I don’t want to be poor
Well, Jesus really is turning our world upside down again with this teaching. I don’t want to be poor, hungry, even if it supposedly makes me blessed, or happy. Nor I expect do you. But, on the other hand, I want enough to each and a comfortable life without waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop and have it all taken away. Is this what Jesus is telling his followers and us? Or is this Jesus’new middle class value system?
Let’s clear up a couple of common misapprehensions first. This was not a choice for the crowd listening to Jesus, who were almost entirely the poor. Nor does Jesus ask us to choose. It’s a fact of life that for most of us that our economic status is a result of where, when and to whom we were born. Secondly, this is not a promise of how God will treat us. It’s not a judgemental passage promising heaven or hell.
A language lesson – blessings and woes
Blessed and woe are words we only use these days in areligious connotation. They hang on because there doesn’t seem to be an exact correlation in modern English. Blessed is often translates as Happy; but in English, Blessed has the sense of being made happy by God, or being consecrated. However, the word used in the Greek (according to Internet sources) is closer to happy, and is often translated happy. Woe on the other hand is a word we only find in the Bible nowadays. It is an exclamation of grief of distress, a stronger form of alas, another archaic word. Other Bible versions translated it as how miserable for you; or oh, the sorrows that await the rich; or how terrible for you. No judgement, only sadness.
God has sent me to preach good news to the poor.
Luke is continuing here the theme of Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue which we heard a few weeks ago, when he read from Isaiah: God has sent me to preach good news to the poor. Jesus is addressing the social order, describing the situation as it was then, and as it still is today with the gap between rich and poor widening.
His words here are definitely addressing social inequalities rich vs poor and hungry vs filled. There is no wiggle room for “the poor in spirit” or “hunger and thirst for righteousness” as in Matthew’s beatitudes. We’re talking physical poverty and hunger here, not spiritual! And his hearers were poor. They were both Jews and Gentiles who had come from far and near to hear his message and to be healed of their illnesses. These weren’t the rich people. I imagine Jesus speaking with compassion both to the poor and even to the rich, if there were any in the crowd.
Happy are the poor?
‘How happy are you, the poor...’ We can imagine the gentleness of the words, the warmth and softness of the delivery. This is not a promise for the afterlife. Yours is the Kingdom of God, now; the kingdom that has come near in the person of Jesus. Jesus knows poverty and the struggle of living and has compassion. How terrible for you rich…” Again, we can imagine the warmth, the knowing lilt in the voice, the aching love in the words. Jesus knows that life can change on a dime. I hear Jesus saying that he is one of us, with us and loves us. He knows our struggles and shares our life. Rich or poor. These are not words of judgement, but a recognition that riches alone cannot bring happiness
Woe to the rich?
“Alas for you the rich!” Who were the rich? Who are the rich today? It’s all relative. The poverty line for a single person in Ontario is $ $19,930 which puts them in the top 7% of income earners in the worldwide. For a family of 4, the poverty line is, $41,568 and this income put the wage earner in the top 1% in the world. We may be rich compared to the total world population, but here most of us consider ourselves middle class. Do we need a new middle class value system?
Back in Jesus day, there was no large middle class like today. For the most part, people were rich or poor, and most of them were poor. It was a fact of life that the rich taxed the poor and lived off the work they did.
The common wisdom of the day, however, was that wealth was a sign of a good person, of God’s blessing.. Not so for Jesus. He criticizes the rich in a very hard and direct manner: You rich have had your easy life and will go hungry at some time. Nothing lasts. Your fortunes can be reversed later on. If you set your heart on what the world values, that’s all you will get. This is not the fury of a vengeful person, but the sadness of a loving, compassionate one. Alas, if your values are the world’s values, your heart is not open to the blessings God wants to give you.
I have known people, and you probably have too, who have a lovely house, well furnished, two cars – but it’s not enough. They “need” a more, maybe a swimming pool or a cottage … you name it. And when they get all these wants satisfied, they need something else, maybe a boat to use at cottage. So they work, scramble up the corporate ladder, join the dog eat dog world – and have no time to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Alas for you rich. You have what you think you want, but it’s never enough. How sad it is to never have enough, to always want more. These people just can’t be filled. They will feel impoverished because none of it satisfies what they are looking for. People who are impossible to satisfy are just that. Impossible to satisfy.
A new middle class value system
For Jesus poverty is neither a sign of sinfulness, nor something to be proud of, it just is. It may be the fruit of unjust enrichment on the part of others. How are the poor, the hungry and the sorrowful happy? I wish Jesus had expounded on this and told us. We can only draw conclusions from the way Jesus lived and what he taught. What he had, little though it was, was, enough to satisfy him.
Jesus’ well off friends
What do these words say to us today? We have to look at them in the light of the whole New Testament and the life Jesus lived, all of his teaching. When we do this, we are not led to conclude that being comfortably off or even wealthy is, in and of itself, bad or sinful. Rather, we find a new middle class value system for life here on in this world.
Jesus himself had friends who were not poor – the women like Joanna who looked after the needs of the disciples, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus who could entertain Jesus and his disciples in their own house; Matthew described Joseph of Arimathea as wealthy and as a disciple of Jesus; Peter had a house in Capernaum and his family had a thriving fishing business. I’d say they were comfortably off. What is the difference between these friends and followers of Jesus and the rich he is lamenting over in the passage we just heard? They are sharing their good fortune; they are not getting rich on the backs of their fellows; I would hazard a guess that they were satisfied with what they had or they wouldn’t have been so generous.
A new middle class value system
The kind of wealth that brings woe is wealth that has been acquired at the expense of others or without due care for the environment. A few examples of Jesus’ new middle class value system.
. We have come to expect cheap food in our supermarkets, but do we consider the downside of this? Are farm workers, especially migrants, paid fairly? how do the fertilizers used to make the land overproduce vegetables and animal feed affect the soil and water? How much greenhouse gas do farm animals produce? Is the server at our local restaurant paid a living wage? Do we tip well to compensate? Do we try to evade paying taxes which will provide services for all members of society, especially the poorer ones?
We also need to do what we can to support equitable economic relations globally. We in first world countries currently enjoy many unfair advantages in global trade. To do what we can to counteract this, we need to be aware of sourcing, make an effort to purchase fair trade products, boycott companies until their overseas workers are treated properly, and so forth. This means an investment in awareness and a commitment to action in response to what we learn.
Need vs Greed
Gandhi famously said that there is enough on Earth for everybody’s need, but not enough for everybody’s greed. The world is hitting global limits in its use of resources. We are feeling the shocks each day in catastrophic floods, droughts, and storms.
It is the greed principle, with the rich doing everything to get richer that is fueling the growing resource crisis, which will lead to a widening divide between the rich and the poor – and quite possibly to an increasingly violent struggle for survival. If we don’t address these issues now, if we don’r adopt Jesus new middle class value system, maybe this is how we will learn that nothing lasts, especially our comfortable way of life