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Stories of Jesus

Chapter 4: The Stories

Part One: Jesus before Easter

A Jesus story: Blessed are we poor

It was in the middle of a plain, or was it on a mountain? Anyway, it was a great speech, or was it an editor’s gathering of things Jesus said on many separate occasions? The story appears in Matthew and Luke. Matthew is the one who gives us the “Sermon on the Mountain,” and he presents Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law, the new Moses. As Moses receives the Law from God on a mountain in the Exodus story, so (in Matthew) Jesus gives the new Law on a mountain.

The speech, as both Matthew and Luke style it, starts out with the famous Beatitudes, one of the more misunderstood—or decisively reinterpreted—teachings of Jesus. To understand what Jesus meant by the Beatitudes, it’s necessary to find out what Jesus actually, probably, said. We have two very different versions. Here is Matthew’s version, followed by Luke’s (the numbers, of course, are not in the original:

  1. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  2. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
  3. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
  4. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
  5. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
  6. Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
  7. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
  8. Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5: 3-12)
  1. Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.
  2. Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied.
  3. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh.
  4. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way. (Luke 6:20-23)

People often think of the Beatitudes as Jesus’ addition to and improvement on the 10 Commandments of Moses. They show us how to live in ways that go beyond the “Thou shalt not”s of the old Law. This interpretation comes naturally from Matthew’s version of what Jesus said. Throughout that Gospel Jesus appears as the new Moses. Except for the second and eighth, Matthew’s Beatitudes are all actions or attitudes that we can choose—new laws we can follow. No matter how rich or poor you are, you can be poor “in spirit”; you can be meek and mild mannered; you can hope that the right will triumph; you can extend mercy to others; you can avoid the distractions that turn your heart away from your true purpose in life; you can work for peace.

Notice that Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is a lot shorter. Notice also that none of Luke’s Beatitudes are things that a person does or controls. Here Jesus isn’t adding to the commandments, giving prescriptions for how to live or what our attitudes should be. He’s not telling rich people to be poor in spirit. He’s not talking to rich people. He’s addressing very intimately “you who are poor.” He’s commenting on the practical situation of life for most of the people in his audience. It’s not about a metaphorical hunger for righteousness but about people who don’t have enough food. His audience includes people who are not just mourning (Matthew’s word) but weeping. And he describes the situation of every poor person in Judea and Galilee when he says “when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you.” Jesus’ followers were overwhelmingly, though not entirely, from among those who were poor; but this last saying indicates the situation of any of his followers (and his own situation). People will “denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.” That is, they will consider you a heretic. And Jesus calls these people blessed.

Most scholars think Luke has the more accurate rendering of Jesus’ words. Matthew reinterprets Jesus’ words. That’s not to say there’s something wrong with Matthew’s version. It’s a beautiful and justly loved statement of what the ideal Christian life is like, and I think Jesus would agree with all of it. But Jesus was actually talking about the reality of the lives of the people in front of him, and his own life as well. For Jesus the poor are “We,” and “We” are blessed. Jesus was poor.

Thinking about the main point: What does Jesus’ poverty tell us about God? Could God be poor? What if God, the fullness of Being, gave it all away? What if it was a true gift, i.e., without any requirement of a return on the investment?

 On to Not Many Friends