Blessed Poverty: A Paradigm Shift
Dear brothers & sisters,
The beatitudes are probably some of the most well-known of Jesus’ sayings, yet we so easily read right over them, not really asking ourselves what he means. But when we put in the effort to listen, we are often quite surprised and even puzzled by what Jesus has to say. Possibly one of the most radically paradoxical and subversive of the beatitudes is the first one:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.Matthew 5:3
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.Luke 6:20
Whether you prefer Matthew’s version or Luke’s version, Jesus is clearly trying to get us to think in a totally new way. He’s creating a paradigm shift where it’s actually the poor (not the rich) who are blessed by God. This goes against everything that we think we understand: isn’t wealth a sign of God’s blessing–not poverty? The culture of Jesus’ day certainly thought so, and our modern culture continues to believe this as well (even if it’s sometimes expressed in more secular terms). So let’s take a moment to explore what this first beatitude really means.
Looking at Strong’s Concordance, we learn that the word “poor” in both Matthew and Luke is translated from the word “ptwcoj”: “a beggar… i.e. pauper (strictly denoting absolute or public mendicancy)”. (Mendicancy means “the condition of being a beggar” according to Merriam-Webster.)
So another way to translate Matthew 5:3 and Luke 6:20 would be “blessed are the beggars who live off handouts“!
Living in Blessed Poverty
What does this mean for us as disciples of Jesus? It means that at the very least, many of us need a bit of a paradigm-shift on what kind of person is favored by God. Rather than looking down our noses on street beggars, we should learn to see them through the loving eyes of God.
But we shouldn’t stop there… Just because many of us are not poor now, does not mean that we cannot voluntarily adopt a lifestyle of blessed poverty. This brings us back to a few of our earlier posts in the Living Waters Series where we discussed what it means to practice Jesus’ command to forsake all our possessions (Luke 14:33) by selling what we have and giving the proceeds to the poor (Luke 12:33) and then working for God instead of money (Matthew 6:24). If you haven’t read these already, we strongly encourage you to check them out now for an idea of how you, too, can begin your discipleship journey into a life of blessed poverty the Jesus Way!
In first world countries, poverty virtually does not exist. We can say this because we know from personal experience: we are well below the poverty line of the United States where we live because we have chosen to live very simply by practicing Jesus’ teachings (more on that below). We have learned to live on less by sharing with others in Christian community and giving up little things like TVs, eating at restaurants, and even big things like living in houses/apartments. Despite this fact, we do not plead poverty because we have abundant access to all the necessities of life. For example, we have more than enough food for each day, and it’s mostly very healthy food, too. We also have access to health care, shelter (our little old RV), and transportation.
Poverty in first world countries is mostly just a matter of perspective, which is where Matthew’s version really rings true: blessed are the poor in spirit. Sure, we could try to keep up with the insatiable materialism of our country, demanding things like TVs, a multi-bedroom apartment/house, two or more cars, the latest devices, etc. But we would probably have to stop working for God full time, get a “normal” job somewhere, and thus become trapped in the vicious cycle of making money just to spend it on things we really don’t need, never having enough time (or energy) to do God’s work.
There are many ways to simplify our lives. Our way of going about it is inspired by the teachings of Jesus, but we certainly don’t have the monopoly on minimalist living! In fact, we even know people who live much more simply than us even here in the States. (Click here to learn about “the man who quit money”.) We would say, however, that if you’re interested in becoming Jesus’ disciple, then it may be wise to consider trying some of the methods that we use to embrace poverty because we use Jesus’ teachings as our framework. The more we learn about and get to know others who are embracing the poor-in-spirit lifestyle, the more inspired we get and the easier it becomes to be content with the basics (Matthew 6:32-33, 1 Timothy 6:6-8).
All this being said, however, we must not forget that Luke’s version isn’t talking about those of us who have the privilege of choosing to live without the excess luxuries of our wealthy society. Here, Jesus really is challenging our preconceptions about who God sees as the blessed ones.
