February 13, 2022

Blessed are the poor

Passage: Jeremiah 17:5–10, Luke 6:17–26

Blessed are the poor.
Blessed are the hungry.
Blessed are those who weep.
Woe to the rich.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

Wow? Maybe we just need to stop there for a moment and pick ourselves off the floor, because if there is ever a passage of scripture that packs a punch, this is it.
This scripture feels to me like I have just been sucker punched and I am reeling.

And as an interpreter of the text, the first inclination is to find out what it really means, because surely it doesn’t mean what it says. Surely there is some metaphorical interpretation like what Matthew writes in his gospel.

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Yeah, I wanted it to be about spiritual poverty, not literal poverty, and I want to believe that God loves the rich and is not out to get them.
And the scary thing was that as I dug into the text there was no relief from the literalness of these powerful words.
Jesus meant them to be literal and powerful and shake people up, because he felt the world, and his society needed not only to be shook up, but to die, and be born again to a new way of being.

Poverty. Poor.
One way to access the text is to spiritualize, not in the sense of that it is not about poverty, but to apply it to your own life and your own experience of poverty and/or need.
I have on my reading list when I ever get Study Leave again a book entitled, Life at the End of Us versus Them by Marcus Peter Rempel. Rempel lives on a communal farm in Manitoba where they do their best to live off the land. They don’t have indoor plumbing but they do have an interesting life. Rempel has a chapter with a sub-section entitled “The Meaning of Poverty.” I am going to quote from it.
I poop in a bucket. Does this mean that I am poor? I also co-own 144 acres of farmland. Does this mean I’m rich? I spend my summers bending my back, working outside, with dirt under my fingernails. Does that mean I’m poor? I find restaurant food sub-par compared to my regular diet of made-from-scratch meals, loaded with meat and organic produce. Does that mean I am rich? Our family’s after-tax income last year was about $25,000. The poverty line for a Canadian family our size is calculated at $34,829. Does that mean we are poor? We own two vehicles, one of which is a 2003 Mercedes Benz SUV, sold to us for a silly low price because the seller likes us, and I think because she thinks we are poor. Does that mean we are rich?
I suspect that all of these are beside the point. What makes me a wealthy man, I think, has much to do with the fact that I am not ashamed of any of the above facts, but instead am pleased with them. Okay, the Mercedes is kind of embarrassing—but also kind of fun.
Our family used to sing Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” at the top of our lungs while driving down the road in our plebeian Honda Civic:

O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz
My friends all drive Porsches,
I must make amends
Worked hard all my lifetime,
no help from my friends
O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.

Joplin’s lampooning of the “health and wealth” Gospel was so delicious to us as we laughed at the silliness of praying to a great shiny Car Dealer in the Sky. And then, when we weren’t looking for it, we got a Mercedes, which we have taken to be God’s laugh on us.
But back to the bucket-pooping, exhibit A in this goofy, but serious, argument about the meaning of poverty. It’s not that gross. We cover our business with sawdust, so it’s really no more smelly or unsightly than a kitty litter box. When the bucket is full, I add the contents to a pile covered with straw, where all that carbon, and nitrogen are digested by a community of microorganisms that turn filth into fertility. This eventually goes on our hay-land, making it bloom a verdant green wherever the humanure has fallen. These are things that make me happy.
But here’s where things get complicated. For while I am happily closing the loop of my poop, Aboriginal communities in Manitoba are trying to get my larger and privileged Mennonite faith community to lend their voice to those of local chiefs, who are challenging the government to address the scandal that in the twenty-first century, Aboriginal reserves still lack basic plumbing. That is to say, they have to poop in buckets.
Rempel ends the chapter with his own Beatitude: Blessed are the bucket-poopers. They shall inherit the compost.

Rempel, Marcus Peter. Life at the End of Us Versus Them: Cross Culture Stories (p. 133-4 and p 141). FriesenPress. Kindle Edition.

I will come back to Rempel later but note a couple of things in his reflection on the meaning of poverty, that wealth for him is about the freedom to make choices to limit himself for the good of this world and others.

