In the Gospel of Luke Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” I don’t believe for one minute that Jesus is saying it’s a good thing to be poor. Nor do I believe that being poor meets some meritorious condition for living in the kingdom of God.
It is unfortunate that many Christians read Luke’s, “Blessed are you who are poor” in light of Matthew’s version, which reads, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” We tend to read Luke through the lens of Matthew as if being poor in spirit is a good thing.
I used to think that being “poor in spirit” meant to be humble. I am now convinced that being poor in spirit is to be crushed in spirit. It is true that one can be crushed in spirit without actually being economically poor, and not all the economically poor are crushed in spirit. But generally speaking, the economically poor are the ones often crushed in spirit. Poverty is crippling — physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially and spiritually.
When Jesus says that the poor are blessed, he is not saying that the poor have an advantage. The opposite is true. The poor are clearly disadvantaged, and this is why they are blessed. This is why Jesus gives them special attention.
It’s not because there is merit in being poor; just the opposite. It’s because they face such hardships and challenges and are often victims of systemic injustice that they are given special attention and focus from Jesus. Of all people, the poor need friends and advocates and allies who will stand with them and for them, because they so often are made to feel as if they are the reproach of society.
In a June article in the New York Times, op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof noted that the United States has reinstated a broad system of debtors’ prisons in recent years, in effect making it a crime to be poor. He points out that impoverished defendants have nothing to give and that the system disproportionately punishes the poor and minorities, leaving them with an overhang of debt which is crippling and crushing.
One example he showcases is Amanda Goleman, age 29. She grew up in a meth house and began taking illegal drugs at age 12. Her education came to a halt in the ninth grade when she became pregnant. For a time, she and her daughter were homeless. But now Goleman has turned herself around. She has had no offenses for almost four years and has been drug-free for three. She has held a steady job and even been promoted, but she is a single mom and struggles to pay old fines while raising her three children, ages 2, 10 and 13. Goleman says, “It’s either feed my kids or pay the fines, but if I don’t pay then I get a warrant.”
Four times she has been arrested and jailed for a few days for being behind in her payments. This, of course, was greatly disruptive to her children, and presented challenges for keeping a job. This is how our society punishes and stigmatizes the poor. Will a secular society care for the poor? Listen to all our politicians running for office. It’s always about the middle-class, but never about the poor.
This is why Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.” This is why Jesus says according to Luke, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you“ (Luke 14:12-14a). The poor are blessed and when we welcome, accept, and extend full hospitality to them as our equals, as our sisters and brothers, we, too, will be blessed.
Why all this blessing on the poor and those who welcome the poor? Because God loves them and cares about them. It’s not because they have an advantage; rather, it’s because they are disadvantaged. It’s because they are so often demeaned and diminished and beaten down by society. They have a special place in God’s heart.
We all know how poverty can be and often is a self-perpetuating cycle. Sociologists and psychologists tell us that the factors contributing to this are often very complex. We will never sort it all out, but we should know that the system is rigged against them, making it that much harder to break free.
It is not our place to judge. It is our place to care. It is our place to do what we can, to be their advocates, to encourage and empower. It is our place to care, because God cares so much.
Blessed are the poor, says Jesus. Invite the poor, says Jesus. They are our sisters and brothers. We share the same Divine Father and Mother, the same Spirit who is the source of all life. We are one. We are family.
God doesn’t call them failures. God calls them daughters and sons. So what do we call them? Do we share the heart and passion of God?