Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh. (Luke 6:20b,21 NRSV)
So, it’s a blessing to be poor, hungry, or grief-stricken? No, that absurdity misses the message completely because it ignores context, and in biblical theology (and all theology) context always matters. Jesus has announced the coming of the kingdom or reign of God, and these blessings upon the presently downtrodden belong to his announcement. The way of the world will be reversed. Here are the corresponding woes:
Woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep. (Luke 6:24,25 NRSV)
What, it’s a sin to be rich, well nourished, or happy? No, the question is the system or order of life to which we are attached. Do we favor and defend the status quo in which relatively few prosper and even fewer prosper exorbitantly, or will we welcome a change that brings about a new set of conditions in which abundance is shared, in which cooperation replaces competition for life’s benefits and from which privilege and dominion are gone?
All Jesus’ teachings come attached to and dependent upon his announcement of the in-breaking of the reign of God, and the promise of that coming reign continues to guide his followers as the vanishing point that gives perspective to all of life, the “north” pole which draws all individual and social compass needles toward itself. Blessed are those whose hopes and values align with that promise, who want for this world and its people what Jesus declares God wants for them. Blessed are those who welcome the kingdom wherever and whenever it pushes its way into life and disrupts the status quo of injustices and gross inequities.
Here’s a flaw in our understanding of Christianity’s newer Testament. In two of the synoptic gospels, Mark and Luke, this in-breaking reign of justice and compassion is called the kingdom of God, but Matthew follows Jewish piety by not naming God directly. When in my former pastorate we prepared the bulletin for the interfaith Thanksgiving service, the rabbi would put in the Jewish parts of the service the word God as G-d to avoid even that much of a graven image and show special reverence for the name. So, in the Gospel of Matthew, the kingdom of God is rendered in Jesus’ teachings as the “kingdom of heaven,” but the teachings are still for this world and not some other. The word heaven simply stands in for the word God; it does not direct our attention away from this world’s people or its systems and structures, either.
Much of Christianity has made the goal of faith to be getting us into heaven when we die, but the goal of the gospel, the good news, is to get heaven (God) into our lives and our world. The transformation is to occur here and now. Justice must come upon us on the ground these days, not up in the clouds some day. I am not denying our resurrection hope, but that’s another matter. Justice postponed is justice denied here and now. If our lives are oriented in faith, hope, and love toward God’s reign on earth, our beyond-death hopes will be taken care of, but the time for change toward justice is now.
It is an enormous perversion of the Bible and the gospel to tell the poor to be content with their lot in life, the cheated to “count it all joy,” the shamed and outcast to humble themselves, and the enslaved to obey their masters – all as we enjoy the benefits of the present systemic injustices they suffer. We tell hungry school children they need more rigor. We tell children in pain from lack of dental care they have no excuses for doing poorly on standardized tests that confront them with questions drawn from contexts they have never experienced. We produce metrics to drive workers harder and harder until we have broken and then replaced them, casting them aside like junk. We tell woman in various ways that they are bodies that exist for the pleasure of men. We tell the cheated to “get over it.” We tell people who are seeing their hopes stolen from them, “Suck it up, snowflake.” We divide people who are supposed to be our sisters and brothers in life into “winners” and “losers.”
Jesus declares of the in-breaking reign of God, “Many who are now first will be last, and the last first.” In other words:
Blessed are you who are losers in this world’s systems,
for you will be given victory.
Woe to you proud winners,
for you are losing and don’t know it.
Or as in the Magnificat attributed to Mary, Jesus’ mother, and drawn from Hannah of long ago:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
. . .
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and set the rich away empty. (from Luke 1:46 ff NRSV)