Blessed Are You Poor (in Spirit?): A Reflection on Luke 6.17-26

The other week, I wrote that if I could only have two pieces of Scripture to form my Bible, I’d choose Jesus’ appropriation of Isaiah 61 as his personal mission (Luke 4) and the first half of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). As it happens, today’s Gospel reading is Luke’s parallel telling of the teachings of Matthew 5, specifically the Beatitudes. Because of their different sets of concerns, Matthew and Luke relate this teaching of Jesus in different ways. They don’t contradict each other, but we would well to let them inform inform one other, while allowing each to carry its own weight. But whichever version may pop up in our lectionary in any given year, this series of ‘blessings’ from Jesus are the heart of his teaching and world view.

The differences between the two versions of the Beatitudes are clear from the start. In place of the more familiar Matthean “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke has “Blessed are you who are poor,” full stop. Where Matthew emphasizes what we might clumsily call the ‘spiritual’ side of Jesus’ teaching, Luke emphasizes the practical realities of day-to-day life. But, the two are closely connected. Matthew’s emphasis can make the teaching so abstract as to have little impact on people’s lives; Luke’s emphasis can make the teaching so reductive as to equate poverty and hunger with divine blessing. Matthew needs Luke to remind us that attitudes have practical consequences and that spiritual bypassing is not the way forward; Luke needs Matthew to remind us that, while a person living in poverty will often be more open and receptive to God’s grace, poverty can also have the opposite effect, leading to hard-heartedness and entitlement, which are the stereotypical purview of the rich.

At any rate, Luke continues, with his patented good news for the downtrodden:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 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.

But, unlike Matthew, Luke also records ‘woes’, curses to balance out the blessings:

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

When we see material like this it’s easy for us to immediately jump to the conclusion that we have insiders and outsiders: that Jesus is making a sharp contrast between those who are struggling in this world, who are ‘in’, and those who are comfortable, who are ‘out’. But I think this would be misleading. Firstly, ‘blessings and woes’ are a standard genre of Wisdom literature. They carve out two ways for humanity, and demand that hearers choose one path for themselves to take. It’s a rhetorical simplification of often complicated human dynamics to make wisdom stand out in stark contrast. Second, the Beatitudes are addressed not to vast crowds of strangers, but to Jesus’ disciples, those who were already following him. So, this is less a comment on insiders and outsiders than it is on how insiders are to live: Followers of Jesus are not okay with living in comfort when their siblings have empty stomachs, or sitting around laughing while their neighbours are grieving. Third, Jesus’ broader ministry does not presume a kind of scarcity in the world that would require there to be categories such as ‘rich’ and ‘poor’; the multiple loaves-and-fishes stories are example enough that in God’s economy there is more than enough to go around. Connected to this, as we’ve already seen in recent weeks, these texts about a great reversal in which the poor are blessed and the rich cursed, contain within them the seeds of their own undoing: If the rich become poor, then God will then be on their side and not the side of the newly rich who were once poor. The true end of the great reversal is a world where everyone has enough so that categories like ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ are irrelevant. And, finally, the realities of human life are such that these categories do no line up consistently: someone can be rich but also grieving; someone can be hungry but also laugh at a neighbour’s misfortune. In contemporary discourse, we call this ‘intersectionality’ — most of us experience a complicated web of privilege and marginalization within our own lives.

And so, while Matthew’s emphasis may remind us that these teachings are for everyone, Luke’s emphasis demands that those of us who largely live in comfort pay special attention. Someone once compared it to playing a game of soccer on a slanted field. For those of us used to playing downhill, the call to level the playing field will seem like a woe; but for those who have had to play uphill, it will be a great blessing. But it’s one and the same thing. As the wonderful voices behind the Girardian Lectionary put it (speaking specifically of race, but it’s applicable across the human experience):

If God’s cultural order is about transforming such orders based on privilege, an order in which the wind of Spirit is working in everyone’s favor, then people of color will hear that message much more readily than me and open themselves to living in its blessings. To me, such a call to live in a new order will seem like a call to give up the privileges of this world’s order. Such a call will appear as a woe to me, not a blessing. It is only when I give up this world’s way of ordering altogether … that I can count myself as blessed. To this world, I will perhaps still need to talk about it in terms of giving up privilege, which will seem like a woe. Jesus does not immediately give up the blessing and woe language in speaking to a world that still relies on it. But he will be about the business of transforming our language and our experience into an ultimate experience of abundance and life, an order in which all will be filled and all will know joy.

It us up those of us who are comfortable in any aspect of life, to reach out to those who have less than we do. If we have extra food and clothing, we are called to share it with those who do not. If we have strong faith and hope, we are called to support those whose faith is lagging. If we are lucky enough not to be weighed down in grief and desolation, we are called to walk alongside those who are mourning or desolate. This is not about sanctimonious charity, condescension, or pity, but about empathy and a solidarity befitting life in God’s Kingdom.

And so, this week and every week, may we allow our hearts and minds to be transformed so that we may truly see the world through God’s eyes, and love the world with God’s heart, and recognize the true blessing that is found in all the ways we are poor or weak, and all of the ways we can bless those who are poor and weak from our places of relative wealth and strength.

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