by Eric Simpson
I once had a job working in an office at a shopping mall and spent most of my time there. After dark, I would turn out all the lights except the desk lamp and sit at my desk and write. Not knowing I was there in the dark, a homeless woman would arrive with a few cardboard boxes, put together a makeshift compartment to sleep in and situate it just outside the office in the cold air in a little cubbyhole that could not be seen from the street. I would sometimes hear her muttering to herself. On some nights when she thought she was alone and did not know that there was someone else on the other side of the stucco wall against which she propped her head, I could hear her softly sobbing to herself as I sat in a comfortable office writing book reviews and other assorted items on a computer screen. Here we were, me in the camp of the “haves” (relatively speaking) and she in the camp of the “have-nots.” We were less than three feet away from each other, separated only by a thin wall, each of us lost in our own universe as if the other were light years away.
Jesus says to his followers in the Sermon on the Plain, “Blessed are you poor...” – a statement contrary to common sense and to all of our expectations and wisdom about how the world works. How was this woman blessed? To be blessed connotes happiness, but also signifies a more profound reality than that. There is a sense in which it means to be held in the providential hands of God, to be on the right track and to know the implicit joy of being in such a state in accordance with its potential and promise. Jesus contrasts this in His sermon on the plain, when He says, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” St. James in his epistle follows this up with the words,
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter.
The sentiment that poverty is a blessing for those who follow Christ does not square easily with the way we actually think. Aren’t abundance and wealth a sign of blessing, and destitution a sign of shame and woe? Are not the rich happier because of their abundance of things, the multitude of conveniences, the ability to satisfy all desire and want? And are not the poor more woeful because of their lack of those same things, their misery, their unspent desires, their inability to access even the most basic necessities? Isn’t wealth a sign of integrity and hard work, and poverty a sign of probable addiction and implicit laziness? It’s easy to equate money with happiness, or with being blessed. It fixes problems. The thought of winning the lottery sends many people into hours of profound daydreaming. It would seem that money is not only the source of happiness, but also of hope.
But Jesus says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” What does this mean? One is initially tempted to think it refers to a “pie in the sky when you die” theology, the notion that your suffering on earth will be rewarded in heaven. I consider this amid my own awareness of that which I lack, and I don’t think it is the total truth or the point Jesus is making. The heaven to which He refers has an entrance, a door through which we go even in this life – Christ himself – and we become partakers with him and in him of the life of God even now, prior to death and that which awaits us beyond death.
The kingdom of God is the Church, a kingdom in which Jesus reigns, and wherein the walls separating us are dismantled: we become equal as human persons made in the image of God, and the judgments of comparison, either condemning others through pride or ourselves through shame, are thrown down. Jesus draws out the distinctions between the two kingdoms, whose kings vie to rule our hearts, later in the Sermon on the Mount as recorded by Matthew. “Do not lay up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys.” And he concludes, “you cannot serve God and Mammon.”
Does this mean that it is a sin to be wealthy? I don’t think that is the point either, although at the same time there is no justification implied here for seeking wealth as an end, or for the sins of acquisitiveness or greed. The point rather seems to be one that pertains to the disposition of the soul. Because he does not have riches does not put his trust in them, the poor person does not find his security in them. We may want to have financial security, which is a good objective as long as we understand that the terminology is relative. Financial security, as many people discovered in recent years, is not really secure; it can fall out from under your feet as readily as a trap door you did not know was there. The poor person is more easily predisposed to put his trust in God and to seek in Christ a sense of security – that in His providential hands God will bring to him whatever medicine is most needed for his soul. That may or may not include a new car, a nice house and a beach vacation on some exotic island.
The notion isn’t that merely being poor is a virtue or a guarantee of heaven, but that those who follow Christ in their poverty, rather than trusting in riches or in the ultimately empty promises of money, will gain the benefits of being in a relationship with God in His eternal kingdom. While Jesus advocates a total lack of reliance on money and things as being the source of life and meaning for us, He does not advocate being materially poor as a virtue for its own sake. For people made in the image of God, to languish in hunger, to starve to death, to perish because they do not have adequate housing or heating, or to live in cardboard boxes or try to raise their children in tent cities, for them to suffer a complication of illness or death for lack of appropriate medical care that is available but not attainable – these are all realities that provide evidence of the existence of evil. Jesus is not putting a stamp of approval on material poverty in his Sermon on the Plain when He says, “blessed are you poor,” but He is giving hope and consolation – that the very thing which causes suffering is also the entrance to spiritual riches in Him.
It is more difficult for a wealthy person to disengage himself from his attachment to riches and to put his trust in Christ. The temptation to feel secure because of affluence and wealth is overwhelming. By the same token, a poor person who desires to be wealthy is filled with the same avarice as the rich person who clings to his wealth, and Jesus advises that a heart captured by the deception that money buys happiness and security, whether rich or poor, will find it nearly impossible to enter the kingdom of heaven – though not impossible because all things are possible with God, even a camel walking through the eye of a needle.
Or, as Paul elaborates in his first letter to his spiritual son, Timothy, “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.”
A person who is poor in spirit, on the other hand, does not trust in riches, or in the natural feeling of security afforded by a good job, or in the apparent stability of a comfortable home. Such things are necessary, desirable and part of life, and there is nothing implicitly wrong with one’s enjoyment of them; but the person who is poor in spirit does not invest in them beyond their usefulness.
Jesus goes to great lengths to describe the peace that exemplifies the kingdom of God, wherein Christ rules over one’s own heart, body and mind. It is a realm where violence is not an alternative, where enemies are forgiven, where one gives to all who ask and does not judge. It is a kingdom of forgiveness, fulness, mercy and eternal life.
The kingdom ruled by riches, however, is one of pride and shame and constant comparison with others and what others have. Given notions of scarcity and feelings of unsatisfied desire, conflict is born, and perpetual unhappiness becomes the status quo despite the acquisition of many things, all of which we are ultimately ungrateful for and which we take for granted. Much of the thanks that Americans give once a year on Thanksgiving Thursday is canceled out in the mega-sales of “Black Friday,” when crowds mob stores and even fight each other over items on sale – thanksgiving one day and a journey to hell the next.
How we relate to money and to things in some sense determines the way we relate to other people, especially those in need, and therefore how we relate to Christ.
Jesus says to us, “Blessed are you poor.” To those of us who struggle in these present difficult times, this should come as a word of consolation and hope. Our struggles give us an opportunity to follow Christ, to place our trust in Him and let God be our strength and security.
The Beatitudes are not only a set of blessings and promises, but they are also descriptive of the character and attributes of Jesus, who with extreme humility and poverty of spirit willfully submitted himself to death in order to redeem us from death. Let us take up our crosses and follow him. This, and not riches or possessions, is the path that leads not only to contentment even amid the trials and difficulties of life, but also leads to peace. ❖
Eric Simpson, an associate editor of In Communion, is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to the religion section of Huffington Post. The present essay is an abbreviated version of an episode of his “Seeking Peace” podcast on Ancient Faith Radio.
❖ IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59