6th Sunday of the Year Jeremiah 17:5–8; 1 Corinthians 15:12, 16–20; Luke 6:17, 20–26
Blessed are the poor Blessed are they who realize they can’t depend on material things for happiness and, as a result, put all their trust in God.
Years ago there was a movie called Quo Vadis. It starred Deborah Kerr and dealt with the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome.
One day, after a dangerous filming session, a newspaper reporter asked Deborah Kerr, “Weren’t you frightened when the lions rushed toward you in the arena?’’ Deborah replied, “Not at all! I’d read the script, and I knew I’d be rescued!’’
Deborah Kerr’s childlike trust in the stunt men assigned to protect her is a good illustration of the childlike trust that poor people had in God in biblical times.
To understand why Jesus dared to call these “poor’’ people blessed, we need to understand who Jesus had in mind when he referred to the “poor’’ in his Sermon on the Mount.
When ancient Jews used the word poor, they used it in a variety of ways and, hence, in different senses than we use it today.
We use it to refer to someone who is destitute. We use it to refer to someone who has no material wealth. This kind of poverty material poverty is not a good thing. It’s an evil thing. It’s the kind of thing that every Christian ought to be trying to eradicate from our midst.
Jesus never intended to call material poverty blessed.
He never intended to approve of the poverty that we see in the slums of our cities, and that he also saw in the cities of his time. Who and what did Jesus have in mind, then, when he said, “Happy are you poor . . .’’?
The Hebrew word for “poor’’ that Jesus used was the word ’ani. This word had an interesting history. It went through four stages of development before reaching the meaning that Jesus had in mind when he used it in the Sermon on the Mount.
In other words, the word poor in biblical times could be used in four different ways.
First, the word could be used as we use it: to refer to those people who were without material wealth.
Second, because these people were without material wealth, they were also without influence and power. They were without clout. And this gave rise to a second way that the word could be used. It could be used to refer to those people who were helpless and without influence.
Third, because these people were helpless, they were often oppressed and exploited. This led to a third meaning of the word poor. It could also be used to refer to the exploited people. Fourth, because these people were without wealth, without help, and without protection, many of them put all their trust in God. This gave rise to the fourth and final meaning of the word poor. It described those persons who put their total trust in God.
And this is what Jesus meant in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “Happy are you poor; the Kingdom of God is yours!”
In other words, Jesus was referring to those people without wealth, without influence, and without protection, who put all their hope and trust in God.
Thus the poor whom Jesus called blessed were those people who had come to realize that they couldn’t depend on the things of this world for happiness.
So they sought their happiness in God alone. God meant everything to them. Material things meant next to nothing to them. These people, as Jesus said, were truly blessed.
And so to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Happy are you poor . . . ,” we might reword his statement this way:
“Blessed are they who realize that they can’t depend on the things of this world for happiness and put all their trust in God.’’
In other words, they are the people who find themselves in the same position in which Deborah Kerr found herself during the shooting of the dangerous scene in the movie Quo Vadis.
She knew that she was totally helpless. She knew that she couldn’t protect herself. So she stopped worrying and simply placed all her trust in the stunt men assigned to rescue her. In the same way, many of the poor in Jesus’ day stopped worrying and simply placed all their trust in God.
The childlike trust that these helpless people placed in God is like the trust that Jesus held out as a model to his disciples when he said:
“Can any of you live a bit longer by worrying about it? If you can’t manage even such a small thing, why worry about the other things?
“Your Father knows that you need these things. Instead, be concerned with his Kingdom, and he will provide you with these things. For your heart will always be where your riches are.” Luke 12:25–26, 30–31, 34
Let’s close with a story. It illustrates in a down-to-earth, concrete way what today’s gospel invites each one of us to do.
Lois Olson contracted polio at the age of ten. The entire lower part of her body was in a cast.
One night a tornado struck. She felt the bed and the entire house tremble. A feeling of utter helplessness swept over her. All she could do was lie there.
Just then her father appeared at the door. He took her in his arms, heavy cast and all, and carried her down the steps to the basement. She said she can still see the beads of sweat form on his forehead and the blood vessels bulge out of his temples as he struggled under the heavy burden.
God is like that. He is always ready to help us, especially when we are powerless to help ourselves.
St. Augustine expressed the trust we should have in God in these words:
“Trust the past to God’s mercy, the present to his love, and the future to his providence.’’
Series II 6th Sunday of the Year Jeremiah 17:5–8; 1 Corinthians 15:12, 16–20; Luke 6:l7, 20–26
Nonrecyclable and nondisposable Contrary to the world’s implicit—and often explicit message, the poor and the exploited are precious to God.
