The Beatitudes – through the lens of a narrow focus
Rev. Jim Ryan, Ph.D.
Today, I want to make a small point. I’ll leave it to others and to another day to ponder the larger, more comprehensive, message of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) for spiritual life and living.
It’s the first Beatitude that has drawn me in this time. The blessing is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the reign of God is theirs.” Even smaller is the question, “What does poor in spirit mean?” I find, once I go exploring, that the answer to this question has no small amount of respondents. I call them speculators, for when you ask the question you find answers from them that quickly launch into spiritual terms, as in when poor almost immediately means “spiritually bankrupt before God,” or they substitute humility for poverty, or some other like-directed spiritualizing reflections. (Reflections from websites of those who advertise themselves as Christian answer-givers.) As I said, I will leave these big picture reflections aside and focus on the narrow point, which is to ask, “What is the spirit of the poor?” Not the spiritually poor, not the “self-beating-up sinner” kind of poor. Simply, what does Jesus have in mind when he speaks of the spirit of the poor?”
I decided to look for other words Jesus used to describe the spirit of the poor and I landed on Mark 12:44. It is on the occasion of Jesus sitting with his disciples at the temple in Jerusalem. He pointed out to them the poor widow who approached the treasury table and gave her very small contribution, a pittance of those who had given before her. Jesus said, “She gave from her want, all she had to live on.” Jesus observed her spirit which was to give from her substance and not from some disposable income, which she did not have in any case.
Rather than spiritualizing the poor as persons required to acknowledge a bankruptcy before God or wallowing in a confession of sinfulness, Jesus teaches that the real spirit of the person who is poor is to give from want, from giving up necessary things in order to provide for others.
When one relies on Jesus’ own words one discovers the lesson taught us in liberation theology which is that the Beatitudes, as a message from Jesus, are a Call To Action. No more, the spiritual meanings that carry us away from the real life of the poor or that exclude actual socio-economic conditions from spiritual life. Jesus observes that the poor in spirit give actual money, a resource required to live on, and that money comes from their real day-to-day living.
Gustavo Gutierrez, a founder of liberation theology, has acknowledged that the starting point for Jesus’ Call To Action is indeed poverty, which is to say the socio-economic condition of poor persons. The advantage of starting there is one may not exclude these conditions from one’s living out Jesus’ call. Any theology that neglects this for the sake of spiritualizing into ascetic stratospheres may be well crafted, say, to convince people of their sinfulness but this is not the teaching, nor the advice of Jesus.
I said I wanted to focus on the small point, so let’s stay with the widow who gives from her substance, a person whose spirit is generous and just, perhaps because of her poverty.
This is a difficult decision – this giving from one’s substance. And with more resources, with more money, the questions become more difficult to address. Clearly one must be responsible for a living that is supportable. If I gave away everything that I possess, in Jesus’ estimation I would be fully prepared to be his follower. But, let’s face it, I would be dependent upon others who retain their possessions for my life’s support. The evidence is strong, for example, that those first preachers of the Word, those apostles and disciples on their missionary journeys, depended on, among many, those who are referred to as “influential women” for their material needs. The balance of giving from substance with maintaining one’s life is a delicate one – one that is meant to be a challenge for a follower of Jesus.
It’s a legitimate question to ask how to maintain the balance – what to do with the financial resources one possesses. So, here’s the finer point on a fine point. Let’s take 401(k)s and/or inherited wealth as examples. By definition the poor don’t possess these resources which may be assessed as measures of wealth. When politics and finances intersect in the United States certain messaging comes into play. I’ve heard it said of the predecessor of the current President, “I don’t care what he did in office, all I know is my 401(k) increased in value on his watch.” When it comes to inherited wealth a message of one of the major political parties in this country is that they will protect people from “death taxes” meaning they will keep taxes as low as they can on money and wealth that is passed from one generation to the next. Yes, keeping money and wealth personal and in-hand is its own industry in America, a place where the only thing worse than spiritual bankruptcy is financial bankruptcy.
Remember, I just want to make a narrow point.
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
A Prayer Inspired by the Beatitudes by Lisa Ann Moss Degrenia
Make us, O Christ,
One with you and each other
One in your great work of peace
One in your words and ways
One in commitment to reconciliation and righteousness
One in facing of falsehood
One in the bloody bonds of persecution
One in your joy
One in your promises
One on earth and one in heaven