He paced in our church foyer as he talked to his wife on the phone.
“Yeah, I think they can help.” He looked up at me as I stood waiting for him to finish his call. “I’m just waiting for one of the pastors to come out and talk to me.”
I sighed, mostly silently. I am one of the pastors, dude. Sorry I don’t look the part. I tucked away my annoyance, smiled, and reached for his hand, “Hi, I’m Pastor Stephanie. What’s going on, friend?”
His face flashed brief surprise at realizing I was the pastor, but he quickly recovered and told me his story. His developmentally delayed stepson was sick, so sick they had taken him to the ER the night before. A battery of tests had all came back negative and so a simple diagnosis of a strong virus was given. His son needed a prescription, but their social security check was still four long days away.
“How much do you need?” I asked, noting in the back of my mind how behind we were in our church budgets once again this month.
“$7.06” came the answer.
$7.06. His son’s wellbeing was in jeopardy over less than ten dollars.
Blessed are the poor.
My frustration at the interruption, at the “oh you’re the pastor?” slight, the cynicism at yet another request for assistance vanished, leaving me sheepish and ashamed.
Blessed are the poor.
I prayed with him, listened to his story of which there was plenty, and gave him what he needed, knowing that while I had helped him with a small material need, he had helped me with a much deeper spiritual need, the need to remember that,
Blessed are the poor.
In this week’s Gospel pericope, we hear the Lucan version of the Sermon on the Mount, often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain. While its structure and themes parallel those of Matthew’s account, there are notable differences, particularly the differences between Matthew’s Beatitudes and Luke’s Blessing and Woes. While Matthew emphasizes the poor in spirit, those who hunger after righteousness, Luke is not interested in metaphor, but in the actual poor, those with rumbling bellies and empty wallets, those who can’t pay for their son’s medications.
Having announced two chapters prior that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to bring the good news to the poor, this re-emerging theme comes as no surprise. Jesus underscores the great reversal to come at the consummation of God’s reign, in which the poor inherit the kingdom, the hungry are filled, those weeping will laugh, those excluded for the sake of the Son of Man will be rewarded.
The woes, conspicuously missing from Matthew’s account, do the same, but with a much darker outcome. For the rich, their consolation will pass, their bellies will ache from hunger, their laughter will dissolve into tears, the high praise they receive will be unmasked as hollow, idolatrous lies.
The rich are cursed, not because they are rich, but because they perceived their comfort as an end in itself, not a means by which to participate in God’s redemptive work through caring for the poor. The rich are cursed because they deceived themselves into thinking that a full tummy and a full bank account can produce true satisfaction, thus numbing their need for God and deafening their own ears to the needs of others through their excessive consumption. As William H. Willimon admonishes, “Having found so many ways to satisfy your gnawing hunger, what more can God do for you?
In contrast, the poor will be blessed not because they are poor but because they approach God with hands outstretched, with no illusions or self-deception about their ability to save themselves. The poor will be filled because, in their hunger, they sought the Bread of Life. Laughter will erupt from their tears as the revel in the abundance of God’s provision. Doors that had been shut in their faces on account of their devotion to a poor, crucified, God-with-us Messiah will be flung open. They will find their name on the seat of honor at the banquet with the King.
Historically, most interpretations of this text fall into two seemingly disparate categories: those who apply the blessings and woes to the physically poor and rich, and those who apply them to the spiritually poor and rich.
Those of us who are comfortable, who, though usually denying we are actually rich, live without the constant cloud of scarcity looming overhead, lean toward the metaphorical interpretation. We have less interest in the eschatological reversal of the text beyond the spiritual implications. However, those who have truly experienced the depths of poverty and despair, who have filled their bellies with water to silence the grumbling of their own belly so their children could eat, have a stake in the actual manifestations of this promised reversal, and thus lean toward a literal interpretation of the text.
But, are the two views truly disparate? I think of my encounter with the worried father, both of us poor in our own way, him lacking the resources to care for his son, and me lacking spiritual vision to see Christ in a man forgotten and unseen by society, blinded by inconvenience and cynicism. Is it possible that both of us might find healing and wholeness at the eschatological banquet laid out by King Jesus? Can both of us be filled to overflowing with what we truly need?
We live in the tension of this text, awaiting the final and complete in-breaking of the Kingdom of God when all wrong will be set right. But, the incomplete nature of the Kingdom of God among us does not preclude us from us from living toward that coming Kingdom now.
As we wait, we reject the lie that we who are rich are exempt from need, and refuse to bow the knee at the altar of self-sufficiency.
As we wait, we reject the lie that we who are rich bear no responsibility towards those who are not.
Rather, as we wait, we posture ourselves alongside the poor, recognizing our own poverty, and extend our hands to receive from both God and our fellow human beings what we cannot achieve or receive any other way: salvation.
We reject, over and again, the idolatrous idea that we can save ourselves. Not our riches, not our skills, not our work ethic, not our status as rich or as poor can save us. Our salvation fully comes only at the inauguration of the Kingdom of God at which point all “human need will be met by the fullness of divine salvation.” (I.H. Marshall)
Our waiting is not passive, but active, and might be best imagined and even perhaps embodied, as a meal around a circle table. No head, no foot, simply women and men nourishing one another, providing what the other lacks, all in gratitude, praise, and hopeful anticipation of the coming Kingdom banquet.
Marshall, I. H. (1978). The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text. Exeter: Paternoster Press.
Willimon, William H. “Damn Preacher.” Christian Century 121, no. 3 (February 10, 2004): 18.