Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel with the Beatitudes. (The teachings in Matthew 5–7 were no doubt given by Jesus in many different contexts and the biblical writer gathered them into this form.) The first beatitude is: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” “Blessed” means something like “spiritually well-off,” (the translation “happy” doesn’t do it justice).
Luke’s version simply reads: “Blessed are the poor . . .” Was Jesus referring to the material poor or to a poverty of spirit before God? The Hebrew word that is behind the concept of “poor” conveys both of these meanings and both would have been intended.
In Luke’s version there is a corresponding judgment: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24). How many sermons have you heard on this text? In Luke’s Gospel Jesus often speaks about the dangers of wealth. In one place he tells his disciples, “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (Luke 12:33). (I don’t know of one biblical inerrantist who takes that literally.) Jesus instructs one would–be disciple who was very wealthy to give away all his possessions, and when he is unable Jesus responds: “How hard it is for those who have wealth (this would include most of us who are reading this) to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24). In numerous contexts Jesus announces that the first now will later be last (when the kingdom comes), and the last now will later be first.
If we take Jesus’ words and actions in the Gospels seriously it is clear that Jesus championed the cause of the poor (see Luke 4:17-19). There is no question that he exercised a preferential, perhaps even a prejudicial, compassion for the poor and the oppressed. Proponents of a health and wealth gospel find no support in the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth.
Now, I don’t plan to give away all my possessions anytime soon. (If I attempted it, my wife and kids would probably do me in to get the insurance money—maybe not.) But the fact is: I may not be wealthy judged by American standards, but from a global perspective I am one of the “rich” (the haves) of the world. That means that I am complicit to some degree in the disproportion and inequity of the world, and therefore, come under the indictment of Jesus. And simply cultivating a spirit of humility, generosity, and gratitude does not remove the indictment.
American disciples of Jesus who take Jesus’ life and words seriously must live with this tension, and “spiritualizing” all Jesus’ teaching on the subject is no solution. In the upside down kingdom of God the poor have the advantage, says Jesus.
If it is the role of the prophet “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” then Jesus is surely being the prophet in his teachings regarding possessions (afflicting us preachers as much as anyone). Keep in mind too, that the call to relinquish possessions involves the relinquishment of the power, prestige, and honor that goes with them. It’s hardly ever just about money; it’s what accompanies it.
When the rich man walked away sad, the disciples exclaimed: “Who then can be saved?” (Meaning: Who can be spiritually well-off/whole/blessed?) Most of us would like Jesus to pat them on the back and say, “It will be okay.” Instead Jesus says, “Well, it is impossible for human beings, but it is possible with God” (Luke 18:26-27).
There is a spiritual principle at work here: The less we are possessed by our possessions, the more God is able to possess us. The less hold (attachment) we have on our possessions, the more we are able to lay hold of the kingdom of God, and find our joy in being the companions of Christ and collaborators in helping bring in God’s new world.