Ellen Reiser Linz is a newspaper feature writer. When her family returned from vacation one year, they found their mailbox stuffed with no less than 200 pieces of mail.
They dumped all of it on the kitchen table and began sorting it.
Only two items were personal letters. The rest was junk mail. Some letters pretended to be personal, but were only computer imitations.
The deepest blow came when one letter was addressed to the family dog, Happy. Happy’s vaccination was due.
Ellen’s daughter, on the other hand, didn’t receive so much as a postcard.
Sometimes we get the feeling in today’s computer-driven world that we are unimportant. We get the feeling that we are just another consumer listed on somebody’s computer printout.
If you are tempted to think this, then today’s gospel reading contains an important message for you. It is this:
In spite of all the messages to the contrary that the world is sending us, we are important. We are important enough to have Jesus address us, specifically, in his most famous sermon the Sermon on the Mount.
And the reason Jesus addresses us, specifically, is to reassure us that we are important.
We are made in God’s image, and we are destined to live with God forever. And if that doesn’t make us important, I don’t know what does.
The reason the Sermon on the Mount is so important especially for us today is precisely because it sends us a message so totally different from the one that the world sends us.
The world tells us that we are like a box of tissue disposable. The world tells us that we are like an old paper cup recyclable. The world tells us that we are like a spare part expendable.
And after a while, we begin to believe what the world tells us.
There’s an old legend about a little Indian boy. You may be familiar with it. It fits in so beautifully with Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount that it deserves to be repeated over and over.
One day an Indian boy found an eagle’s egg. He placed it in a nest of chicken eggs. Before long, an eaglet hatched with a brood of chicks.
The eaglet grew up with the chickens. It scratched in the dirt for seeds the way that the chickens did. It cackled the way the chickens did. And it thrashed its wings and flew a few feet off the ground the way the chickens did.
Then one day the eaglet looked up into the clear blue sky. There it saw a most marvelous sight. It saw a magnificent bird soaring majestically through the sky on two big golden wings.
The little eagle’s breath was taken away. Excitedly, it called out to an older chicken, “What kind of bird is that?’’
“That’s an eagle,’’ said the older chicken. “But forget about it! You could never soar like that in a million years.’’
It is this same disheartening message that the world gives us today. It tells us:
“Forget about Jesus Christ and his teachings. He is the Son of God. His world was totally different from our world. You could never be like him. You could never soar the way he did not in a million years.’’
But Jesus gives us a totally different message. He says in John’s Gospel:
“I am telling you the truth: those who believe in me will do what I do yes, they will do even greater things.” John 14:12
St. Paul had these words of Jesus in mind when he wrote to Christians in Corinth:
God purposely chose what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise, and he chose what the world considers weak in order to shame the powerful.He chose what the world looks down on and despises . . . in order to destroy what the world thinks is important. 1 Corinthians 1:27–28
And this brings us right back to the Sermon on the Mount in today’s gospel.
To the hundreds of poor people sitting on the slope of that mountain whom the world considered disposable Jesus said,“Happy are you poor; the Kingdom of God is yours!”
To the hundreds of hungry people sitting on the slope of that mountain whom the world considered recyclable Jesus said, “Happy are you who are hungry now; you will be filled!”
And to the hundreds of sorrowing people sitting on the slope of that mountain whom the world considered expendable Jesus said,“Happy are you who weep now; you will laugh!”
And so, to those whom the world says, “Too bad, you poor, you are disposable; too bad, you hungry, you are recyclable; too bad, you weeping, you are expendable,’’ Jesus says, “Be glad . . . because a great reward is kept for you in heaven.”
Let’s close with a poem inspired by Amado Nervo. It contrasts the message of the world with the message of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. It reads:
“The world told me I was only a spark, but Jesus taught me that I am a fire. The world told me that I was only a string, but Jesus taught me that I am a lyre.
“The world told me I was only an anthill, but Jesus taught me that I am a mountain. The world told me I was only a drop, but Jesus taught me that I am a fountain.
“The world told me I was only a feather,but Jesus taught me that I am a wing.The world told me I was only a beggar,but Jesus taught me that I am a king.’’
Series III 6th Sunday of the Year Jeremiah 17:5–8; 1 Corinthians 15:12, 16–20; Luke 6:17, 20–26
Both blessed Blessed are the “poor” and the “poor in spirit.”
Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.” Luke 6:20–21 (NAB)
There’s an old legend that goes something like this: Moses was sitting outside his house one day, looking very sad. The Lord happened by and said, “Moses, why are you so sad?”
