To recap my previous blog (have a look if you want to see more of where I began): Matthew’s gospel sets Jesus on top of a hill saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke’s sets Jesus at the bottom of the hill saying, “Blessed are you poor.” (My italics). I couldn’t help but read these, in the light of current events, as speaking to the poor directly in Luke, but spiritualising in Matthew for those who are at the top of the pile something which was meant to be much more direct. Such an interpretation as this of Matthew would sit well with the thinking that Christianity has nothing to do with politics. Luke’s gospel, however, makes plain what has been called God’s bias for the poor, or God’s preferential option for the poor.
So let’s have a look at what I have called this seemingly mad saying of Jesus: Blessed or happy are the poor. Yeah? Really? You can’t imagine that going down well with the down and outs among Jesus’ neighbours, those who had nothing. I don’t suppose they felt very blessed.
But Jesus wasn’t saying it is a blessing to have nothing; he may have seen things differently but that would have been several steps too far. One version (Good as New) has “You’re the important ones now, those of you who haven’t got much. You’re citizens of God’s New world.”
In other words, God is on your side (now depending on your view of God, that might seem almost as daft, but bear with me…)
You are down and out, you’re on your uppers; to be wealthy, successful, was a sign of God’s favour, to be poor was a sign of God’s disfavour. (Is this so far removed from the talk of feckless and undeserving poor that has returned to public discourse of late?). Basically, in the eyes of society and in society’s view of God: you are a LOSER! And along comes this Jesus character who says: WRONG; God is not against you but for you, poverty is not something to be ashamed of. And that’s not all, while building you up, he takes a swipe at the rich: “Woe to you who are rich, you have already received your comfort.” “There’s trouble ahead,” says one translation, for the rich, or “to the back of the queue” says another.
God, moral order, justice, righteousness, divine will, truth, beauty, peace are all to be found on one side here: the side of the poor. And this is not merely a spiritual matter as a reading of Matthew may allow us to think; this is intensely practical and it is about how we relate to our neighbours, how we do our politics, how we shape our societies.
Being Christian is not just about engaging in spiritual practices that might benefit the practitioner, it is about engaging in a spirituality that has practical outworking in the just treatment of our neighbour in line with God’s bias to the poor; it may even be about finding that spirituality through that practical engagement.
When I hear Jesus say in Luke, “Blessed are you poor” I know whose side I must be on.