In the previous article, I examined the Lukan Beatitudes and Woes (Lk 6:20-26), with their stark juxtaposition of poor vs. rich, specifically in light of: (1) Jesus teaching regarding riches and poverty (in the Synoptic tradition), and (2) the thematic emphasis of rich and poor in the Gospel of Luke. With this study as background, I will proceed today with some fundamental points of interpretation. The very difficulty of the passage necessitates that these be taken as helpful observations (to facilitate additional study) rather than definitive rules.
1. “Poor” and “Rich” in the Beatitudes are, in fact, to be understood broadly in terms of socio-economic status.
Unlike the situation in the Matthean Beatitudes, which qualify poverty and hunger (“poor in the spirit”, “hunger and thirst for justice/righteousness”), in Luke we are certainly dealing with poverty in the customary sense (as physical/material need and want). In this regard, there are two aspects which are important to bear in mind:
(a) By comparison with much of modern (Western) society, life in the ancient world tended to be harsher and more precarious. Disease and natural disaster could wreak far greater havoc on a predominantly agricultural and pastoral society, one without our modern-day amenities. The finest social ideals in our civilization today are the product of centuries and millennia of thought and struggle; the earliest law codes (even that of the Mosaic Law [Torah]) had only just begun to address issues of equality and social justice. In ancient Palestine, for example, the poor and most vulnerable in society (the landless, the sick, the widows and orphans, etc), with less-developed institutional “safety nets” in place for protection, were especially prey to the powerful and unscrupulous (rulers, land-owners, etc [and their representatives]). The Old Testament Prophets thundered this theme of condemnation for the neglect and oppression of the poor repeatedly throughout the oracles and messages which have come down to us in Scripture. The traditional topos of (good)-poor vs. (wicked)-rich was not simply an artificial invention: it reflects the socio-economic situation for countless people over many generations. We should not be misled by the apparent naïvité of this juxtaposition; it may seem overly simplistic on the surface (painting with a very broad brush), but the dualism powerfully expresses an underlying and deep-seated conflict at the heart of ancient society.
(b) Jesus’ audience appears to have been drawn largely from the poorer classes; as indicated by the quotation from Isa 61 in Luke 4:16-19; 7:18-23 par, Jesus came (as the Anointed One) to proclaim “good news” to the poor. In the (Synoptic) Gospel tradition, he is repeatedly depicted associating with the lowly (including many who would have, in socio-religious terms, have been considered “sinners”). Numerous parables and teachings stem from the current economic situation in Palestine: of persons forced, more frequently, to work as tenant farmers for rich (absentee) landowners and their managers. Women, Gentiles, Samaritans and other foreigners would have faced prejudice and oppression as well—occasionally these are given special attention by Jesus (especially in the Gospel of Luke). Jesus appears to have demanded of his follows that they identify themselves, in various ways, with the poor and lowly in society (see below). To this we must add the fact that the earliest followers of Jesus faced estrangement and persecution from their own countrymen, which certainly added to the poverty and hardship of early Palestinian (Jewish) Christians. Nearly a generation after the Gospel had spread out into the Roman Empire, Paul continued to recognize a special need for the Christians in Jerusalem (sometimes identified as “the poor”, Rom 15:26; Gal 2:10; on this, see below). Poverty, then—voluntary or otherwise—was effectively the reality for many, if not most, of Jesus’ first followers (the first generation of Christians).
2. Jesus demanded of his followers that they identify themselves with the poor and lowly.
This is reflected by the two sides of his injunction to the “Rich Young Ruler” (Mark 10:21 par):
- “sell whatever you have…”
- “and give to the poor…”
“…and (come) here—follow me!” References to abandoning possessions and family ties occur frequently enough in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 1:16-20; 10:28-30; Luke 9:57-62; 14:26-33 etc & pars), disappearing soon after in the early Church, so that we can be certain (on objective grounds) that this reflects the authentic teaching and practice of the historical Jesus. The two sides of this command—the initial process of becoming Jesus’ disciple—are: (a) to give up one’s possessions and attachments (i.e. become poor), and (b) give to those others who are poor. In both practice and symbol, followers of Jesus identify themselves with the poor and unfortunate in society—a frequent theme illustrated by Jesus in his parables (Matt 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-37). This habit of self-sacrifice and voluntary poverty continued on in the first congregations of believers in Jerusalem, who (according to the account in Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-37ff) chose to share all their possessions in common, selling property and donating the proceeds for use by the Church as a whole. As Christianity spread into the cities across the Roman Empire, this practice was not maintained; indeed, there is little evidence of any emphasis on voluntary poverty in Paul’s letters. He presents a very different ideal of mutual cooperation and concern which did not, apparently, involve giving up property or possessions. Rather than abandoning family ties, the expectation was that whole families and households would together consist of believers, serving to build up a wider Christian Community. It is this model which continues today; though, on occasion, groups such as the Hutterites have attempted to live out the communalistic organization envisioned in the early Jerusalem Church (and, similarly, the Jewish Community of the Qumran scrolls). The ideal of (voluntary) poverty retains an important place within the monastic traditions as well.
Most of Paul’s references to riches and poverty are soteriological, related to the (spiritual) gifts and blessings bestowed by God in Christ (Rom 9:23; 10:12; 11:12, 33 etc). Explicit references to the poor are rare, largely limited to discussion of Paul’s collection project for the Christians in Jerusalem, see esp. Rom 15:26ff; 2 Cor 8-9—the latter passage draws upon the soteriological language of rich/poor, using the example of Christ (his incarnation, 2 Cor 8:9). Only in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim 6:9-10, 17-18) are riches as such addressed, with the customary warning. This theme is much more prominent in the epistle of James (Jas 1:9-10; 2:1-7; 4:1ff; 5:1-6), which is not so much a letter as a sermon or collection of teaching, with many points of contact with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain—this may indicate that James is earlier than the letters of Paul, and it almost certainly reflects a Palestinian (Jewish Christian) background.
