When Jesus says: ‘blessed are you who are poor’, and ‘blessed are you who are hungry,’ and ‘blessed are you who weep’, as he does in today’s Gospel, what exactly does he mean? Would any poor person or those starving and weeping with hunger in Afghanistan believe him? What’s ‘blessed’ about being poverty stricken when, to our way of thinking, the actress Mae West got it right when she said: ‘I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich. Believe me, rich is better.’

To understand what Jesus means, we need to remember that in his time the word ‘poor’ had a meaning different from ours today. Back then it was believed that a person became rich at the expense of someone else, that is by taking ‘wealth’ from those who were weaker and unable to defend themselves. Today it is wealth that brings power whereas in Biblical times power was the means for acquiring wealth.

So what Jesus and the Gospels mean by ‘rich’ is our word ‘greedy’ and for ‘poor’ it would be powerless.

When, in today’s Gospel, Jesus addresses poor, hungry, weeping and persecuted people and pronounces them ‘blessed’, he is not glorifying their condition. Instead, he is identifying with them and promising a reward from God for these unfortunate victims of injustice.  

We must not forget that the vast majority of people in the ancient world were poor. Furthermore, their miserable existence was brought about by the greed of others, and not by a malfunctioning economy, laziness or bad luck. They were victims of injustice and, as Jesus declared in the synagogue at Nazareth when he began his ministry, he had been sent by God to ‘bring the good news to the poor’. So the blessings he pronounces in today’s text for these were primarily words of consolation for those who desperately needed to hear the ‘good news’ he was bringing them. They might count for nothing in society now but they were special to God and their day would come … as his mother said to her cousin, Elizabeth, he would ‘cast down the mighty from their throne and raise the lowly’.  

In what’s known as Beatitudes, Jesus pronounces blessings for these afflicted people. But then he warns of forthcoming woes for those who have accumulated wealth at the expense of the poor. While, in Jesus’ eyes, the poor have a need for God that the greedy don’t – in their affluence their needs are so well provided for that they, unlike the poor, can become numb to their need for God.

It’s not a sin to be well-off if our wealth has not been unjustly acquired. However, Jesus reminds us throughout the Gospels that the more comfortably off we are then the more difficult it can be to rely on God more than on ourselves; and that our comfortable existence can blind us to the struggles and suffering of others. He not only sides with the poor but he also challenges us to be more aware of them; to support the hungry and destitute according to our means; and to protest against the social injustices that create or exacerbate poverty.

In the first reading, Jeremiah contrasts a sterile bush and a fertile tree to describe the two choices that lie before us – total self-reliance with little need for God brings spiritual death but a relationship with God expressed through the active love of others, especially the poor, brings life.

Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
13 February 2022

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