‘Blessed are the poor’ says Jesus in Luke 6; yet I wonder how many people today feel blessed because they are poor, in a time when it is increasingly difficult to make ends meet, when costs are spiralling higher and even those in work cannot always meet their basic needs. Is this the condition of being blessed? Surely the rich are more blessed, for they can afford to cut back, yet not have to choose between being warm and being fed. Still, Jesus says: blessed are the poor, for God’s kingdom is yours; blessed are the hungry, for you shall be fed. (See Luke 6:20-26 for exact translations); more over it is woe to the rich, to those who are well fed now. Something which completely overturns our normal way of looking at life; surely the rich are successful and to be envied? Although it is worth bearing in mind that economic privilege/deprivation does not necessarily equate to privilege/deprivation in other areas of life.
Luke 6 states: woe to you who are rich, who are well-fed, who laugh, but blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep. It challenges us to look beyond the assumptions of society as to who is blessed, and who not. It forces us to look at our lifestyles, as well as the way we look at others, particularly in present circumstances, when more people will be forced into poverty than before, many will be going into debt as their incomes do not meet their budgets, many more children will be deprived of some of that security that many take for granted. Should we really see this as blessed? It is far too easy to say that this refers to ‘life after death’ – especially if we are in the privileged position of having enough income to meet our needs. I think that there is far more going on here.
To start with, maybe this passage should change the way we look at those who are poor and those who are rich. To see the poor as blessed, to see those who sleep in doorways as blessed, to see those who depend on benefits as blessed, to see those who struggle as blessed, to see refugees as blessed … it might not change their situation, but it might change the way we see and interact with them. That you are blessed because Jesus, whom we follow, says so. To see the poor as blessed is to honour them, rather than berate them for lack of something which we have the luck to have; to see the rich in a different context as well, as not necessarily blessed by their riches, but ‘woe to you who are rich’. That is a challenge indeed; still, these attitudes should lead to action, to a practical response, as well as being a real change of attitude. That is, it should not be a patronising attitude to someone less fortunate than ourselves, but an acknowledgement of our shared humanity; and their ability to make their own decisions, even if we disagree. I remember reading somewhere, years ago, that the response of poor people to, say, a lottery win was different from that of rich: the rich will invest it; the poor are more likely to spend it, to share it out among family and friends. Which may, to the rich person, seem stupid; but, actually, are they not investing in relationships? Neither response is better or worse than the other, they are merely different, based on different ways of life.
Of course, one of the problems of writing this piece is that it can come across at patronising, especially as I’m not actually in danger of losing my home, or even having to choose between eating and heating. Yet that is not intentional. This passage has always challenged me. What does ‘woe to those who are rich’ mean, even if you are not exactly rich, but not poor either? As one sincerely wanting to follow Christ, how do I sit with that? A simpler lifestyle may be part of that; although, often, a simple lifestyle is a rich person’s choice. If you want to live sustainably, it is much easier if you have the income to do it. Choosing to be poor is not the same as being poor; if it is a choice, then at some point you turned away from a richer lifestyle; the poor have no choice in the matter.
Why are the poor blessed? for theirs is the kingdom of God; whereas the rich have already received their comfort. Reminders of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the beggar. Both should challenge those of us who have more than enough as to what we do with that ‘more’; and why have we more than enough? Have our ancestors at some point oppressed the ancestors of those less well off? Are we recipients of an unjust system, where luck or chance or connections or birth has thrown us on the richer side? and where do we take that? It is so easy to let it linger at the back of our minds, while we focus on easier passages; it is even easy to feel slightly guilty while doing little or nothing; and it is true that we are unlikely to solve the problem, whatever approach we take. It is also true that we may genuinely disagree about what to do. I am not here to answer that question for you; neither am I here to make you feel guilty for what you have. I am merely here to suggest you look at this passage and to see how you respond. Will all rich people be kept out of the Kingdom? Thankfully, that won’t be my decision. But I don’t think so, for I still believe in a God of Love, who longs to draw us all in. But surely that Love can only be Love if there is an ache, a pain, a weeping at the heart of God at the sight of all the pain and inequalities that are systemic in our world; a weeping that sees those who are full now, and those who go hungry; a weeping that longs for those God loves to also receive justice; a weeping that we can only begin to glimpse, to pray with and respond to, in whatever way we can.