Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
This sermon series is called, “The Truth about God.” How do we find the truth about God? We look to the Word of God: the Bible. But even then we need to remember that the Bible was written by people: inspired by God but limited by their humanity. If we really want to know the truth about God we have to look to Jesus: the Word-made-flesh. John 1:18 reminds us that, “No one has ever seen God. It is the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” So, we turn to the Gospels, our very best source for the things Jesus did and said while he walked among us, but even then we may not get the whole story. Near the end of John’s Gospel the author writes: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
If you have ears to hear it, John is admitting that he has picked and chosen from among the many things Jesus did in order to achieve his own objectives, and his primary objective is to convince his readers to believe in Jesus. When I was teaching religion to college freshmen I used to say, “John has written this entire Gospel to make a believer out of you. If you’re not a believer by this point, the Gospel will have failed, and you wouldn’t want that to happen, would you? Well, would you?” And that’s when they remembered that I was not only an adjunct professor, but also a Baptist preacher. Making believers was John’s objective, but the other Gospel writers may have had different objectives. They may have picked and chosen from among the things Jesus did as well, and according to John there was no shortage of those things. The last verse of his Gospel makes the incredible claim that if every one of the things Jesus did were written down, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
This idea that the early evangelists were making decisions about what they would include or exclude from their Gospels is essential to a field of study known as redaktiongeschichte, a German word that means, literally, “the history of editing.” It begins with the idea that Mark was the first Gospel written, and that Matthew and Luke each had a copy of Mark and an anonymous collection of the sayings of Jesus, which scholars refer to simply as “Q.” From those two sources, and from their own sources, Matthew and Luke wrote Gospels that would achieve their own purposes. Matthew, for example, seems to want his readers to understand that Jesus was the “prophet like Moses” mentioned in the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 18:15-19), and that his life and ministry were a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. For Luke, Jesus is the one who levels the mountains and lifts up the valleys. He is the great equalizer, and in Luke’s Gospel Jesus seems to have a special concern for women and the poor.
So maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount. There he is, just like Moses, handing down the Word of the Lord. And maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that in Luke Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Plain, that level place where the valleys have been lifted up and the mountains brought low. It shouldn’t surprise us that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” since so much of that Gospel has a spiritual concern, or that in Luke’s Gospel Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor,” since, as a doctor, Luke would have been concerned for the most vulnerable in society.
Some people want to know which one Jesus actually said, but I want to know why it couldn’t have been both. John tells us that if everything Jesus did and said had been written down the world itself would not contain the books. Isn’t it possible that on one occasion Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor,” and on another occasion said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit?” Both kinds of people need blessing, and Jesus certainly knew both kinds of people, but the thing Luke remembered, the thing he held onto and included in his Gospel, was Jesus’ blessing on those who are actually, materially poor.
Gustavo Gutiérrez was born in Peru in 1928, a mixed-race child who suffered with osteomyelitis and spent much of his adolescence in a wheelchair, but it was in those days that he learned the value of hope through prayer and the love of family and friends, the things that made him want to become a priest. He completed his theological studies in Europe and was ordained in 1959. When he came back to Peru he was confronted with what he called the Latin American “reality”: the fact that 60 percent of the people in his country lived in poverty and 82 percent of those lived in “extreme poverty,” currently defined as living on less than two dollars a day. He began to focus his efforts on the recovery of Christ’s command to “love your neighbor” as the central axiom of the Christian life and became known as one of the founders of Latin American Liberation Theology.
His impact on the church’s relationship to the poor was huge. My own father, in his ministry among the poor in Appalachia, would often cite the teachings of Gustavo Gutierrez, especially these three bottom-line principles:
First, material poverty is never good but an evil to be opposed. “It is not simply an occasion for charity,” Gutierrez said, “but a degrading force that denigrates human dignity and ought to be opposed and rejected.”
Second, poverty is not a result of fate or laziness, but is due to structural injustices that privilege some while marginalizing others. “Poverty is not inevitable,” Gutierrez insisted; “collectively the poor can organize and facilitate social change.”
Third, poverty is a complex reality and is not limited to its economic dimension. “To be poor is to be insignificant,” Gutierrez said. “Poverty means an early and unjust death.”[i] Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino once said that for people who are extremely poor, “When they wake up, they know that because of poverty they may die before the day is over. That is the greatest injustice.” As Gandhi put it, “Poverty is the greatest form of violence.”[ii]
Which raises the question: Who is inflicting this violence? Well, it’s whoever creates and controls the “structural injustices” mentioned in Principle Two, the ones that “privilege some while marginalizing others,” and in every era those people have been the rich and the powerful. That was certainly true in Jesus’ time. When he talks about the poor he is talking about the nation of Israel in general, crushed under the heel of the oppressive Roman Empire. Most of the people he was preaching to that day were living in extreme poverty. Most of them didn’t have two sticks to rub together, much less two dollars. Luke tells us that “they had come to hear him and be healed of their diseases” (vs. 18), and let me just say, you don’t go to a faith healer if you can afford a doctor. You go to a faith healer when you have no other options. These people had come to hear Jesus and be healed of their diseases, but they didn’t know they were going to hear this:
“Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus says, “for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh….. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25). It sounds like the start of a revolution, doesn’t it? As if Jesus were inciting the crowd to march on Rome, to drag Caesar off the throne and dismantle the Roman Empire, to establish God’s kingdom in its place—an upside-down kingdom where the poor will have power, and the hungry will be filled, and those who are weeping will laugh for joy. It sounds like the start of a revolution, but it’s not, and while Jesus would insist that ultimately God’s kingdom will come, I think he would also insist that it will not come “with swords’ loud clashing or roll of stirring drums.” I think he would say that God will change the world the way he always has, one human heart at a time.
