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Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
Blessed are you who are poor, because yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)
Plainly these words hold many layers of meaning. Even Jesus’ followers who recorded the Gospels seem to have understood the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount a little bit differently. But both versions of this verse hold a challenge and a promise for us as we try to live as citizens of God’s Kingdom on earth.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
Too often we despise poverty and prefer to consider ourselves beholden to nobody. But whether our needs are supplied by the global economy or the homestead and the local economy, we depend daily on the labor of others and the gifts of God. Acknowledging this dependence humbles our pride, moves us to consider whether or not we are treating those on whom we depend with justice and generosity, and opens us to gratitude—all basic steps into Kingdom living.
“Blessed are you who are poor.”
This is a hard saying for us Americans. We tend to look at the people who have more than we do and to feel comparatively poor, but in global terms we’re incredibly wealthy. So what are we to make of this Beatitude … or of the companion verse in Luke, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort”?
I’m still struggling with this myself. Some things are clear. First, the endless consumer choices and distractions offered by our affluence often distance us from God and from deep happiness (the same word may be translated as ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’). We do well to limit our consumption and take time to savor and give thanks for God’s free gifts. Second, too often our affluence is built on the poverty and pain of others—our cheap gas is secured by devastating wars, our cheap consumer goods by the underpaid and ill-treated labor of migrant workers in fields and children in factories. (See Ezekiel 34.) We must wean ourselves from such affluence in order to love our neighbors as ourselves, to live as citizens of God’s Kingdom.
Of course this is hard. Jesus never promised us a broad and easy way to follow. He did promise that he would be with us on the narrow and difficult road that leads to life.