It is not my usual practice to take issue with something Jesus said, but I have struggled for years to understand what he meant with “Blessed are the poor.” I did not grow up poor, but it was always just one missed paycheck away. And while my immediate family managed to avoid the more extreme experiences of poverty, I have relatives who were not so fortunate.
My work as a minister deepened my dilemma. My first three pastorates were all in rural farming areas. Working with migrants, tenant farmers and their families, I have witnessed up close the effects of economic deprivation. Living so close, and seeing so much, I cannot help but wonder how poverty, in any sense, is a blessed state of being?
There is another version of the saying. Matthew’s Gospel records Jesus’ words as “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The addition of “in spirit” makes it possible for some to dismiss the economic implications of the saying and focus strictly on the spiritual meaning. But even if Jesus was using the image of poverty to illustrate something about spirituality, what aspect of poverty was he thinking about? I have yet to see anything about poverty that is blessed.
And that may be the point. Sociologists report what they call “middle-class resentment” toward the poor. There is a line of popular thinking that believes the needs of the poor are draining away our meager resources. There is simply not enough to go around. If we are not careful, their poverty will make us poor.
Coupled with this fear is the widespread belief that people are poor because of bad choices or sinful lives. Why should we care and risk our own fragile economic status when their poverty is their own fault?
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But then Jesus steps up and throws a wrench into our carefully crafted rationalization for ignoring the poor. Jesus tells us the poor are blessed. He spends time with the poor, heals them, eats with them, shows them love. He tells a rich young ruler, “Sell what you have and give it to the poor.” Just before he dies Jesus offers a picture of the final judgment in which he says he is the poor, and by showing love to them, we show love to him.
Jesus did not bless poverty. In fact, it appears he was trying to undo its malignant effects. No, Jesus did not bless poverty, he blessed the poor. This is nothing less than prophetic genius. By declaring the poor blessed, Jesus elevated them out of the shadowy basement of social neglect into the bright light of God’s special esteem. By declaring the poor blessed, Jesus made it impossible for us to ignore or despise them – at least with a clear conscience.
We have a long way to go with this issue, especially these days. With charges of “socialism” clouding every effort to help anyone, any proactive effort to help the needy in our midst is going to be an uphill battle.
Learning to view the poor not as a threat to our way of life but rather as special people blessed by God at least gets us moving in the right direction. It might even help us craft our own blessing: Blessed are they who love the poor. For that is who Jesus loved, and who Jesus was.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.