Think back to those other times when God’s people needed help. What did God do for his people in Egypt when they were enslaved and oppressed? He worked on Pharaoh’s hard heart until it was broken by grief and Pharaoh was willing to let God’s people go. And what did he do for his people after Nebuchadnezzar had carried them off into exile? He put it into the heart of Cyrus, the conquering Persian king, to let them return to Israel. And what did he do for his people who were suffering under Roman occupation? He sent Jesus to say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In each case God made it clear that his own heart was on the side of those who were captive, impoverished, enslaved, and oppressed. When Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor,” he is once again telling us the truth about God.
Mark Gordon has a friend named Trish who sometimes asks him difficult questions after church. Mark is a committed Catholic layman, but also the president of a local soup kitchen in his town. One Sunday, after hearing a reading like this one from Luke 6, Trish asked him, “Does God love poor people more than he loves rich people?” “On the surface, it would seem that he does,” Mark writes. “In Scripture, there are nearly 3,000 verses concerned with justice for the lowly, the oppressed, and the stranger. Almost 400 of those verses specifically refer to “the poor.” In Deuteronomy 15:11, the Lord commands his people to “be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” The Psalmist declares that “the Lord hears the cry of the poor” (Psalm 34) and calls upon God to “defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed” (Psalm 82). The author of Proverbs insists “he who oppresses the poor shows contempt for his Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14) and “the righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (Proverbs 29).”[iii]
All that scriptural evidence could leave you with the impression that God loves the poor more than he loves the rich, but that’s not what Mark Gordon said to Trish. He said, “NO! God loves Bill Gates every bit as much as he loves the lowliest beggar on the streets of Calcutta. The ‘preferential option for the poor’ [that Gustavo Gutierrez talks about] isn’t about God loving one person more than another. No, the option for the poor is about providing a counterweight to the inordinate prestige and privilege our fallen world confers on the wealthy and powerful. It is a call to justice, which in the biblical tradition implies the restoration of balance and equity in the relationships between individuals and among social classes.”[iv]
So, the truth about God is not that God loves the poor more than the rich, but that God loves the poor just as much as he loves the rich. He wants the poor to enjoy every benefit and every blessing that he has to offer and he hates it when those who have wealth and power use it to push poor people away from the table of life. He loves it when those at the table make room for the poor and pull up a chair. Jesus has shown us that way. He loved the poor and spent most of his time with them. And when we who are his body on earth embody the way of Jesus, it warms God’s heart. When we don’t, the heart of God is broken.
Not long ago I was driving to church when I saw a man sitting at the corner of Monument Avenue and Arthur Ashe Boulevard holding a sign that read, “Brain Cancer Patient.” He didn’t look well. He was sitting on one of those Rollator walkers that doubles as a chair. His head was in his hands and as I drove by I could see the scars from his surgery. I pulled over at the next available spot and then walked back to talk to him. I was almost angry. I thought, “Here is this man practically sitting in the shadow of First Baptist Church—a brain cancer patient!—and if we haven’t done anything to help him I am going to be ashamed and embarrassed.” I said hello and then recognized him as Michael, someone my daughter had told me about, someone I had talked to before in another location. I said, “Michael, has this big church on the corner done anything for you?”
And then I held my breath, waiting for his response, and thinking that if he said no I might just have to resign, because obviously I haven’t taught you anything about the love of Jesus in all these years. But he said, “Oh, yes! I go over there all the time to get food, and clothes, and hot showers. They’re the ones who gave me this Rollator. I couldn’t get along without it.” And I breathed a sigh of relief. I mean, we’re a long way from full equity. Michael doesn’t have the things most of us have. But he has a place at the table of life, and somebody at First Baptist helped him pull up a chair, and on that day at least (I know because I asked him), Michael felt blessed.
Thanks be to God.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] John Dear, “Gustavo Gutierrez and the Preferential Option for the Poor,” National Catholic Reporter, November 8, 2011 (https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/road-peace/gustavo-gutierrez-and-preferential-option-poor).
[iii] Mark Gordon, “Does God Love the Poor More than the Rich?” Aleteia, January 7, 2014 (https://aleteia.org/2014/01/07/does-god-love-the-poor-more-than-the-rich/)