So My challenge this month in exploring Jesus' recipe for the good life (the Beatitudes) was to ask poor people about whether or not they thought Jesus was right that being poor was a blessing. I'd been told by another rich person that the question was offensive, so I headed out the door wondering how to to ask it without getting hit or yelled at. Although, if someone whacked me I guess I could infer they didn't feel particularly blessed being poor, or even being associated with the impecunious.
First stop: Kilbirnie. Usually you find people begging at the town centre, but today I was out of luck. I did spot an older and younger man hanging about who looked poorish. I introduced myself and said I was asking people about a well known saying of Jesus. The old guy immediately clocked me as a religious fanatic and slowly moved away as I talked with the younger guy. He really wanted a light. I'd brought some coins thinking I might have to pay for comments, but hadn't thought of a lighter,. Luckily, he agreed to talk even if I couldn't help him with what he really wanted. I was surprised by the optimistic tone of his responses: "there's always a heaven"; "all are blessed"; and "money can't buy time". Then he remembered his unlit cigarette and went off to remedy the situation. There seemed to be some social art event on at the Community Centre, but I wasn't brave enough to do my Louis Theroux there, so I headed back to the ute, and drove to the Miramar town centre.
I immediately spotted a middle aged Pacifica woman, perhaps not so poor, but clearly hanging around waiting for someone. Sadly she wasn't waiting for me, and told me so after proudly announcing that she belonged to the Catholic church across the road. Wounded but not down, I spotted another young man. Again, not looking especially poor, but I wasn't feeling fussy. Mike was a pleasant guy who said he didn't really know about whether the poor were blessed, but then said he guessed it was something to look forward to. By which I assumed he meant heaven, rather than poverty.
An older Assyrian man, Yonan, proudly told me he belonged to the Assyrian Orthodox Church on Glamis Ave. I tried to get a response about the poor being blessed, but kept getting told about his church. Either he didn't really understand, or saw this as a great opportunity to market his church.
Finally I talked with someone who seemed to be waiting for nothing in particular at the bus shelter. He said: "[if you're poor] you have no financial worries"; "nothing to lose"; and finally "money is the root of all evil".
And that was that, except later in the day I was telling a friend what I'd been up to. He was keen to give his two cent's worth. I hadn't thought of him as poor until I recalled that he'd been a missionary his entire adult life and relied on the donations of others. Perhaps Neil was the pious poor person I needed! Clearly he knew that I was misquoting Matthew (although not Luke!), and went for a more spiritualized understanding of the 'poor'. And while he conceded God may help the poor, he was clear that material poverty wasn't a good thing in itself: "poverty is like pain, no one would choose it".
No one took offense at me asking them about the poor. I don't think it occurred to them that I was implying that they were poor. In fact, only my more theologically trained friend had anything negative to say about poverty. I wonder whether the idea that the poor will get a better deal in the life to come is somehow part of our culture.
As for the poor being blessed in this life, my attention was drawn back to the picture of the very first church described by Luke: "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2.44-5). Perhaps in such a community the poor are indeed blessed? There's enough to go around, but so many of the poor and the rich aren't connected into the sort of generous and spirited groups described by Luke. Occasionally I've seen signs of it break out. It's a beautiful thing, and looks like what I think Jesus meant by the kingdom of heaven.
What do you think? Have you got any evidence that the poor (in spirit) are blessed?
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" - Jesus
So now the rubber hits the road. What to do with Jesus’ beatitudes?
This first one seems to hinge on what ‘poor in spirit’ means. In Luke’s version it’s much more straightforward - blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Much more straightforward but apparently impossible for me who has just this week bought a second house. I feel like the rich young ruler faced with the camel and needle dilemma! Am I ruled out unless I sell all my possessions?
OK, what about Matthew’s versions - seems more...spiritual, less economic? Is Matthew spiritualising Luke, so that he now understands Jesus to be talking about humility? This is probably the most popular interpretation, but not the only one. The interpretation I’m going with is poor in spirit = pious poor. In other words, those among the community of the (Holy) Spirit who are economically poor. This fits with Luke’s version, while acknowledging that Matthew is trying to avoid the idea that poverty is, in itself, a blessing.
That all said, what am I, rich as I am, going to do in response to this beatitude? I once was reading this beatitude with a poor person who, much to my surprise, exclaimed that she knew exactly what Jesus meant. Then she explained how that very morning she had found a box of food at her door just as she was thinking that she had nothing to give her son for school lunch.
So my challenge in February to see if I can find poor people and asked them if they feel blessed. I’m thinking about the street people who hang out in Kilbirnie. And as I’m after the pious poor, I’ll particularly try and find someone who fits that. Probably requires some tact… I’ll let you know how I get on.
(The longer intro is here)
Like me, you’ve probably heard of, but not read, the book ‘A Year of Living Biblically’. What I did hear through the media were interviews about mock stonings and other ingenious ways of interpreting Levitical rules that seem odd in our modern secular culture. But what caught my attention was the interest all sorts of people have in ways of life that break out of normal patterns and concerns. It’s the same with groups like the Amish or even Gloriavale here in NZ. Their alternative life-rhythms and values shock us, and attract us at the same time.
Jesus, especially in his famous Sermon on the Mount, seemed to imagine his followers living out different rhythms and values, while still being constructively engaged with the world. Like many Christians, I’m deeply attracted by Jesus’ vision, while equally frustrated that we so often don’t seem to experience it. I want to take a leaf out of the monastic (or even Amish) playbook, and put Jesus’ beatitudes to the test.
The beatitudes are the nine blessings Jesus declares at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5.1-12). My idea is to do something intentional and practical about each beatitude over the next nine months. So in February I’ll begin by posting what I’ve decided to do with ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. During February I’ll let you know how I got on.
I’d love for others to join in and give the beatitudes a go too. Respond to my posts and tell me what your own efforts at living beatifically have looked like. It could be hilarious. It could be sobering. At the very least it’ll get me thinking more about Jesus’ vision for our world and what it might take for me to live a little tighter into that vision.