About 1.4 billion people in the world live on $1.25 a day or less. The majority of poor people worldwide are women. Their opportunities for education are fewer and their earnings still lag far behind those of their male counterparts. Care of home and children go uncompensated. Violence at the hands of their intimate partner costs women in the United States approximately eight million days of work each year, and domestic violence keeps women teetering on the brink of homelessness. How can it be that Jesus would pronounce blessed those who struggle against such poverty?
Biblical scholars point out that the Greek word makarios, like the Hebrew ashre, meaning “blessed,” does not confer blessing, but recognizes an existing state of happiness. This happiness is something inherent in God, and when humans experience blessedness it flows from relationship with God. In biblical tradition, poverty is never an indicator of blessedness; it is always regarded as evil. What can Jesus mean by stating the opposite?
In the Gospel of Luke, references to the poor are very frequent. Scholars estimate that 25 percent of people in Roman Palestine were desperately poor. Two concrete individual characters put faces on this mass of struggling humanity: the ulcer-ridden beggar, Lazarus, lying at the rich man’s gate (16:19-31); and the widow who put “her whole life,” two small coins, into the temple treasury (21:1-4).
Whenever Jesus speaks about such people, however, he addresses his words to disciples who are not among the most destitute. They are the ones who have the means to be agents of divine blessing to those who are needy. His invitation to disciples is to embrace some form of being poor, but not destitution, as an essential aspect of their commitment to Jesus. Luke shows many options for how to respond to this call to embrace poverty. Some of the fishermen and a tax collector leave behind everything to follow Jesus (5:11, 28). Others, like Zacchaeus, give half their possessions to the poor (19:8). Many of the women put their monetary resources at the service of Jesus’ mission (8:1-3). Some, like Mary, the mother of John Mark, open their homes for the gatherings of the community (Acts 12:12). There was also the practice of pooling everyone’s resources and then each taking according to their need (Acts 2:44; 4:32). The only thing that was not an option was to hoard for oneself, like the rich ruler (Lk 18:18-30), or to lie to the community about one’s possessions, as the tragic story of Ananias and Sapphira shows (Acts 5:1-11).
The blessedness that Jesus holds up is the happiness of those who are being liberated from their desperate poverty already in the here and now, a foretaste of the final elimination of all want in the fullness of the reign of God. It is not a wish for future reward for an abstract, unknown group of “the poor” who suffer in the present, but a concrete possibility when the needs of real people are known and the resources are shared in community. Remarkably, the word poor does not occur in the Acts of the Apostles, where the inequities are being dissolved in the community of believers.
As Lent begins this week, it is a good time to renew our efforts to become agents of blessedness through our prayer for those who are in need, fasting in solidarity with those who are hungry not by choice, and by almsgiving to those who are destitute.