And while his choice to poop in a bucket is his choice, he finds it lamentable that Aboriginal communities don’t have that choice, because they don’t have adequate plumbing.

In thinking about my own life and its struggle with money, I have never been hungry. In many respects it would seem that I had enough resources. I do know now that my mother struggled financially when we lived in England and while we always ate, I knew we didn’t have as much as most of the kids in my school.

And as a minister I can honestly say that we struggled with money for a good portion of the first twenty years of ministry. Sometimes there was enough, but just enough; and there were times when we couldn’t make ends quite meet. Being a minister with four young children, and one’s spouse staying home and looking after children, and living on minimum the church can pay, well frankly it isn’t enough.
And I know what it is like to have a ton of debt and struggle with that.
And I am truly grateful that I am not financial struggling any more, but honesty would say that my decision to not retire is partly a financial one, so that I am not back to financially struggling.

Many of you know what it is like at some point in your life to struggle with money or debt, and yet many of you also know what it is like to turn the corner and be more comfortable.

I wanted you to be in touch with some of your feelings around struggling with money as we enter the gospel text today.

A text that on one level is straightforward and bold, but on another level has some nuances, and even contradictions and Jesus makes us uncomfortable with the ways things are.

The first thing to note in the text is who is there in this sermon on the level: a great crowd of his disciples and multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.
Presumably this is in Galilee and Judea is about a 100 mile walk south and Sidon would be maybe just as far a walk north and west, depending on where one was in Galilee. A great crowd covering 200 miles, Unlikely.
And Tyre and Sidon are Gentile places traditionally enemy territory. Again, it seems unlikely there were lots from there.
In fact, Luke when it comes to geography is a little suspect because in chapter 4 Jesus is in Galilee, and in chapter 5 he is in Galilee, but at the end of chapter 4 Luke says that Jesus is preaching in the synagogues in Judea, a 100 miles away give or take.
So, take this more metaphorically. Jesus is preaching to a very diverse crowd of people from different places, different walks of life, different ethnicities, etc. even different levels of faith.

Blessed are the poor. What does that mean? They are blessed now, or they will be blessed in the future. Is the blessing a spiritual blessing even though they are poor? Or is it that they will be blessed with more wealth?

Interesting the Greek doesn’t actually give the verb. Literally it is: Blessed, the poor. English Bibles add the verb are.

The Greek word for blessing is Makarios. We have trouble translating it. The most common translation is blessed or a variation of it, and the other translation is happy.
I do not like the translation happy. I don’t think that is what Jesus is going for. The problem with Blessed is that blessings mean so many different things to people. What kind of blessing is this?
So let us look at the word poor. In Greek Ptochos. I’ll spell it p-t-o-c-h-o-s.
There are a couple of words for poor in Greek. There is the word penes and the word ptochos.
The penes were those who worked menial labour and struggled to make ends meet. They worked the fields often and sometimes didn’t have work.
The penes worked and were poor in contrast to the rich who did not work.
But the ptochos were in another class altogether of poverty. They were the ones reduced to begging, destitute of all resources. No home. No farm. No family. No family is key. If you family disowned you, you would be reduced to the begging poor.

And the begging poor, the ptochos, were considered to be like the unclean, or the untouchables, of the ones God cursed. They were poor because the theology was that God had made them poor. They were bad dishonorable people.

So, when Jesus says Blessed, the poor. I think the best sense of that is that these beggars, these untouchables, these unclean, these sinners, are humans, and have value, have worth, have status as God’s children and are entitled to the blessings God has for his people.
Jesus is restoring honour to the dishonorable.

Therefore. Woe to you who do not respect the poor, who treat the poor as others, who treat them as unworthy or evil, or bad, or outcasts or as untouchables.

