Blessed are you who are poor, 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.
My mother’s favorite cousin is Joan Shaklee Scott. In some ways it was an unlikely friendship. Four years apart in age, they were not close growing up in Colorado. Joan grew up in town, my mother on a farm. Joan also grew up in a Roman Catholic family. The large Protestant Shaklee family had a hard time accepting the marriage given the gap between Protestants and Catholics in the 1920s.
Cousin Joan became a nurse. While studying for her nursing boards she took classes in California and stayed with my parents when I was a baby. Joan told me she practiced pediatrics lessons on me. I have known Joan all my life.
I used to get a kick out of Joan and her Catholic heritage. When she would get excited about something, instead of responding with something like Good Lord, Joan would exclaim, Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I have tweaked that Catholic phrase slightly for today’s sermon.
You may know Joseph virtually disappears from the Gospels after the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of John mentions Joseph twice but otherwise the Gospels go dark on Joseph.
What does remain in the Gospels is Jesus’ commitment to care for the disenfranchised. The poor, the sick, the lame. Luke’s gospel places special emphasis on that commitment to justice, righteousness and equity.
Today’s Scripture is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. We are far more familiar with Matthew’s version in the Sermon on the Mount. Luke’s version is shorter and quite a bit more edgy.
Matthew includes nine beatitudes, beginning with
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew’s 3rd person beatitudes are about the poor, meek and mourning.
In Luke’s version Jesus offers only four direct address beatitudes.
You (not they as in Matthew)
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Matthew qualifies those who are blessed:
the poor in spirit,
those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
Luke’s Jesus is less ethereal, more focused on present human need:
Blessed are you who are poor
Blessed are you who are hungry now
Blessed are you who weep now
Blessed are you when people hate you.
Matthew’s poor in spirit have a distant reward (the kingdom of heaven). Matthew softens the immediacy of the problem. The hungry become those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Will they be filled with righteousness?
Luke cuts to the chase. Jesus addressed the poor, hungry and weeping. All but a very tiny percentage of the population in Jesus’ world were impoverished.
Archaeology has shown us that even those who had means were often malnourished.
While our English Bibles use the term blessing, the background is a word that means something more like “fortunate.”
Fortunate are you who are poor. Say what?
Fortunate are you who are hungry now. Really?
Fortunate are you who weep now.
Fortunate are you when people hate you.
Each case of want is reversed. To the poor belongs God’s kingdom. Not just in a spiritual sense. The hungry will be filled, the weeping will laugh.
But then, Jesus turns the tables.
Woe to you who are rich
Woe to you who are full now
Woe to you who are laughing now.
Woe to you when all speak well of you.
Luke understood Jesus to be living in a time when the empire—the Roman Empire—had crushed people in Galilee and Samaria and Judea. By changing the rules, the land of the small farmers had been gradually transferred from peasant farmers who fed their families to the wealthy friends of Roman elites who extracted wealth for luxury.
Galilean and Judean farmers became tenant farmers (share croppers). When rents became exorbitant the tenants became day laborers. When Jesus says: Fortunate are you who are poor, you who are hungry now, he is addressing starving people. People who have lost the means to grow food on their land. Their children and the weak among them were dying. And so yes, they are weeping now.
Read Luke carefully and we will know Jesus’ concern for the poor and hungry isn’t a minor theme in his ministry. Jesus majors in concern for immediate need, immediate hunger, poverty and sickness.
He learned it at the hand of his mother.
Remember Dr Bond’s December sermon about Mary. Pregnant with Jesus Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Mary’s Magnificat is a manifesto. She praises God for reversing the fortunes of the poor and hungry—causing them to exchange places with the rich and powerful.
This is hard language for us. Few of us are poor and hungry. When we hear these words some of us will think it is class warfare.
Yes, we are concerned for the poor and hungry. But it is not the fault of anyone (unless it is their own).
Jesus and Mary lived in a world where they understood that policies of the powerful and connected—those who were friends of Romans and high priests—their policies had exacerbated the always fragile economy of Galilee and Judea and plunged the people of the land into hunger and poverty and mourning. Mary drew on the tradition of her mother in the faith, Hannah the mother of Samuel. Hannah prayed a similar prayer before Samuel was born. Samuel grew up and anointed David. And now Mary was about to become the mother of a Son of David who would bring hope to his people.
Jesus grew up and left home. Last week Rob discussed Jesus’ baptism. Next week Leigh will talk about Jesus’ opening sermon from Isaiah
“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,
This is not language about sin. Jesus uses the prophets to draw on the same theme found in the Beatitudes and in the Magnificat. God offers good news to the poor and oppressed—Jesus delivers the good news.
These themes didn’t emerge in a vacuum. They are embedded in the Torah and the prophets.
Amos the prophet castigated powerful people who sold the righteous for silver and the needy for sandals. Those who trampled the poor into the dust of the earth. These actions are the same ones that happened in Jesus’ day under the Roman Empire.
