BLESSED ARE THE POOR
For in Jesus’ day, when his followers declared Jesus was Lord, this was not a religious or rote saying. Under the ruthless rule of the Roman Empire, Caesar was Lord. No, this was a bold confession of a new allegiance to Jesus’ Empire not the Roman Empire, to a new revolutionary, opposite-day kind of kingdom, not the oppressive, self-serving, power-hungry kingdom of this world.
For Lent this year, we are spending time in The Beatitudes. And wow, I think that every day in this kingdom of love might be opposite day. These words, so simple and yet profound, confront and challenge every aspect of the way we do life. The Beatitudes is probably one of the most beloved portions of the gospels, found in Matthew 5 and Luke 6, beginning Jesus’ famous manifesto, The Sermon on the Mount. If Jesus was President (as Shane Claiborne likes to talk about), this would be his state of the union address where he lays out his platform and what he is all about.
And yet these words are truly the antithesis of all we hold dear in America. Jesus begins.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the poor? Are you kidding me? We do not find it blessed or delightful to be poor. In America today, it is all about acquisition, wealth, possession, climbing the corporate ladder, and social status. We like our nice things, our comforts, our houses, our cars, our private lives, our freedom, our cappuccinos and pour-overs, and all our little luxuries.
And we want to be great. Right? Make America great again! This is the land of opportunity. We’ve just elected the first billionaire as president, and for better or worse, Trump seems to be the manifestation of a culture that has worshipped the gods of capitalism, greed, fame and power. Even our church culture has been affected. A fellow songwriter recently commented on this phenomena in the American church where we have all these “God is Great” songs at the top of the worship charts. And while we know that God is indeed great, we also know he came to the world not in greatness but through humility. His revolution was not one of dominance with tanks and armies but one of submission and subservience that led him to the cross. And so while we want to be great, whether that is through our wealth or our success, our social status or what we can achieve, Jesus invites us to another way.
And this is a difficult way. One that is harder for a rich man to traverse than for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle. To empty ourselves of pride and of privilege. To be poor. And to be for the poor.
But I have a confession. I want to be great. I have been steeped in a culture that says I am loved and esteemed if I can make something of myself. And yet, Jesus calls me to another way of being, to become poor even as he became poor. To humble myself. To give up my privilege and possessions. And to be for the poor.
So we are invited this Lent to die, to empty ourselves of our pride, of our need for success and social status and wealth, our comforts, our own interests and desires, so that we might find life. That we might experience the true government of peace, love and justice in Jesus, not the capitalistic, reality TV government of our current administration. So what does it mean for us to give up privilege, luxuries, time, or our own desires so that those who have nothing could have something?
If we take these words of Jesus seriously, this is challenging. This changes the ways we do life. How can we open our homes and our wallets and our lives to be for the poor? What does it mean to embrace simplicity, refusing to consume more than we need and conserving so that other generations might enjoy the beauty and resources of the earth? We have so much. To the point of excess and waste. We rape the land, we pillage, we pollute and we destroy. We buy and we acquire stuff to the point that it becomes a burden. We throw away food when others go hungry. We consume and consume often without regard for its impact, the price of our consumption on the backs of the poor. But for what?
Jesus said, Whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me. [Matthew 25:40]
As I look in the faces of the poor, as I see Christ looking back at me, my heart breaks. Surely, we are called to repentance. Surely, we have lost our way. If we are to claim that we are followers of Jesus, then I believe that we must respond to the compelling words of our sacred text. It is a time for change and for reformation. Because today and everyday is opposite day.
Philippians 2:1-8 [The Message]
If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
by Jessica Ketola
Isaiah 58: 6-9 [The Message]
This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
The God of glory will secure your passage.
Then when you pray, God will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’
Matthew 25:37-40 [NSRV]
‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these... you did it to me.’