I wonder how often we struggle with the true meaning of a phrase like, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Like many other passages, the metanarrative of scripture meets a concise summary in one verse, Luke 6.20.
Blessed is an adjective meaning holy or worthy of worship. When Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor,” he jumps straight to knowing God by stripping away all false notions of self-reliance or independence. When we have everything that we need, we don’t really need God. Those who are missing the necessities of daily life don’t succumb to this false notion of being whole.
When one is poor, one knows what it is to need.
When Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6.20), it takes some special hermeneutical acrobatics to arrive at anything other than, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” To read Luke’s Sermon on the Plain and come to a different conclusion means to dismiss the passage, its context, and the larger narrative of God’s love for the world.
The kind of God we worship cares about people.
That’s the point.
We live in a world where people struggle, and God loves those who struggle, just like God loves you and me. Here in Charlottesville—a city of fantastic restaurants, great entertainment, a world-class university, and more jobs than people to fill them—there are people in need. 1 in 6 people face food insecurity in Charlottesville. That’s 17.5% of the population. In Virginia, the average rate of people who face food insecurity is 11.9%, which is still more than 1 in 10.[i] Yet, we outpace our state. The place where God calls us to be the salt and light has people in need.
Some of us might ask the question that seems logical, “Why are they in need?” Why, especially if there are more jobs than people?
To that, I would say: Only God knows. Sure, we could undertake a sociological analysis of poverty and try to assess the root causes and understand the systemic oppression that keeps people in a cycle of struggles.
But that’s not why we come to worship. There’s a time and a place for study, and the University across the street is a great place to engage with that kind of study. Here in the church, we follow Jesus. Wilfred Cantwell Smith writes, “Jesus was not interested in Christianity, but in God and [people]. He could not have conceptualized ‘Christianity’.”[ii]
As we try to be the salt and light, we can set aside questions about why people are hungry and turn to Jesus’ response to those who struggle. In the Bible, Jesus doesn’t seem to get hung up on why people struggle. In Luke, he said, “Blessed are you who are poor,” not “Blessed are you who are poor but worthy.”
In the early 1990s, I encountered Ron Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, and I don’t say this lightly: it changed my faith. It helped me better understand passages like Luke 6 and James 5. By the time I read it, the book had been out for over a dozen years and had gone through a couple revisions. One of my undergraduate professors, Dr. Greg Hoover, assigned the book, and I have been grateful to him ever since. I think he assigned a chapter or two, but I remember plowing through the whole thing in a weekend. Then, I ran out and bought because I was reading Dr. Hoover’s copy which he had loaned to me.
For years, I kept going back to it. The central theme was about making a difference in the world. Sider pointed out the vast problem of hunger in the world today. Even though we’ve made giant strides forward since its first publication in 1978, thousands of children die each day from hunger and preventable diseases.
We shouldn’t ignore the progress humanity has made. According to the World Health Organization, in 1990, 12.6 million children under 5 died from hunger and preventable diseases. In 2020, that number dropped to 5 million. Before celebrate, though, we should remember that 5 million deaths per year means over 14,000 children die every day from hunger and preventable diseases.
Sider helped me connect this harsh reality in the world with living as a follower of Christ, and his book inspired me to view scripture as a call to action. “Blessed are the poor” is a call to love the poor as Jesus loved them, and to do something about it.
When we sanitize the Bible and separate it from the world, it’s easy for scripture to be shocking. Sider wrote about a time the writer and muckraker Upton Sinclair was speaking to a group of ministers and read our Epistle lesson from James 5…[iii] except he didn’t say he was reading James 5.1-5.
Sinclair looked out at this group of ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ and said he was reading something Emma Goldman wrote. In case you don’t know, Emma Goldman was an anarchist and political activist.
James 5 is harsh. “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you…”
The ministers were outraged at what Sinclair read! They demanded Goldman be deported for saying such terrible things.
Sider shared the story to demonstrate how easy it is to dismiss what the Bible really says. In Charlottesville, juxtaposed with the wealth and opulence, we have people living with a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in their household. We have people living without enough food to live an active, healthy life. We have food insecurity.
Why? How? Why would some people be hungry? Why would kids show up hungry around the corner, at Venable Elementary School, barely a stone’s throw from a university with an over $14 billion endowment?
To those questions, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” According to Luke, he didn’t add any caveats or prerequisites. To be a human being means to be loved by God.
If we follow Jesus, then he bids us to love as he loves. And, loving someone means responding to their needs.
If they are hungry, we feed them. That’s why we keep packing those bags of food for the kids at Venable. We want them to be able to thrive just like our kids.
Not everyone sees their faith in this way. Some decry books like Rich Christians as socialist or Marxist. In 1981, a California pastor wrote a response to Rich Christians called Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators. The response more closely reflects notions of manifest destiny and the conservative politics of the 1980s than biblical economics. Sider revised Rich Christians in each subsequent edition, not because of the critique, but as a reflection of the natural evolution and development of his thought.
Today, as we seek to love our neighbors as ourselves, we can learn how to better live out our faith from books like Rich Christians. They don’t take the place of the Bible. They point out what the Bible says and put it alongside the problems in our world.
Right now, there are a ton of problems in the world, and we can’t solve all of them. But we can make a difference in a someone’s life. By working together to address food insecurity in our community, someone might be able to eat who couldn’t eat before.
Years ago, I was visiting the Romero Center in Camden, NJ. The center was named after the slain Salvadorian archbishop Oscar Romero. Larry DiPaul was the executive director of the center, and he and I were standing outside talking when a homeless person came up to us and asked for food. Larry explained, “We don’t have a meal program here but I can make you a peanut butter sandwich if you want one.”
The man said he did.
So Larry went into the kitchen of the center and made the man a sandwich. I asked him how he could do that and how he knew the guy was really hungry. I also asked what if everyone came to his door asking for peanut butter sandwiches.
Larry said, “How can I not feed him? He’s a child of God.”
Sisters and brothers, that’s the gospel of Jesus Christ.
[i] Charlottesville Loaves and Fishes Pantry, “About Hunger.”
[ii] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1962), 106.
[iii] Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1977), 145.