from “let us bless the poor” to “blessed are the poor”

September 6, 2011

A personal introduction is in order for this blogpost: I think that the past two years has been a very long conversion experience, and an ongoing one. It was characterized by a journey into a space where I am no longer the answer for the world, but where I begin to notice how I am embedded in the sins of the world. I you scan through the posts from the past two years, Amahoro possibly being the single most important event in this journey, much of this will be found. It is an ongoing journey, one which I find to be struggling with, but one which are pushing me into a world from which I can never return, and I believe pushing be towards the Jesus whom I have learned to call Messiah.

The phrase “blessed are the poor” (Luke 6) has always been one of those strange moments in the journey with the Bible of the congregations and groups where I’ve spent my life. Luckily Matthew (Matthew 5) gave us an easy cop-out when talking about “blessed are the poor in spirit”, that phrase we knew how to interpret. But it is Luke which continue to push our imaginations. What do we do with the blessed poor?

I can quickly think of two common ways we solve this statement. The first is by projecting onto the poor those things we experience as lacing in our own lives: rest, not worrying, community with others. The second is my spiritualizing poverty so that everyone become poor. Some are poor because they lack meaningful family relations, others because they lack money.

But for Jesus some people were categorized as poor, and some as non-poor, as rich. The poor had little room to manege their own lives, they were oppressed by a system of taxes and the rich taking over their land. But I also don’t get the idea that Jesus is romanticizing poverty. He is not the kind of ascetic who call people into poverty, because of some deeper spiritual meaning. Jesus is a prophet challenging the system of injustice which create the poor. Yet Jesus is the one saying that “blessed are the poor”.

However, when we move away from this passage, then the poor are no longer romanticized nor spiritualized. We are aware of the fact that poverty is a very real problem in our country, and I would say that the dominant approach within the church is that the poor are pitied, and that we want to help the poor. We want to bless the poor. Sometimes we would even talk about blessing the poor with our gifts and help. If we were to stand up and do our own sermon on the plain (what we generally call the part in Luke where this phrase is found), we would probably start with: “Let us participate in the coming of the kingdom of God by blessing those who are poor. Let us bless the poor” (even using nice missional language like participation in the kingdom of God). But would we start our sermon with the words: “Blessed are you, the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”.

What does this imply? If I understand Belhar correctly, then God is in a unique way present with those who are suffering. Belhar states “… that in a world full of injustice and enmity He is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged and that He calls his Church to follw Him in this”. In his commentary on this text, Piet Naudé writes: “God does not stand by the poor because they are poor or because – as in a class struggle – he is in a particular way the God of the working class. In God, there is no injustice. God stands with the people who suffer in situations of injustice, because of this in justice. God can do no other. This is how God is.”

What does the the poor being blessed imply in Luke? Not that they have access to the lost ideals of the middle class, but that the kingdom of God is their’s. Maybe we could say that the kingdom of God can be found among those who suffer. I usually explain the “kingdom of God” to youth groups with two statements: First, the kingdom of God is how this world would look if God was king and not the rulers of this world. Second, the kingdom of God is God’s dream for the world, how God dream the world to be. Is it to much to say that among those who suffer in situations of injustice, those who we can call the poor (being more than an economic category, but being those who are placed at the bottom of the system), there we will find God’s dream for how the world should look. There we find the dream of what the world might be if God were to be king and not the rulers of this world.

What would happen if those of us in the rich church exorsise our drive to be the ones who are blessing the poor, and start recognizing the poor as those blessed by God. Those who find themselves in the place where God is to be found, and start listening for the dreams of what the kingdom of God might look like. Obviously we do not enter this space in a naive manner, where the voices of the poor suddenly become some kind of direct link towards the voice of God. The poor have no more direct line to the thoughts of God than the spiritual does, and listening to one lone voice is not hearing the voice of God, just as listening to one lone super-spiritual congregant is hearing the voice of God. But if we dare enter into conversation with those who are poor, with the entirety of this category whom of people we call poor, dare listening to what the poor are dreaming the world to be like, might it not be that we will find among those to whom the kingdom of God belong dreams of what this kingdom might look like? And if we then want to participate in the coming of the kingdom of God, then it might not be through our blessing of the poor, but through the discovery of the blessedness of the poor, and the participation in the coming of the world which the poor are dreaming into being.

A personal conclusion is in order as well: I’m not at this place. I struggle with this. I like to find solutions for poverty rather than listen to the world the poor are dreaming into being. I like to be the hero. But most of all, I’m not sure if I’m ready for the radical dreams the poor are dreaming, I fear that I might not like what I’m hearing. But might it be that these dreams are the coming into being of the kingdom of God? I think I need help struggling through this, so your thoughts will be appreciated.


7 Responses to “from “let us bless the poor” to “blessed are the poor””

  1. Annemie Bosch Says:

    I feel there is something wrong with your argument – recognising that the poor ARE blessed and that we could, or even should learn from them is a valid point – but the question is WHICH poor fall in that category? The catagory we should learn from and become blessed as they are?

    Are there not many who are poor because they have stopped dreaming – as there are many who have stopped dreaming because they are poor?

  2. Annemie Bosch Says:

    And then there are the “poor” rich who think that happiness and contentment – blessedness – come with the posession of earthly wealth yet they have never experienced true fulfillment… or have lost it when they started to acquire posessions….

    I said above that I feel there is something wrong with your argument – actually I wanted to add: But I don’t really know WHAT it is that is wrong.

  3. Cobus Says:

    Annemie, thank you. I had some discomfort writing, but I put it out there, so that wise people like yourself can help me on this journey.
    I think one important aspect is that when we talk about the “poor” as blessed, that we might not want to talk about the individual in poverty. Every individual voice is not the voice of God. The “poor”, following Naudé, on whose side God is, is the poor who suffer from injustice. And it is the group where I think we need to listen from, without romantic ideas about individuals, and remembering that when we talk about those who are poor, we are talking about those who suffer from injustice. But I struggle to go ahead.

  4. Gerhard Says:

    In Jurgen Moltmann’s “The Church in the Power of the Spirit” he writes about Christ’s presence in the poor.(p126).In this section he then deals with the picture painted in Matthew 25:31-46 of Jesus in his function as Judge of the world. After discussing the passage he then talks about the identification between the Judge of the world and the least of men that it is formulated in such a way,that there is a remarkably close parallel to the identification of Christ with the community of believers.He then tries to show the ecclesiological significance of this passage in MatthewHe then says the following (p127):
    “It is not only the case that a man becomes ‘a Christ like Christ’ to the other by opening himself to him in love, as Luther said. It is also true that the other, the one who is overlooked , the Lazarus before Dives’ door , becomes one like Christ, a saviour and judge.The Christian programmes of neighbourly love, works of charity, care for the poor and development aid, often cover up this sting in the story, because they think that the hungry, thirsty, naked and imprisoned Christ would be helped with a little trouble.But it is not only love that is demanded.It is in first place faith, the faith, namely, that the least of the brethren are waiting in Christ’s stead for the deeds of the just man.It is not that the wretched are the object of Christian love or the fulfilment of a moral duty; they are the latent presence of the coming Saviour and Judge in the world, the touchstone which determines salvation and damnation.”
    Maybe this perspective from Moltmann can help with the way we view the poor?

  5. Cobus Says:

    Indeed helpful Gerhard. Thanx.

  6. Johann Says:

    A quite uncomfortable truth is that the salvation for the poor is the judgement on the rich as in Luke 16

  7. […] “From ‘let us bless the poor’ to ‘blessed are the poor’” […]

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