Amos saw this as a lack of Justice and Righteousness. These words, and others like them, reveal a biblical thread that regarded it as a duty of Israel’s society to care for the marginalized. The poor. The hungry. The widows. The orphans.
Amos said hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the city gate, the town square. His most memorable line is let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
Isaiah used similar language. Each Advent we reaffirm the coming of Jesus by reading Isaiah. In these very passages we announce righteousness, justice, equity for the poor and oppressed.
In Isaiah 11, the messianic shoot from the remnant of the Davidic kings will be filled with the Spirit of the Lord. He will be one who sides with the poor and meek. Isaiah uses the words righteousness and equity to describe these actions.
Another of Isaiah’s messianic vision texts begins unto us a child is born. That child will grow up to establish justice and righteousness.
When the world is filled with justice, righteousness and equity,
the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid.
As most of you know I grew up in Southern California. My hometown included significant numbers of people of Mexican and Japanese ancestry. It had virtually no African American residents. In the summer of 1965 my family was vacationing in Montana near Yellowstone National Park. One sunny afternoon we were on a horse ride and stopped on a mountain top. While we rested the horses and had something to eat the adults in our group began to talk. And that is when I heard about the Watts Riots in Los Angeles. I had no idea what it was about. In the long hot summer of 1967 there were 159 riots having to do with race in the United States. These riots peaked in July in Newark NJ and Detroit MI.
In the fall of 1967, after the incredibly difficult summer, Martin Luther King Jr began to focus of his work on poverty. It was a very difficult time. Everyone was on edge. Part of the black community demanded change NOW. With violence if necessary.
Martin Luther King Jr had been engaged in the struggle for equality—regardless of the color of one’s skin—and suddenly events were overtaking his campaign. Desegregation had begun. But the world seemed to be exploding. Martin sought “middle ground between riots on the one hand and timid supplications for justice on the other.”
The director of the NAACP, Marian Wright, suggested a Poor People’s Campaign to MLK. That director is now better known as Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. King took up her suggestion. Desegregation and the right to vote had been King’s life work up to that point. The next step was to address economic equality. This made people nervous. Through nonviolent direct action, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference hoped to focus the nation’s attention on economic inequality and poverty. This campaign went beyond black and white. Leaders of American Indian, Puerto Rican, Mexican American and poor white communities pledged themselves to be part of the Poor People’s Campaign.
The goal was to bring together poor people of all colors focused on winning the right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity. King planned for an initial group of 2,000 poor people to descend on Washington, D.C., southern states and northern cities to meet with government officials to demand jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, and education for poor adults and children designed to improve their self-image and self-esteem.
Fifty years later some progress toward these goals has been accomplished. And yet the gap between poor workers and those of means has widened. Martin Luther King was assassinated before the campaign got off the ground. Thousands flocked to Washington DC and set up Resurrection City. Ethel Kennedy attended the Mother’s Day opening in May 1968. After Ethel’s husband Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June 1968, his funeral procession passed through Resurrection City.
Decades after the fact, my wife learned that her mother had gone to Resurrection City to help feed those who had gathered. Caryn’s family was living near Washington DC—her father was in the Coast Guard. So one day her mother got someone to watch her children and off she went to Resurrection City.
How do we connect these threads? Some of us hear justice and think it is a political demand for a brand of politics we don’t agree with. But let’s look at what Jesus was talking about.
Poverty, hunger and mourning, brought about by the loss of loved ones to the effects of poverty and hunger. Jesus and Mary and Amos and Isaiah expected their communities to live up to God’s ideals. The powerful must use every means at their disposal to bring about equity for the marginalized.
Think about classic passages in the New Testament.
Jesus fed thousands in miraculous feedings (see our bulletin cover). 5000 in one story, 4000 in another. And those numbers only counted the men.
Each week—including today—we say the Lord’s prayer. Two sets of petitions, one about God (may your kingdom come, may your will be done here and now on earth and not only in heaven). And a second set about us (give us this day our daily bread—food to survive today; forgive us our debts—not trespasses). The prayer we say each weak is about making everyone survives hunger and poverty.
More than 12% of the current US population lives below the poverty level. And what level of income qualifies? Less than $17,000 for a two-person household. $25,000 for a family of four. A minimum wage worker, working fulltime for $7.25 per hour makes $15,000 per year. Less than the poverty level for a two-person household. Two people at that rate make $30,000. Slightly above the poverty level for a family of four. But then who takes care of the children while both adults are working?
These numbers are part of the reason so many who fall into poverty cannot get out. It is part of the reason there are so many homeless. Mental health contributes—but poverty among families pushes people into food insecurity and shelter inequality.
A long biblical tradition calls on us to care for the poor and marginalized. Amos and Isaiah and Hannah. Jesus and Mary. We are living out the biblical call for justice, righteousness and equality. We are engaged in refugee resettlement. In feeding the homeless. In building houses for those who need them. Our work is not done. Let us answer God’s call