Blessed are the Poor

Bishop Stacy F. Sauls reflects on the first Beatitude.

There are two versions of a collection of saying known as the Beatitudes because they all begin with “Blessed are.”  There is a version in Luke (6:20-23) and a version in Matthew (5:1-12).  Matthew’s version is better known, in part, I suspect, because it is easier to take.

Luke’s version is shorter but harsher and starker.  Take the first beatitude.  In Luke it is, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”  We’re much more used to, and comfortable with, the way Matthew records it:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Or look at the one about hunger.  Luke records Jesus as saying, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”  The message seems a little different in Matthew:  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Scholars generally agree that Luke’s version is closer to what Jesus actually said.  That, I think, is probably right.  Short, simple, to the point.  That sounds like Jesus to me.

Scholars also generally agree that Matthew modified Luke to make what Jesus said easier to take for a different audience.  About that I’m not so sure.

“Blessed are the poor” is a little difficult to swallow for those of us who are not.  On the other hand, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” seems to open the door to everyone.  We are all poor in spirit in one way or the other.

I know on those occasions when I get to speak in the Church about the presence of Jesus in solidarity with the poor, someone will invariably bring up Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and ask if I do not think Jesus was speaking metaphorically about the poor, not meaning literal poverty, but any condition that weighs on the spirit.

I don’t like the question because I know my answer is going to be disappointing.  “No,” I say, “I think Jesus was speaking literally of the poor, the material kind, about those who lack the necessities of daily life.”  It is very clear to me why Matthew might have wanted to soften this teaching up in a way that Luke does not allow.

This persistent question, though, has caused me to reexamine what I think Matthew might have been up to, not softening at all, but maybe opening the way to the kingdom of heaven beyond just the poor by suggesting that the rich could be like the poor.  Maybe he was not avoiding the stark truth I think Jesus actually spoke about the particular blessedness of the poor at all.  I’ve always thought Matthew was talking about poverty of spirit as a substitute for literal poverty.  Now I wonder if Matthew wasn’t inviting those who are not poor to be “poor in spirit,” in the same way I might say to someone who has invited me to a wedding I am unable to attend that I will “be there in spirit.”

I’ve come to wonder if Matthew is offering us an opportunity to be one with the poor even if we are not, to stand with the poor even if we are not poor ourselves, to be with the poor even when we have to journey to get there.  I’ve come to see Matthew, not as softening Luke, but as complementing Luke.  There is a way that the kingdom of heaven can belong to the rich as well as the poor, but I doubt it is by sugarcoating it.  It is by facing it.  It is by being in solidarity with, in spirit with, in alliance with the poor.  It is by seeing the poor as ourselves.

Matthew, after all, also remembered Jesus as saying, “[I]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  (19:24)  Somehow, sugarcoating is not what I think Matthew was up to.