The haves and the have-nots

Privilege. If you have it, it’s easy to take for granted. The so-called American Dream is built on the idea that if people work hard and make the most of their opportunities, they’ll succeed. And there are certainly plenty of stories of people doing just that. But the hard reality is some people are born into environments that provide fewer opportunities and resources. In life as in poker, people must play the hands they are dealt, and the hands are not equal.

That’s what can make the Beatitudes of Jesus (Matt 5:3-12) so difficult to fathom. What does he mean when he says that those who are “poor in spirit” are blessed (vs. 3, NRSV)? It certainly doesn’t sound like any version of blessedness we would know. How are “those who mourn” (vs. 4) blessed? The meek (vs. 5)? Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (vs. 6)? How does any of this count as blessedness?

Should we read this as just some kind of poetic spiritual metaphor? Not if we read the parallel versions of the sayings in Luke, which are even more striking. There, it’s not the “poor in spirit” but the “poor” who are blessed—there’s no mention of spirit (Luke 6:20). It’s not those who “mourn,” but those who actually “weep” (vs. 21). It’s not those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” but those who are just plain “hungry” (vs. 21).  

How do we make sense of this?

We steep ourselves in the Psalms and the prophets, as Jesus probably did.

. . .

Consider, for example, Jesus’ statement, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5). This is an adaptation of Psalm 37:11, where the psalmist is encouraging those of God’s people who are tempted to fret or get angry when they see wicked people succeeding in life. The word translated as “meek” doesn’t mean people who refuse to assert themselves or use their power—it means people who have no power, who are oppressed, poor, and the like. These people, in the Hebrew, are the anawim, the poor ones. These are people who must rely upon God, because they have nowhere else to turn.

This is a theme that runs through the Psalms: God is the champion of the anawim. And this, I think, is the background to the Beatitudes. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once explained it this way. In any society (and in particular, the context of the Old Testament) there are “haves” and “have-nots,” the privileged and the underprivileged, even the oppressor and the oppressed. The Beatitudes, says Brueggemann, are blessing for the have-nots.

Again, this is clearest in the beatitudes given to us in Luke 6. Jesus pronounces those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled as blessed, then turns around and pronounces woe on those who are rich, well-fed, laughing, and respected. Note that the latter list, not the former, is what we would consider a good and successful life. Jesus is describing a life of privilege, a life that unfortunately can make his words about blessedness seem strange and paradoxical.

Is he therefore suggesting that we should all strive to be poor and hungry?

No. Jesus is not giving pointers on how to achieve blessing, as if it were something to be had through some spiritual self-improvement program. The poor and hungry are not blessed because of anything they’ve done. They have done nothing to earn it.

Rather, they are blessed because God is the champion of the anawim, of those who are broken in spirit and dependent on him. They are blessed because God is a God who doesn’t side with those who fight their way to the top of the social ladder, but with those who have been cast to the bottom.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt 5:6). This doesn’t mean, “Blessed are those who long to be better people,” though in some ways that may be true. It’s a way of saying, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for things to be put right—because God will do it.”

That is, in essence, the longing at the heart of Psalm 42. The psalmist is beset by enemies who oppress and mock him, and he feels cut off from God. He thirsts for things to be put right. He thirsts for the presence of God. And in the midst of all that he suffers, somehow, he reaches out in hope.

And as we’ll see, there is hope in the words of Jesus as well.