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July 4, 2011 / Daniel

Poverty and the Sermon on the Mount

Притча о Лазаре. 1886

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Joel’s comment on Facebook prompted me to think some more on Luke’s account of the Beatitudes.

The theme of reversal is even more evident in the gospel of Luke.  In many ways, Luke’s account is more problematic.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus blesses the poor, the hungry, and the weeping.  He curses the rich, the well-fed, and the laughing (6:20-26).

In Luke 16, Jesus tells the story of Lazarus and the rich man.  Based on the Beatitudes, Lazarus is an ideal candidate for God’s blessing.   He is a poor beggar.  He is hungry.   Relies on scraps from the rich man’s table.   And he mourns.  He is covered with sores.     The rich man is an ideal candidate for Jesus’ curses.    He’s rich and well-fed (16:19).

Abraham’s response to the rich man in v.  25 echoes back to the Beatitudes.   ” Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.”   It will be a time of reversal.

The problem with Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is that I identify more with the second group of people.   When I consider wealth from a global perspective, I’m a pretty wealthy person.  Moreover, I often tend to think that poverty is self-inflicted and the result of laziness.  The book of  Proverbs has several passages which confirm my suspicions.   For instance, Proverbs 20:13 says, “Do not love sleep or you will grow poor; stay awake and you will have food to spare.”

And Proverbs 23:20-21 says,

Do not join those who drink too much wine
or gorge themselves on meat,
for drunkards and gluttons become poor,
and drowsiness clothes them in rags.

Proverbs operates on the retribution principle.  If you’re good, then God blesses you.  If you’re bad, then God curses you.   Here poverty is seen as the result of laziness, drunkenness and gluttony.

However, Proverbs also has statements that warn the rich to be kind to the poor.  Proverbs  19:17 says,  “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done.”

Proverbs 14:31 says, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”

The more that I study poverty in Scripture, the more I realize that it is a complex issue.  Our view of poverty must be nuanced.  Poverty stems from several factors–oppression, cruelty, laziness, drunkenness, etc.   Sometimes these are connected.   In the gospel of Luke, oppression appears to be the main issue.

But I know that I need to be careful how I read these texts, because it’s easy for my cultural baggage to get in the way.    I’m much more comfortable with texts that teach the retribution principle than I am with texts like the Beatitudes.  So it’s easy to justify myself and to twist the text to get myself off the hook.   But I know that things are more complicated than that.  I need to be confronted by Jesus’ words in Luke’s gospel.   We must be careful not to domesticate the teachings of Christ.   I’m not sure what the solution is, but we must come to it by seeking the whole counsel of God.

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