What does it mean to be poor? According to Jesus, it means to be “blessed.” He goes on to say a lot more in this “Sermon on the Plain,” but for many of us sitting in our well-heated churches this morning, contemplating, perhaps, a nice brunch afterwards, that first line shuts us right down.
Some of us sitting in church this morning have been poor, and remember how tough it was. Some of us are advocates with and for the poor, counting poor people as our friends; their poverty doesn’t seem so “blessed” to us. Some of us are poor right now but haven’t particularly noticed that we’ve been give title to the “Kingdom of Heaven.” So Jesus’ words, as reported by Luke, can stop us in our tracks.
That’s the risk we take when we listen to the Word of God. It can be so outside our own frame of vision, our own experience, our own desires, that we just stop listening. Or worse, maybe, we try to tame it, to water it down so that it’s not so disturbing.
Still, it’s worth noting that even though we hear these words “in plain English” (or whatever language we’re listening in), we may not fully grasp their meaning when we hear them. The context in which they were said might not be familiar. Keeping in mind the real danger of trying to explain away troubling or uncomfortable things, we can, at the same time, consider a few points about this Sermon on the Plain that may open it up to us a little bit.
Let’s think about the location. Unlike Matthew, whose Jesus, the new Moses, preaches a sermon “on the Mount,” Luke tells us that “Jesus came down” from the mountain, where he’s just called his twelve apostles. Up on the mountain, he’d been where Israel -- in the persons of people like Abraham, Moses, and Elijah -- encountered God. One could almost say that in that place of divine encounter, Jesus had been back home, albeit for a brief moment. As before, however, he had not remained there, but chose instead to return to the Plain, coming down to it with all that that would mean for him. For, as St. Paul reminds us, in his Incarnation, in his “coming down,” Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness.” And we know how that worked out: “he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2: 7, 8). Now we see this great emptying playing out once more in real time.
Jesus chooses to be one of us. Which, if you are the God of the Universe, means that you have chosen to be poor. The richest among us, whether we’re Herod the Great or some 21st century mogul with our own fleets of jets and cars, mansions and golf courses on every continent, are pitifully poor when we match up with God. Jesus deliberately seeks out that “condition” and lives it out fully.
But Jesus is not engaging in a contest of who-can-be-poorer. St. Paul also reminds us that “for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Cor 8: 9).
Maybe when Jesus says “Blessed are you who poor, for the kingdom of God is yours,” he is saying “Blessed are you, sisters and brother human beings, for the Kingdom of God has broken into your world, and is fulfilled in my ‘coming down.’ The Kingdom is the ultimate goal; my poverty is the vehicle by which I carry it to you.”
Reading the first verse of the Sermon on the Plain in this way doesn’t let those of us who are comfortable off the hook. The “Woes” that follow make that very clear, with the first setting the tone for all the rest: “But woe to you who are rich/for you have received your consolation.” We’re being called to take notice that the things in this world are not as they should be, and that we have a role to play to correct that state of affairs. Yes, Jesus’s coming down heralded the coming of the Kingdom, but, as we know, the Kingdom is both “now and not yet.”
So there is much to do here and now to combat the grievous sins of waste and selfishness, of the materially rich oppressing the materially poor, whether intentionally or not. But there’s also an attitude that all of us, whether well off or not, must cultivate. We need to have the desire to recognize ourselves as poor before the Lord, as needing his grace and his love. We need to truly understand that salvation comes from Him and not from ourselves. That we have a naked need. When Jesus speaks of the “blessedness” of “the poor,” he is teaching us to “come down” not only before God but also before our sisters and brothers in the Jesus who chose to be poor like us.
—Sr. Nuala Cotter, RA