My usually precise colleague aimlessly fiddled with his food, pondering the proper tone with which to broach a delicate matter. He was looking for words to express his concerns related to me openly talking about my poverty during times when I preached and taught. He’d rather me use other language than “I’m poor.”
Reminding me of the richness of my family, friends, and culture, he encouraged me to frame the discussion in different language. I was surprised and a bit amused at his awkward discomfort, which seemed to suggest that my statements of poverty were more problematic than my actual financial distress.
Yes, I could have taken the more familiar path of profiling in comfort and pretense. But despite a wonderful wife, great kids, and a culture of good music, art, and literature that continually surrounded me, there were real issues of economic desperation. These are the same real issues gripping the crowd gathered around Jesus in today’s reading.
Blessed are the Poor
Luke records Jesus telling the crowd the strangest things. In addition to the feel-good promises of things to come in the next life – full bellies, joy, and heavenly rewards, he leads with the promise that the Kingdom belongs to the poor, right here, right now.
Great news indeed, but how curious this must have been to a struggling mass of people who had gathered to be comforted, healed, and delivered. What could the exercise of Kingdom benefits look like while under the abusive structures of Roman political, economic and cultural domination? How could the Kingdom possibly prevail over the religious and cultural powers of the various branches of the clergy, who saw the poor as objects to be exploited for financial and positional gain?
Jesus’ declaration challenges us with a mystery, a curious dynamic where somehow those taxed by the pains and despairs of poverty are granted the riches of holding stewardship of God’s Kingdom. But what does that look like?
Within the struggles of my own economic desperation, I learned the creative game of staying one step ahead of the wolf at the door. I learned how to turn the utilities back on just long enough to scrape up the money to catch up on the bills. I learned to supplement the family pantry with the blessings offered at the church food bank. I learned to gig here and there just to keep from totally sinking.
The Kingdom is Whose?
But in all my exhausting, high-wire dancing, there seemed too few expressions connecting my poverty to any benefits of Kingdom stewardship. Instead, I received lots of sound advice from caring friends seeking to rescue me from my impoverished state. No one mentioned the Kingdom was mine.
Understanding Jesus’ mystery is difficult within a bioecology where the declarations, proclamations, and evolutions of Kingdom issues are illicitly stewarded by various corners of privilege. I rarely find a Kingdom-centered gathering or conversation that is informed by the presence of the poor. And while our faith is authored by the one who “for our sakes became poor,” we too often fail to seek genuine connection with the poor and rarely seek to gain from them the jewels derived from Kingdom stewardship.
I hope we will grow less and less comfortable with the obversions crafted by orthopractic expressways that allow us to claim a presence among the poor as we move above and beyond them without ever truly yielding to their Kingdom stewardship.
The Early Church Got It
Jesus’ disciples somehow locked into the mystery. Through radical generosity, self-denial, love of enemies, enduring persecution, and embracing a cruciform economy, they mingled extreme poverty with overflowing joy (2 Cor. 8:1-2). I believe such joy is the very cornerstone of the mystery. It is this joy that stands above, on the other side of pretense, power grabs, attempts at domination, careless assumptions, twisted strategies, heartless policies, theologies born of privilege, and any other of the countless acts of violence against the poor.
This is a rebellious joy that threatens the life-draining dictates of a mediated existence. It truly represents the triumph over iniquity, injustice, and notions of control and scarcity. This Kingdom blessing of the poor may be one of the best kept secrets of our faith. Imagine if they knew.