Jesus doesn’t exactly say it like that, but his woes to the rich are about a system where the rich think God has made them rich and blessed them and not the poor…
…a system where they think they have every right to take from others and keep them in luxury…
…a system where the rich point the fingers at others as the bad guys…
…a system where there are the good guys and the bad guys and they are the good guys.
… a system of point fingers at others and “othering them”
…a system that uses violence to keep the system the system.
…a system that justifies violence against the poor, the different, the outsider, the enemy, the outcast, the sick, the unclean and the dishonourable…

And Jesus talks of a new system. The Greek word is Basileia, which is usually translated Kingdom in the bible.
But today I will say a new system, a new order, a new way of humans being together, which is not characterized by Empire, by domination, by cast, strata, or pecking order, but one in which even the very least are honoured and have status and are entitled not to begging but daily bread.
A new system of love. Of peace, of reconciliation, of respecting difference, of forgiveness, of one family instead of “othering.”
Notice the plethora of people, the conglomerate of people. That is significant in Luke’s gospel. The gospel is for all as Jesus is uniting all in one family.
Notice that Jesus addresses not the poor specifically as the poor, but Jesus addresses the disciples, the followers, and there is the implication that this whole crowd, even the enemies are disciples and says blessed are the poor.
He is not separating the poor, but saying that we are all one family and if there are poor, then we all have a poverty that needs to be addressed.
Jesus is not creating a new system of domination where the poor now dominate and control the rich. The rich are not bad. They are part of the family too.
But woe to those who only orient themselves around money, or possessions, or power, or fame and forget that we are all family, because those who do, lose their humanity, and in their own way separate themselves from the human family and can be very lonely and unfulfilled and turn out to be hungry, starving for fulfillment and good human relationships.

Getting back to Marcus Peter Rempel and his pooping in a bucket. His argument as I understand it is in part that real wealth is the ability to choose poverty. He advocates a return to the land, to gardening and to being self-sustaining, and away from production and development.

And so, I wonder what it might be like to choose to move towards poverty instead of towards wealth, for the good of one’s soul and the good of one’s neighbour.
Here is a quote from a Kyle Chandler-Isacksen who has chosen voluntary poverty to make a more sustainable earth. https://www.motherearthnews.com/sustainable-living/nature-and-environment/choosing-voluntary-poverty-zbcz1501/

We live without electricity. It doesn’t come into our home. Our meter has been removed. We have created an environment that starts at zero electricity. Why we do this is, on the one hand, to withdraw support from Big Energy (think coal mining, acid rain, oil tankers, wealth inequality, and so on) as well as limit the amount of cheap electric consumer goods (made in China, out of plastic…) that we’d inevitably welcome if our outlets supplied the juice. On the other hand, we are moving towards more and deeper connection with ourselves and with nature and spirit (the seasons, our natural biorhythms, light and dark, long rests in winter, time outside, plants and animals…). Living this way is so lovely I generally choke-up about it when I share this with others. Oh, and we also don’t have an electricity bill. So, without the switch and the plug right there calling me to use them, I don’t. Just by preventing electricity from entering our home we have brought our lives so much more in alignment with our values. For us this means a huge increase in our quality of life and a much lower impact on our precious earth.

That may seem pretty radical and I am not suggesting we all do that, but encourage us to think what it might be like to live in a new world system where love rules, where everyone is equal, and what sacrifices it might take.

I too know what it is like to let money control, dominate and run my life, instead of Christ,
I know what it is like to think a purchase will make me happy, and to find it has momentary pleasure and no lasting value.
I know what it like to think I have much to learn from the wealthy and not from the poor. I know what it is like to orient my life around self. I am human after all.

And so, today’s sucker punch is designed to knock you and me on our keisters, and think hard about what is really important and who has value and whether we are part of the old system of domination and empire and trying to fit in, or part of Christ’s system of love of neighbour where everyone is our neighbour.
I think it was Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian Minister, novelist, preacher and even humorist who wrote: “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the fact that you are loving, that you are including, that you value every human, that you are changing the system, that you are not sitting still, that you are helping the environment, that you are sharing your resources, that you choose to move towards poverty, that you are forgiving enemies, and being reconciled to people and working for justice, and that you are non-violent and that you are obeying love.
Rejoice, because you are being fully alive, fully human and fully loving, and that indeed is heaven. That is Christ.