Pondering from Luke 6:20
Jesus said, “God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.” In the original Greek the word “blessed” connotes something that is “of honor” or “honorable.” This connotation would have meant something to Jesus’ audience (here, his disciples), for their society placed great value on honor and its opposite shame.
When Jesus said to his first century audience, “Greatly honored are the poor,” they would not have understood what he meant, for poverty meant shame to them, not honor. To us, it’s also difficult to understand: Is Jesus literally saying that the poor are honored, or does he mean the poor in spirit? I have always heard it said that Jesus spoke exclusively of the “poor in spirit.” The Beatitudes have been taught to me as a spiritual poverty, not really tied to the physical realities of the day.
But that’s not correct. Jesus actually speaks at different times in the gospels to both spiritual poverty and physical poverty. In Matthew, Jesus speaks of those whose spirits are destitute; in Luke, he speaks of those who are poor physically, as in they don’t have much money.
Furthermore, in the New Testament, the word for “poor” can refer to two different types of poor: the working poor and the destitute. The working poor were those who struggled to survive day to day, as seen in Luke 15:8-9, with the woman who’s sweeping the floor in search of a single coin. While the working poor could work and did work, they did not make very much money. The destitute, on the other hand, were those who were not able to work for their daily bread, like the beggars of Jesus’ day or the widow with no son to provide for her needs. Being destitute was the lowest of low, for Jesus’ audience believed that their destitution was a result of sin committed by them, and God’s displeasure at their sin. They were, therefore, the most despised in society. To survive, these men and women relied solely upon the mercy of the community to live each day.
Later, in Luke 6:24, Jesus gives a reproach to the same group: “Woe to (or shame on) you who are affluent, for you are receiving your comfort.” What does Jesus mean by this? Is he (in this instance) saying that the wealthy are in trouble just for being wealthy? No. Here, he is saying, “Woe to those who get rich off the backs of the poor.” He is warning the wealthy, “Be careful. Do not take advantage of the poor.”
During the first century, the Roman Empire ruled, and they taxed people both on their land and in the marketplace; they taxed them so much that some people had to forfeit their land just to pay their taxes. Jesus is saying to them, “Shame on you for taking advantage of the poor. You may have a lot on earth, but it’s all you’re going to get.”
When I first read this, I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that it did not apply to me. I thought, “I have no issues here. I’m good.” Then, as I really began to think about it, I made the connection: America is the Roman Empire of today – we are the world power – and I’m an American. So Jesus is actually also talking directly to me, to us.
I paused to think about how I live. I paused to consider whether or not my lifestyle comes off of the backs of the poor; immediately, sweatshops, forced child labor, high levels of consumptions, and how I care for the environment came to mind.
Before I knew this verse to be about the physical poor, it had always been easy for me to read. I glazed over it, believing it was just about the spiritual destitute. Now that I know it’s not, now that I know it’s about the physically destitute who rely on our mercy – yours and mine – to survive, I must ask the natural question: What am I – what are we – going to do about it?