“Poverty” in America vs. True Poverty
We mentioned earlier that real poverty does not exist in first-world countries. It is true that there are people who are on the streets even here in the United States who are in desperate need of help. But what kind of help do they need? Are they struggling to get enough food for themselves and their families? Do they have access to functional clothing? Are they able to take shelter somewhere? Is it possible for them to get enough money for any of these things? We know that very few homeless people here in the United States are struggling to get enough food, clothes, money, shelter, you name it. (And we’d be happy to share our experience with you if you’re not as confident about this as we are. Just leave a comment below.)
So what’s the deal? The fact is, most of the homeless population in the United States is the result of addiction or mental illness. So yes, homeless Americans do need serious help, and fortunately, this help is available. Both of these tragic conditions (addiction and mental illness) can be treated by many organizations that exist here in the States if the homeless person is truly interested in getting help.
Unfortunately, these kinds of “safety nets” do not exist in third-world countries where people stay desperately poor no matter how hard they work, simply because the world economy has been rigged against them.
We feel that this is a very important point to keep in mind when deciding where to invest our resources as Christians in charity. If you have a heart for the homeless here in the United States, there is certainly nothing wrong with responsibly sharing your time or money to support the organizations that exist to help them. However, we would strongly encourage you to consider learning more about the needs of those who do not have enough of the absolute necessities of life and consider helping them as well. We trust that you will find that there is greater need in developing countries than in the United States. Here’s a great place to start: World Vision.
The Good News
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he read from Isaiah 61, saying “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor,” and then commenting that “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (Luke 4:18-21). So Jesus is claiming that he has been anointed to bring the Good News (i.e. the Gospel) to the poor. And yes, that word “poor” from the Isaiah passage is the same one Jesus uses in the beatitudes (Strong’s Concordance)!
We don’t think it’s a mistake that Jesus didn’t mention that he would also be preaching the Gospel (Good News) to the rich. As much as we at Faith Worker Ministries try to “heal the blind” by teaching the rich to see the Good News of Jesus’ teachings (i.e. the Gospel), the truth is that it really isn’t very Good News for those of us with relative wealth and power (when compared to the rest of the world). We are much more like Roman citizens than we are like the outcasts of an oppressed and occupied country (e.g. the Jewish lepers, tax collectors, and prostitutes) who became Jesus’ closest friends and disciples. We, with our imperialistic privilege (like the Romans) and great religious pride (like the Pharisees), really have a long way to go in humbling ourselves before the one who we so strongly proclaim as our Lord and Savior, learning to truly live in accordance with his teachings.
But as we talked about towards the beginning of this article, even those of us who are not among the ptwcoj (poor/beggars) of the world can learn to see through God’s eyes and thus embrace the Gospel. We can learn to see how it actually is Good News for us to choose a life of poverty by practicing the clear teachings of Jesus that we mentioned earlier (Luke 14:33, 12:33, and Matthew 6:24).
Check out our articles about these teachings by following the links provided at the end of this paragraph. These articles will also explain how choosing to become one of the ptwcoj by following Jesus’ teachings helps us embody the ultimate goal of the Christian life: love for God, neighbor, and each other! So please do take the opportunity to read through these articles from our Living Waters Series: Entering the Next Dimension, 2 Simple Steps to Gain Heavenly Treasures, and Who’s Your Ma$ter?
Another way to look at this whole issue of the Gospel (Good News) being for the poor and not the rich is this: our planet is quickly deteriorating due to the insatiable demands for resources that the wealthy have created. The fact is that everyone could live much more simply and efficiently, and the fate of our planet would look much less grim. But the whole world cannot live like we do here in the United States and other first world countries. We can barely even sustain this tiny population (less than one billion people live in first world countries) as it is! So when we look at it from this perspective, it becomes obvious that the bad news is how we currently live, even if it’s convenient and familiar. The good news is that we may still have time to turn things around and learn to live happily on less. Jesus’ teachings about materialism provide the perfect framework for us to learn how to do exactly that.
This has become quite a long letter! Thanks for sticking it out with us, brothers and sisters. We’ve covered a lot of ground, and yet we’ve only just scratched the surface of this first beatitude. How do you see this beatitude playing out in your own life? Is there anything you think you can do differently? What stands out to you when you read, “blessed are the beggars (ptwcoj)”? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below, or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We hope to catch you again next week!
Love & Prayers,
Luke & Allie