A tough blessing to take
A discussion starter on Luke 6:17-26 by Nathan Nettleton, 11 February 2001
The beatitudes proclaim Gods preferential love for the poor and challenge us to rethink our own dependence on financial security.
Lukes version of the beatitudes is not nearly as popular as Matthews version with modern Christians in the developed world. It doesnt take too long to work out why. In Lukes version there is no escaping the fact that they say that when God hands out blessings, poor people will get more than rich people. They say that God discriminates between people on the basis of how well off they are here and now. And to make sure we dont miss the point, Luke, unlike Matthew, includes the Woes that restate each beatitude in its opposite form: Woe to you who are rich; Woe to you who have eaten your fill.
The message is so stark and confronting that it is a fair bet that Matthews version is proof that, right from the start, wealthier Christians were trying to water it down and spiritualise it so that they wouldnt feel excluded by it. So instead of Blessed are the poor, we end up with Blessed are the poor in spirit. Instead of Blessed are those who hunger, we end up with Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness. Those more spiritualised versions are much easier to live with, because it is so much easier to convince yourself that they fit you.
I rather suspect, though, that Luke would have scoffed at such attempts to create some wriggle room. I suspect that he would have said that it is almost impossible to be simultaneously rich in things and poor in spirit. Maybe the mini-beatitudes in Jeremiah 17:5-10 are backing him up, even though at first glance they appear to have more in common with Matthews version. In Jeremiah it is just one woe and one blessing: Woe to those who trust in human means and turn away from the Lord, and Blessed are those who trust in the Lord. It sounds like a spiritual point, but perhaps when we put it alongside Lukes version we can see a significant truth. Perhaps there is a direct relationship between our wealth and our ability to trust God.
Jeremiah paints these graphic pictures of the contrasting consequences of trusting in wealth or trusting in God. Those who trust in their own resources or wealth are like plants trying to grow in the lifeless soil of a salt pan. They can sink their roots as deep as they like but it makes no difference; they still find nothing that will nourish them or give them any real life. By contrast people who trust in God are like trees planted near a river. Even if there is a serious drought, their roots still find plenty of nourishment in the water of life.
Now that doesnt automatically take us straight back to Lukes account. Maybe one can be rich and still have their trust in God rather than in their wealth? Maybe? Maybe, but when you think about it, its not that easy to imagine. I know that for me, anyway, if Im facing some kind of problem and it is within my financial means to buy my way out of trouble, thats always the option Ill think of first. It seems that it comes most naturally to trust in the most concrete source of support or help available. And thats not usually God! For me (and I suspect for most of us) to learn to trust in God I need to make sure that I dont have an easier alternative, because to learn to trust God I need to practice trusting God and I usually only practice when I am forced to by the lack of alternatives.
So I know that the fact that I am not often faced with an real discomfort or serious inconvenience due to lack of resources is actually an impediment to the development of real depth in my relationship with God. Thats why those taking religious vows in monastic communities take a vow of poverty. It is not because poverty in itself is a good thing Jesus makes that clear when his beatitudes add hunger and weeping as characteristics of poverty it is because prosperity and personal ownership are highly addictive and the addiction to them is a major impediment to learning to trust God. Those who want to deepen their relationship with God in significant ways will have to deal with that addiction and break its hold. For some of us, it may even be helpful to see ourselves as being like the addict or the alcoholic going into a twelve-step recovery program. We may need to realise that we will never be completely free of the addiction - no matter how well we do, relapse may be only one purchase away. In the monastic communities, the vow of poverty is not about total deprivation, it is about relinquishing personal ownership and making money a shared thing so that there is always accountability for its use. That way people voluntarily relinquish their own purchasing power and throw themselves back on God for their supports. In such a lifestyle, when you feel depressed you cant respond by going out and buying stuff to make yourself feel better. You have to actually face the depressions and sink roots deeper into God in the search for living water. It is very much the road less travelled.
It is daunting and challenging, scary even, but Jesuss words come in the middle of this wonderful vision of promise: those who had nothing are receiving the realm of God; those who were hungry are sitting down to a magnificent banquet; those who were weeping are singing and dancing and laughing. These images repeatedly characterise the descriptions of the future God is promising. It is a thrilling vision of justice and peace, of a world of joy and love; a world made new where suffering and crying and oppression will be gone forever. Its a vision that fills us with hope and anticipation.
But, here in Lukes account of the beatitudes, we are reminded that there are obstacles to inheriting this vision, and we are in one of the parts of the world for whom these obstacles are the biggest danger. Those who invested in money and things in this world may find that they are so ill-equipped for the life of the Kingdom of God that they miss the boat entirely. God is clearly described by Jesus as playing favourites: God shows favouritism to those who have always missed out before.
Jesus says similar things numerous times. When it comes to the realm of God it is not so much a matter of how religious you are. Jesus told the religious people that many of those whom they regarded as sinners would have an easier time entering the Kingdom than them. Its an unpopular term, but in the workplace it is described as affirmative action. God has seen that some people are always getting left out and decreed that in the Kingdom those people will get preferential treatment.
In global terms, we are among the lucky ones. Our level of prosperity and comfort puts most of us in the top 10 - 15 % of the worlds people. It doesnt take too much looking at the spiritual state of our nation to realise the price we are paying for it. You can measure it either by the state of the churches or by the levels of psychological illness, family breakdown, suicide, etc. and either way youll not find a picture that suggests that prosperity has been good for us. Our roots are in the salt pan, finding nothing to live on.
The writing is on the wall for you who are wealthy, says Jesus, for youve had your goodies. Blessed are you who are poor now, for the realm of God will be yours.
Its tough blessing for us to hear, and it gives us some important questions to discuss.
If you look back over your life, can you see a pattern of changes in your financial status affecting your spiritual vitality?
Are there specific decisions you have made to try to change the way you use or rely on financial and material resources?
Are there ways that we can support and encourage one another in breaking our dependence on financial security?
Are there ways that we can be more communal in our approach to financial matters that could help put more of our trust in the body of Christ and less in our own resources?