3. “Poor” and “Rich” are not limited to socio-economic status, but connect with the experience of following Jesus.
Here I would point out several important, related aspects:
(a) “Poor” is not limited to material or economic poverty: it extends to include, in the words of the first Matthean Beatitude, “the poor in spirit”—this means that the follower of Jesus will embrace lowliness, meekness and humility, both in relationship to God and in service to others. This occurs as a specific point of emphasis throughout Jesus’ teaching; of many examples, see Matt 18:3-4; 23:12; Mark 9:33-37; 10:42-45; Luke 14:7-11; 17:7-10; 18:9-14 and pars (cf. also Lk 1:48, 52). Note especially the importance in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:1-18) of doing acts of justice and charity in secret, receiving recognition and reward from no one else but God.
(b) “Poor” is not limited to poverty per se, experienced for any reason: it extends specifically to those who experience hardship and suffering on account of Jesus, or for his sake—that is, because of following him. This, too, is stressed in a number of passages (e.g., Mark 8:34-37; 10:21, 29-30; 13:9-13; Matt 10:16-25 and pars).
(c) A life and attitude of poverty imitates the example of Christ (and of God the Father in Christ), in terms of: (i) the incarnation (his self-emptying, cf. Phil 2:5-11; 2 Cor 8:9), (ii) his sacrificial service for others (even unto death, Mark 10:45 par; Phil 2:8, etc). This is also an important theme in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (cf. the keynote verse Matt 5:48 / Lk 6:36).
4. The Beatitudes (and Woes) are intended as consolation for those who experience hardship in following Jesus.
There is some debate as to whether the Beatitudes (and Woes) represent descriptive or performative language—that is, whether Jesus’ sayings merely describe the situation and condition of people or serve to actualize it. The ancient dynamic-magical view of language, as well as the original context of the Beatitude form (a divine declaration at the Judgment after death), would suggest the latter; whereas the paraenetic (teaching and exhortation) purpose given to it would tend to frame the Beatitude as an exemplary description (or promise). There are two dimensions to the ethical/paraenetic purpose of the Beatitude (and Woe):
The first is to offer consolation and encouragement for those seeking to pursue the ethical path of justice/righteousness (in this case, following the teaching of Jesus). There may be no obvious and immediate material reward—indeed, it may require considerable deprivation, and result in mocking and mistreatment by others—but there is the promise of future (heavenly) repayment for all that one may endure in this life. The declarative form of the Beatitude has the interesting effect of announcing now that which will only be realized in the life to come. The question is whether the believer and faithful follower actually experiences the blessing now, or simply holds it as a promise/pledge for the future. The former situation is sometimes referred to as “realized eschatology” and represents an important component of New Testament teaching, with a two-fold aspect: (i) we do not have to wait for the next life to experience the reality of God’s truth and presence at work in our hearts and lives (for it is our identity now already); and (ii) the realization of what we already possess should lead us to think and act accordingly (in Paul’s language, “if we live in the Spirit, we should also go in order [i.e. walk] in the Spirit”, Gal 5:25).
5. The Woes serve both as a warning of Judgment to the world and as an ethical warning to believers.
This brings us to the second ethical/exhortational purpose of the Beatitude (and Woe): it serves as warning. But are the Woes addressed to the world at large (that is, primarily to the wicked [unbelievers]) or to the followers of Jesus (the righteous [believers])? An examination of other Woe-sayings of Jesus (Mark 13:17; Matt 11:21; 18:7 and pars) would suggest that it is the world at large he is addressing, occasionally pointed as a condemnation to would-be followers and supposedly righteous persons who act wickedly (Matt 23:13-29; Lk 11:42-46 [scribes and Pharisees]; Mark 14:21 par [Judas Iscariot]). The role of the Messiah in God’s Judgment of the nations (according to traditional Jewish thought) is sometimes overlooked; this very role is associated with Jesus in the Gospels, especially through the heavenly/eschatological figure of the “Son of Man” (Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62; Matt 13:37-41; 16:27-28; 19:28; 24:27-39; Lk 21:36 and pars). Psalm 1, which is in many ways paradigmatic for the Beatitudes, stresses that the wicked will not stand along with the righteous in the Judgment (v. 5f); the “Woe” reflects (or presages) this declaration of judgment on the wicked (or unfaithful follower), those who, in terms of the Lukan Woes (Lk 6:24-26) are wrapped up in the material things of this life.
However, the Woes (as part of the Lukan Beatitudes) are ultimately addressed to Jesus’ own disciples, and serve fundamentally as a warning not to be associated (that is, be identified) with the faithless and wicked of the world (Ps 1:1; and, for a similar instruction against following the ways of the world, repeated in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain, cf. Matt 5:46-47; 6:1, 5, 7, 16, 19, 25, 32, etc). In Matt 7:21-23, Jesus demonstrates the reality of false disciples claiming to act and work in his name, but who do not follow the will of God (as expressed through Jesus’ teaching). Specifically, the Woes emphasize the danger of believers becoming caught up with the manner and thinking of the rich, powerful, and haughty in the world—where there is indulgence and empty entertainment, derision and mockery, accumulation of wealth and luxury—there it is no place for the righteous. Paul frames the ethical instruction differently (see Gal 5:16-24, etc), but the basic point is the same: “walk about in the Spirit, and you will not complete the impulse of the flesh” (v. 16).