Blessed Are the Poor
Theme Blessed are they who realize they can’t depend on material things for happiness and, as a result, put all their trust in God.
Years ago, there was a movie called Quo Vadis. It starred Deborah Kerr and dealt with the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome. One day, after a dangerous filming session, a newspaper reporter asked Deborah Kerr, “Weren’t you frightened when the lions rushed toward you in the arena?” Deborah replied, “Not at all! I’d read the script, and I knew I’d be rescued!”
Deborah Kerr’s childlike trust in the stunt men assigned to protect her is a good illustration of the childlike trust that poor people had in God in biblical times.
To understand why Jesus dared to call these “poor” people blessed, we need to understand who Jesus had in mind when he referred to the “poor” in his Sermon on the Mount.
When ancient Jews used the word poor, they used it in a variety of ways and, hence, in different senses than we use it today.
We use it to refer to someone who is destitute. We use it to refer to someone who has no material wealth.
This kind of poverty—material poverty— is not a good thing. It’s an evil thing. It’s the kind of thing that every Christian ought to be trying to eradicate from our midst.
Jesus never intended to call material poverty blessed. He never intended to approve of the poverty that we see in the slums of our cities, and that he also saw in the cities of his time.
Who and what did Jesus have in mind, then, when he said, “Blessed are you who are poor”?
The Hebrew word for “poor” that Jesus used was the word ani. This word had an interesting history. It went through four stages of development before reaching the meaning that Jesus had in mind when he used it in the Sermon on the Mount.
In other words, the word poor in biblical times could be used in four different ways.
First, the word could be used as we use it: to refer to those people who were without material wealth.
Second, because these people were without material wealth, they were also without influence and power. They were without clout. And this gave rise to a second way that the word could be used. It could be used to refer to those people who were helpless and without influence.
Third, because these people were helpless, they were often oppressed and exploited. This led to a third meaning of the word poor. It could also be used to refer to the exploited people.
Fourth, because these people were without wealth, without help, and without protection, many of them put all their trust in God. This gave rise to the fourth and final meaning of the word poor. It described those persons who put their total trust in God.
And this is what Jesus meant in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.”
In other words, Jesus was referring to those people without wealth, without influence, and without protection, who put all their hope and trust in God.
Thus, the poor whom Jesus called blessed were those people who had come to realize that they couldn’t depend on the things of this world for happiness.
So, they sought their happiness in God alone. God meant everything to them. Material things meant next to nothing to them. These people, as Jesus said, were truly blessed.
And so, to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are you who are poor,” we might reword his statement this way: “Blessed are they who realize that they can’t depend on the things of this world for happiness and put all their trust in God.”
In other words, they are the people who find themselves in the same position in which Deborah Kerr found herself during the shooting of the dangerous scene in the movie Quo Vadis.
She knew that she was totally helpless. She knew that she couldn’t protect herself. So, she stopped worrying and simply placed all her trust in the stunt men assigned to rescue her.
In the same way, many of the poor in Jesus’ day stopped worrying and simply placed all their trust in God.
The childlike trust that these helpless people placed in God is like the trust that Jesus held out as a model to his disciples when he said:
“Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your lifespan?
“If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest? …’
“Your Father knows that you need [these things]. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these other things will be given you besides … For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” Luke 12:25-26, 30-31, 34
Let’s close with a story. It illustrates in a down-to-earth, concrete way what today’s gospel invites each one of us to do.
Lois Olson contracted polio at the age of ten. The entire lower part of her body was in a cast.
One night a tornado struck. She felt the bed and the entire house tremble. A feeling of utter helplessness swept over her. All she could do was lie there.
Just then her father appeared at the door. He took her in his arms, heavy cast and all, and carried her down the steps to the basement.
She said she can still see the beads of sweat form on his forehead and the blood vessels bulge out of his temples as he struggled under the heavy burden.
God is like that. He is always ready to help us, especially when we are powerless to help ourselves.
St Augustine expressed the trust we should have in God in these words:
“Trust the past to God’s mercy, the present to his love, and the future to his providence.”♥
(Source: Mark Link, SJ)