Blessed are you who are poor?

A sermon preached on Luke’s version of the Beatitudes – Luke 6:20-26.

Luke and Matthew both have accounts of the Beatitudes. They are different. Matthew locates them within an early sermon delivered on a mountain side, Luke also places them in an early sermon but one located on a plane. Matthew has eight, whereas Luke only has four. But then Luke includes four woes that repeat the beatitudes in a negative form. “Happy are you poor”. “How terrible for you who are rich”.

The wording also differs. Luke’s statements are short political statements about life as it was lived at the time. Matthew’s statements are more metaphorical with an essentially spiritual or religious message. Thus, Luke says simply “Happy are you poor” a statement about literal poverty, whereas Matthew says “Happy are you who are spiritually poor”, a statement using poverty as a metaphor for our spiritual health. Luke says “Happy are you who hunger” another literal statement whereas Matthew says “Happy are you who hunger for righteousness”, another metaphor about how we are spiritually.

There has been considerable debate among Christian scholars about how to account for these differences. The overall structure is sufficiently similar to assume that both gospels are referring to the same set of original sayings. Like most preachers Jesus will almost certainly have delivered similar but not identical sermons on different occasions to different people. It might be that Matthew and Luke are referring to different sermons. But then these particularly sayings are formalised almost as poetry. They don’t strike me as casual language that might vary from sermon to sermon, they feel like precisely worded epigrams that Jesus has polished and honed to say exactly what he meant to say. It’s quite possible that Jesus formalised the beatitudes in this way as a teaching tool with the intention that they could be remembered word by word. Here is something that is so important that you must remember it exactly.

The theory that most scholars hold to is that the gospel writers moulded what Jesus said to their own theological perspective. Luke, who probably says more about money and its corrupting power, than any of the other gospel writers, presents the beatitudes as being about actual poverty. Matthew, who is generally much more interested in Jesus as a religious figure, presents the beatitudes as being about spiritual poverty.

So which is correct? What did Jesus actually say? The short answer is we don’t know. Scholars vary in their opinions and, as might be expected those opinions tend to reflect the theology of the scholars. Those who see Jesus as primarily a figure of religious significance, tend to assume that Matthew’s version is the closer to the original. Those who tend to think that Jesus offered a political gospel will tend to prefer Luke’s version.

There are other clues. Generally speaking when similar sayings are found in the gospel, but one is longer than the other scholars tend to assume that it is more likely that an original shorter statement has been added to rather than that words from the longer statement have been deleted. Also in 1945 a “Gospel of Thomas” was discovered in the Egyptian desert and is believed to be a very early collection of the saying of Jesus. It includes another set of beatitudes that are much closer to Luke’s version than Matthew’s. Another argument, that sways me, is that where two such similar statements are found in the gospels, and one seems at odds with how early Christianity was developing at the time that it was written down, then that is most likely to be the true version. It is much more likely that someone would edit material to be in line with later thinking than to contradict it. It seems clear to me that much of the political radicalism that we read in the synoptic gospels was lost as the early Christian movement focussed on Jesus as of primarily religious significance. Luke, as a disciple of Paul, was part of that movement and it seems unlikely to me that he would have edited Jesus’ sayings to make them more political in nature. On balance, I think that Jesus’ original teaching was probably about real poverty and real hunger and real grief.

If we accept this, the first thing we have to ask is, “Does Jesus really think that poor, hungry, weeping people are happier than rich, satisfied, laughing people?” Is he saying that there is something that is inherently good about poverty and hunger? Should we intentionally make ourselves poor and hungry in order to find God? Is poverty the way to godliness?

If we start to think this way, then we have fallen into a trap. When Jesus talks so positively about “the poor”, he is not eulogising their status (he understood the desperation of their poverty all too well to do this), he is celebrating their potential. They are not happy because they are poor, they are happy because they will recognise God’s Kingdom when they see it. They are not happy because they are hungry, they are happy because they will be so appreciative when they are fed. They are not happy because they weep now, they are happy because one day they will laugh.

Another issue is in how we regard “the poor”. When we read this passage as Western Christians in a comfortable church in a reasonably affluent town just south on Manchester, “the poor” is “them”, somebody else, somebody out there. When Jesus was speaking in rural Galilee all those years ago, he was speaking to a crowd who recognised themselves as poor, hungry and weeping. They knew they were subjugated both by local civil and religious authorities and their Roman overlords.  “The poor” is “us”. Jesus is making a statement of solidarity with the people he is speaking to. Jesus is not just saying happy are the poor, he is saying happy are we, we are in this together.

But he is saying more than that he is not just saying “we are in this together”, he is saying “we are in this together and we have wonderful things to share”. When communities share each other’s poverty and hunger and grief they are in a much better position to build a kingdom of love than those who struggle individually to maintain wealth and privilege.

We went out to the cinema for the first time in two years last night. We saw Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s memoire about his early childhood. We were taken to a terraced street in working class Belfast. This was not a place of abject poverty but it was a place of where people struggled to make ends meet and lived in fear for their lives as the political situation deteriorated. But it was also a place of community. The street itself was full of life with children playing and older people taking their chairs outside to sit and pass the time of day with whoever was passing. Everyone knew everyone else, and they cared for each other and helped each other out. Multigenerational families lived their lives in close proximity. When Kenneth’s father suggests that moving to England would give them an opportunity to progress, his mother questions why anyone would want to progress from the strength of that community that supported each other through hardship. Branagh may be seeing that time and place through the rose-tinted spectacles of his childhood, but he is clearly nostalgic for a society that bound people together in solidarity, a society which he has left and can no longer access.     

Of course if Luke’s four beatitudes are about “us”, then the ensuing woes are about “them”, those who are rich, satisfied and laughing.. Those people back in the city concerned only with creating more wealth. Those people back in the religious buildings trying to persuade themselves that a particular form of worship is the gateway to finding God. Those people who separate themselves off from each other so that they can enjoy their wealth on their own. Those people who are incapable of working to build God’s Kingdom because they have lost sight of who God is and what that Kingdom might look like.

When read in this way this passage cuts through to life in twentieth century Britain doesn’t it. We have a divided society. A society in which more and more of God’s people are struggling to make ends meet – to both eat and heat, but also a society that is driven by the conceits of the wealthy and powerful. An elite that separate themselves off from the majority of the people. An elite that are incapable of working towards the coming of God’s Kingdom because they have lost sight of who God is and what that Kingdom might look like.

The beatitudes offer us a choice. We can align ourselves with the poor, the hungry and those who weep, or we can align ourselves with the rich, the satisfied and those who laugh. But they do more than offer us a choice, they tell us which choice we should make and why.

We should align ourselves with the poor, not because we admire their poverty, but because we know that they will recognise God’s Kingdom when they are encounter it. We should align ourselves with the hungry, not because hunger is good, but because of how we know they will savour food when it is provided. We should align ourselves with those who weep, not because we love tears, but because we long to bring laughter. Let’s take these thoughts into our next hymn “Community of Christ”,


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