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Happy? Try Poverty
January 8, 1995

LUKE 6:20-21

What did Jesus mean? Happy are you who are poor...Happy are you who are hungry? Connecting happy and poor sounds like an oxymoron--two contrasting words joined together in a relationship that seems incompatible. Like hot ice, jumbo shrimp, balanced budget, downtown LA, and United Methodist! But, Jesus did not see happy and poor as contradictory. They are not incompatible. You want to be happy? Try poverty.

Jesus' teachings, and the way he lived his life, are so vastly different from our way of thinking and acting. We are taught to accumulate things. We are taught to seek wealth, and to obtain it by any means. We are taught to buy, buy, buy; own, own, own. We are taught that riches make for happiness, although deep down we know that is not true.

Jesus' way of life is contrary to our culture. It is a wonder we even retain the Bible. What we do with the parts of the Bible that challenge our life style is 1) ignore them; 2) spiritualize them. We have done both with the text for today, ignore and spiritualize. Some feel that Matthew and the church of his time could not handle the starkness of Jesus' teaching, so Matthew began the process of spiritualizing. According to Matthew 5:3, Jesus said, Blessed (happy) are the poor in spirit. Those who realize their need of God, and humbly acknowledge their impoverished spirit, are the happy ones. According to Luke, Jesus said, Happy are you who are hungry. According to Matthew, Jesus said, Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Was Matthew spiritualizing Jesus' tough words?

What did Jesus mean? Who are the poor who, Jesus says, are the happy ones, the blessed. First-century Greek had two words which are translated into English as poor. One word refers to people who are employed, but whose money does not stretch far enough to cover their needs. The other refers to people who are destitute, dependent on others, impoverished beggars. It is this word--the latter-- Luke uses. Desperately poor, a poverty so deep, so chronic, it is actually hopeless.

An Ethiopian woman walked two days to receive a monthly allowance of grain provided by contributors primarily from America. She would walk two days carrying it home. She had barely received it when she set it down to rest for a moment, and someone stole it. She returned to the food line in tears. The tears were not for herself but for her child, the only surviving child of the eight she had borne. The other seven children and her husband had already died in the devastating Ethiopian famine.

That's poverty--the desperately poor. So poor they don't expect things to get better. Resigned. Given up. Hopeless. But, Jesus said, they are happy in the kingdom of God! In fact, Jesus said they are the ones to whom the kingdom belongs.

But wait, the disciples of Jesus were not that poor. They were fishermen; Matthew was a tax collector. However, Jesus called them to poverty. They left everything and followed him. But, others were not asked to take such extreme action. Zacchaeus was told by Jesus to give up half his goods, not all. According to Luke 8:3, there was a group of women who supported Jesus and his movement. One was Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward who was certainly a woman of means, and not an impoverished beggar. Among the followers of Jesus, there were those who gave up everything and followed Jesus through the countryside, and there were those who had wealth, or at least sufficient resources, to support the cause. According to Luke 8:3, there were many others who provided for them (Jesus and the disciples) out of their resources.

So, what did Jesus mean by teaching, Happy are you who are poor...Happy are you who are hungry? We return to the beatitudes according to Matthew, and realize Matthew was not diluting the starkness of Jesus' teaching, but elucidating it. Both Matthew and Luke present the ministry of Jesus against the backdrop of Isaiah 61. According to Luke, Jesus quoted this passage in the synagogue when he began his ministry. Isaiah 61 begins, The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the poor. Jesus in both Matthew and Luke lists the poor in first place in the beatitudes. The first characteristic of God's people in the new age--in the kingdom of God--is that they are poor. Again we ask, who are the poor?

In the Old Testament the poor are the materially impoverished who are economically and politically powerless. Since they are helpless and hopeless, the poor can rely on no one but God. Consequently, the term poor came to include those who recognize their weakness and look to God for help, who look to God for their salvation, the poor in spirit.

Jesus congratulated those who know their need for God. Because they know their need for God, they are able to recognize and receive salvation when they see it. They who are destitute may recognize the good news sooner because they have fewer trappings, fewer obstacles. Therefore, they are happy.

Jesus challenged his followers to choose between the blessed poor or the cursed rich. The rich are those who trust in their riches, who trust in themselves for their happiness, for their salvation. The poor are those who trust in God.

What does it mean, then, to follow Jesus? What does it mean to choose poverty? Some take the challenge as the 12 disciples did. They leave everything and follow. They take the vow of poverty, withdraw from the world, enter a monastery or similar community. Francis of Assisi became the witness of a life made radiant when he renounced all the world's riches. Some, like Mother Teresa, renounce riches and live a life serving the poor. Even with the money she received from the Nobel prize, she built another clinic to provide medical treatment for the poor.

I suspect most of us, however, are like Joanna and the other women who provided support for Jesus. When we realize our dependence on God's grace, knowing our need for God, we are poor in spirit. Out of gratitude to God for all we are, and all we have, we support God's work through our church, and serve the poor as best we are able.

The Bible is very clear, and Jesus in particular. The fact of poverty lays a responsibility on the nonpoor to provide for the poor. During the Ministerial Association meeting the other day, a laywoman shared how she wanted to help the needy. She felt God called her to serve the needy, but she didn't know how. She didn't know where they were. They weren't in her church. They weren't in her neighborhood. Then, she volunteered at Love INC where she found the needy. Oh, she said, how she found the needy!! She has found her work with Love INC to be extremely rewarding and gratifying. Happy she is. Love INC (In the Name of Christ) needs more volunteers. They especially need volunteers who will answer the phone.

When we volunteer and/or give to Love INC, when we give to the Food Closet, when we volunteer and/or give to the homeless shelters, when we give to UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief), we are serving the poor.

But, there is more. The Bible is very clear. We are also called to be champions of the poor, and to challenge and condemn the oppression of the poor. Isaiah 3:14-15, The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people...What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? The poor in spirit are called to speak for the poor who are powerless to speak for themselves.

Now, both political parties are tripping over themselves to reform the welfare system. I do hope it is more than rhetoric, like the saying, After all is said and done, what is said is more than done! The welfare system is not working well. But, it is not a simple matter to change it. With increased technology and computerization, jobs are being eliminated. It is the role of Christians to become politically involved, to help and challenge our leaders to design a system that will indeed serve the poor by helping those in need, and enabling people to become independent, responsible and free of a debilitating system. John F. Kennedy spoke to our national conscience when he said, A society is judged not by how it treats the richest, but by how it treats the poorest. Jesus calls us to serve the poor, and champion their cause.

Are you happy? As happy as you would like to be? Try following Jesus. Try poverty.

© 1995 Douglas I. Norris