Moses said, “It’s your people, Lord.” “What about my people?” asked the Lord. Moses replied, “They need better food, better clothes, and better shelter.” The Lord said, “We can change that.”
Within months, the people had better food, better clothes, and better shelter. Everyone was filled with joy.
Afew months later Moses was sitting outside his house again, looking very sad. The Lord happened by and said, “What’s wrong,Moses? Why are you so sad?”
Moses said, “It’s your people, Lord. They are enjoying themselves so much that they no longer have time for the disabled, the lonely, and the elderly. “And what is more, they no longer sit together outside under the starry skies at night and talk to one another about how good and merciful you are.
The Lord said, “That’s not good,Moses. What should we do?” Moses said, “I think we should make the people poor again, as they used to be.”
That story makes a good introduction to today’s Gospel. There Jesus said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.”
Those words raise a question. Is Jesus saying that, spiritually speaking, a life of poverty is preferable to a life of plenty?
Is that the point Jesus was making when he said:
“It is much harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle”? Mark 10:25
Let’s set the stage for the answer to that question by noting that both Saint Luke and Saint Matthew begin the Sermon on the Mount with a reference to the poor.
In today’s Gospel, Luke says, “Blessed are you who are poor,” while Matthew says in his Gospel, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Matthew 5:3 (NAB) In the time of Jesus, people were divided, for the most part, into two economic groups: the very poor and the very rich. There was only a small middle class. The gap between the very poor and the very rich is portrayed dramatically in Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man.
In the parable, the rich man dined on choice food, while Lazarus longed for the “scraps” that dropped from the rich man’s table.
Scholars point out that in those days people did not use knives, forks, or napkins. They ate with their hands.
The wealthy cleaned their hands by wiping them on hunks of bread. Then they dropped the “scraps” on the floor under the table for the dogs to eat. William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (revised edition)
The rich man in Jesus’ parable ignored the words of the Book of Leviticus, where God tells rich landowners that the land is his and they are his tenants. 25:23
Rich landowners, therefore, were to pay to God a kind of “rent” in the form of sharing their bread with the hungry, housing the homeless, and clothing the naked. Isaiah 58:7
It is against this historical background that we can better understand the difference in the way Luke and Matthew phrase the first beatitude. Luke directs his Gospel, primarily, to the very poor of his time, especially deprived gentile Christians. They wanted to know how the teachings of Jesus applied to the very poor of society, such as beggars like Lazarus.
To them Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor.” Scripture scholar Raymond Brown hastens to comment that it goes without saying, however, that this does not include those poor who curse God for their poverty and respond belligerently to the rich.
Rather, it is for the countless “have-nots” of society, who are trapped, like Lazarus, but use their poverty as a vehicle to draw closer to God. That brings us back to our opening story about Moses and the Lord.
It is not saying, spiritually speaking, that poverty is to be preferred to plenty. Rather, it is making the same point that Jesus made so often in his lifetime, namely, when people get a taste of the good life it is very hard for them to enter the Kingdom of God. As jockey Eddie Arcaro used to say, “Once a guy starts wearing silk pajamas, it’s hard to get up early.”
And that brings us to Matthew’s Gospel and his phrase “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
Matthew directed his Gospel, primarily, to all the Jewish people of his time, including the very rich. Commenting on Matthew’s phrase “the poor in spirit,” the Scripture scholar Raymond Brown writes:
In the spirituality of Matthew’s beatitudes, Christianity has a place for those who are comfortable in this world if they preserve a spirit of detachment in relation to their goods and do not allow their wealth to choke off the vitality of God’s word. “The Beatitudes According to Saint Luke” in The Bible Today Reader
In brief, then,Matthew’s “poor in spirit” are those people who use their wealth as a vehicle or instrument to draw them closer to God, just as Luke’s “poor” use their poverty as a vehicle or instrument to draw them closer to God.
Let us conclude with a story that reminds us that the “poor” and the “poor in spirit”must never lose sight of their following of Jesus.
Conway Twitty was a famous country music singer. His biography contains this story.
A missionary was returning home after spending his entire life teaching people in a poor area of China.
On the same boat was a singer, returning home after two weeks singing for the people. Thousands were at the dock to meet the singer and welcome him back. Not one person showed up to meet the missionary.
“Lord,” said the missionary, “I gave you my life and he gave you only 14 days. Yet thousands welcome him home, and nobody shows up to welcome me.”
The Lord said, “My son, you’re not home yet.” The Conway Twitty Story: An Authorized Biography