed over to Jesus, so that He might make best use of them for His purposes? Or is much of my treasure still firmly allocated to the building up of my own little empire?
Difficult questions, and they make for a difficult way to conclude a difficult week. Yes, I feel I've had a gutful this week of robbery, insults, sickness and pain. I come to the gospels this morning and Jesus promises me more poverty, more insults, sickness and death! And there's a sort of knee-jerk reaction in me that says 'why did I ever get myself into this?'
I don't think that there is any better answer to that question than the one given by the great painter Renoir. In old age the great French painter, suffered from arthritis, which twisted and cramped his hand. Henri Matise, his artist friend, watched sadly while Renoir, grasping a brush with only his fingertips, continued to paint, even though each movement caused stabbing pain. Matise asked Renoir why he persisted in painting at the expense of such torture. Renoir replied, "The pain passes, but the beauty remains."
This is a great answer. Why should we keep on pushing ahead in our commitment to the Kingdom of God even when it costs us so dearly - our money, our possessions, our health and even our good name? Because, as Renoir says, 'the pain passes, but the beauty remains'.
And it's the beauty that Jesus really focuses on in these verses - blessed are you poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours, you will be full, you will rejoice, for great is your reward in heaven!
There is a new world coming, and things are going to change! And so we encourage one another with these words, as we would encourage our sisters and brothers suffering in Israel and around the world at this present time: 'Be patient, brethren. A new world is coming'. For the pain will pass, and only the beauty will remain!
Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, February 2001