Blessed are the Poor

“Blessed are the poor” — those four words are said by Jesus in his famous Sermon on the Mount in Luke, and they don’t go down easy.  What does it mean?

I was in a debate in which we considered this hypothetical situation: imagine that all the wealth in the world were collected in one place and evenly redistributed to everyone.  At this starting point, would we stay an egalitarian society for long?  I argued no: the formerly poor would find new ways to squander their wealth, while the formerly rich would invest and build it.  For wealth is not just money, but also education, culture, habits, and networks.  The rich aren’t just rich by accident — they (we) have spent a lifetime learning how to accumulate wealth.  Of course, there are different ways of doing so, which led me to draw up the above 2×2 matrix.  Conservatives often point to the upper-left and lower-right corners of the matrix, saying that anyone can pull themselves out of poverty with a combination of hard work and frugality.  The implication is that the poor are bad people for not doing so.  But that conveniently ignores the lower-left corner.  I would argue that anyone who is considered money-rich by any measure has committed at least one of the “bad” things in that list.  For anyone living in the U.S. — rich by the world’s standards — that would be #3, profiting from our nation’s forefathers who first took lands from the Native Americans and then set up a series of dictatorships to ensure a steady supply of resources.  Is it any wonder that Jesus also said it’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle?

How does one make it into the “Blessed are the poor” category then?  Living lazy and squandering money as listed in the lower-right go against common sense and just about the entire book of Proverbs.  That leaves only the top-right corner.  Don’t be attached to what you have.  Sell your stuff.  Be “poor”.  Live simply.  Give generously.  And follow Jesus.

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7 thoughts on “Blessed are the Poor

  1. the SOTM is commonly thought to apply to Christians; imo, because of Matt 6:14-15, i think it cannot. i encourage you to consider a minority viewpoint…

    …the SOTM is very clearly directed toward Jewish people of Jesus’ day (many references to the Law, the scriptures, etc). but these people had confidence in the Law for their salvation, not Jesus. this is their undoing, and Jesus begins to fix it in the SOTM.
    …in the SOTM, Jesus is ‘raising the bar’…it is God Himself giving them a ‘new and higher standard…a more difficult Law’…it is God essentially telling them that they all need to be 100% perfect, that the Mosaic Law is just not enough. Jesus is trying to destroy their confidence in works…to make it absolutely impossible that anyone will think their works are enough. this includes the Beatitudes.
    …this will, in turn, force them to despair of their works and seek God’s only solution – Jesus Christ.

    the story of the rich young ruler is similar. he was confident that he had followed all the commandments; Jesus knew he was not perfect. Jesus ‘raised the bar’ on the kid, and the kid despaired of his Law-keeping as a way to heaven. now open to a new hope, he might just be open to God’s only solution – Jesus Christ.

    Christian giving is different; you just give what you want to give. this might make you ask, “what do i want to give?”
    i believe the answer is in 2 Cor 9:7, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” …the answer is that God has given you a heart that, cheerfully, actually wants to give already; connect to that heart and you will cheerfully give; don’t and you won’t. i think you may be connecting to that heart, brother; go for it! 🙂

    grace + peace,
    Lance
    ——

    by the way, i actually believe that the best way for society to become rich is to be generous at the micro level. …an example is the 3rd world moneylender. he is relatively rich compared to those around him, but relatively poor compared to us. his problem is that he charges too high an interest rate. if he charged lower, his clients would make more money, invest in larger and larger businesses and then need larger and larger loans. the moneylenders short-termism and selfishness makes him poor and all the people around him poor.

    • Hi Lance, welcome to the blog! I agree with your conclusion that giving should be cheerful and heart-based, and not a part of law. But at the same time, I’ve been digesting some modern scholarship on Paul which says maybe he wasn’t as anti-Law as contemporary Christians make him out to be: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Perspective_on_Paul

      I also think the SOTM applies to everyone in all time periods. I don’t understand your reference to Matt 6:14-15 — are you saying that Christians now should not say the Lord’s Prayer?

      Finally, I agree with your example on lending. The moneylender has the most potential influence on the poor because he is right there interacting with them. Whereas all I can do is give money and indirectly try to monitor that it goes toward good purposes.

  2. Hi Ed,

    Nice post. What do you think about giving everyone equal resources, and then re-equalizing every ~50 years to erase any inherited advantage? (I take this to be the driving idea behind Jubilee.)

    A more difficult question (which is also relevant to points recently made by Mako in his _Motivated by Grief_) is the extent to which we Rich Folk act badly when we benefit from the current World Order—an Order which all admit arose out of a history of gross injustices.

    Mathias Risse has a very interesting article in which he argues (plausibly) that 1) industrialization and technological innovation has improved most *everyone*’s lives, including the current poor, and 2) for all we know, the exploited nations would not have industrialized on their own even if Westerners had left them alone:

    http://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/mrisse/Papers/Papers%20-%20Philosophy/DoWeOwetheGlobalPoorAssistance.pdf

    So, since the poor nations would still be poor even if our ancestors hadn’t committed injustices, we can say that the current World Order actually benefits today’s poor! This is because the Rich today do sometimes give the Poor medicine and technology that the Poor wouldn’t have developed on their own.

    If this is right, we rich are not at all *guilty* of any wrongdoing by taking advantage of the current World Order: it is, after all, a World Order that has made the current poor folks better off, overall! We do, however, still owe the poor *assistance*—something motivated out of humanitarian beneficence, and not a desire to correct some past wrong….

    • Hi Ang, I do like the idea of redistribution every few generations, although practically I don’t know how that would work out.

      As for the Risse argument, I certainly don’t hold the Panglossian view of the “noble savage” and do believe that modern societies have helped developing ones through a bit of trickle-down. But the crucial difference in my view is that I believe the degree of help is not enough. In any inter-dependent society, should there be a cap on wealth distribution disparity? Although I’m a libertarian at heart, I believe in the real world people don’t play fair, and laws are never perfectly enforced. And in international relations, there are no sovereign laws. Thus we need some standard of fairness that exists above pure capitalism.

    • Thanks for that article, Christina. There’s a lot about microfinance I don’t know about. It seems that as soon as someone is making a profit (whether shareholders, management, or the direct sales force), someone else wants a piece of the action.

  3. hi ed, thanks for that post. it’s a very logical convicting-rebuke-reminder for me. i find it hard to remind myself of how rich i am here, especially being busy with work and running around doing ministry and various things. so easy to forget about certain parts of scripture, and the majority of the world.

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