As the weather warms up, many of our school students (and teachers, too!) have spring fever. It’s hard to stay focused on what you’re learning when you look out the window and everything’s so beautiful that you just want to be outside. Seniors in high school have the double-whammy of two diseases—spring fever and senioritis. Senioritis is when it’s your last year of school, and you just don’t care anymore. All you can think about is graduation. And when you get to graduation, the valedictorian is up front telling you all about how you can go out there and change your world—but all you’re thinking about is summer vacation. You’re listening to the sage advice of your top schoolmate, and all you can think is, “Yeah, whatever—the beach is waiting!”
Bible scholars suggest that Jesus’ disciples were mostly about the same age as high school seniors, so you can bet that it wasn’t until years later that they really appreciated Jesus’ words when he told them how they could change their world. I think teenagers and young adults today get a bad reputation for not knowing what they want to do with their lives. The truth is, Jesus’ disciples didn’t know what they wanted to do, either. So instead of taking up the family business, which was generally expected of everyone, they decided to attach themselves to a wandering rabbi and become professional students. I’m sure that Jesus knew they wouldn’t appreciate his lessons until much later, so he tried to make them as pithy and memorable as he could. The Beatitudes are the core of his teaching about how Jesus’ followers could change their world.
Jesus begins with “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs (Matthew 5:3).”[i] Many translations say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but this is pretty hard to understand—I think the New Living Translation does a good job explaining what Jesus means. You are blessed if you’re poor and understand your need for God.
This is a pretty hard concept for Americans to understand, because we have so much. Could Jesus possibly have meant that you’re blessed if you’re poor? Maybe he just meant that you’re blessed if you realize that you’re spiritually in need of God. That sounds good, right? But, just in case we’re confused, Luke 6 gives us a parallel version of the Beatitudes where Jesus simply says, “God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.” Plus, all through the gospels, Jesus pronounces blessings on the poor and woes upon the rich. No—Jesus literally means that God blesses the people who don’t have much in this world.
Why is this? Well—some were born into poverty, and never had much. Others lost what they had, through no fault of their own. Maybe it was taken from them, or maybe circumstances like huge medical bills caused them to lose their fortune. Still others might have brought about their own poor condition through a series of bad decisions. Or some few people like Saint Francis of Assisi may have taken what Jesus said literally, about selling what they had and giving to the poor. Or maybe they never had much but chose a life of service to others, over the acquisition of wealth. One way or another, there are a lot of people in the world who don’t have much. In fact, the number of poor people far outweigh the number of wealthy in the world. According to the Washington Post:
To be among the wealthiest half of the world last year, an adult needed to own only $3,210 in net assets (minus debts), according to the data. To be in the top 10 percent, a person needed to have only $68,800 in wealth. To be in the top percentile, the threshold climbed to $760,000, according to Credit Suisse.
According to the Federal Reserve, the median American family had $81,000 in net worth in 2013.[ii]
By those standards, where does that put you, personally, compared to the world population? Jesus’ disciples were among the world’s poorest people at the time. Certainly, their status as homeless students of an itinerant teacher made them even poorer. Jesus was speaking directly to poor people, proclaiming that God hasn’t forgotten them. In fact, God promises that they will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Why is this? Why do poor people get this beatitude, or blessing, while Jesus warns the wealthy time and time again?
Because when you’re rich, you trust your money and your stuff, but when you’re poor, all you’ve got is God. When you’re poor, you pray more. You rely on God more, because you don’t know where your next meal or car repair is going to come from. For some of us, the worst thing that ever happened to our spirituality is when we started making a better paycheck. We were closer to God when we didn’t have our retirement funds or inheritances or stocks to fall back on. So in the Beatitudes, Jesus has something to say to those who struggle with money and those who don’t.
To those who are poor (if that’s you, listen up), Jesus says, “You don’t know it, but you may just have it better than the rich people around you—because you’ve got the real treasure. You’ve got Me!”
To those who are rich (those with ears to hear, let them hear), Jesus says, “Good and faithful servants take what they have and sow it into the lives of others, so the Kingdom will grow. Maybe your reliance on wealth has drowned out the sound of My voice. Maybe you need to give some of it to the poor around you who don’t know where their next meal or car repair is coming from. Then you can help my little ones up, while uncluttering your spirit so you can know Me more.”
Of course, I realize that some of you are like kids (and teachers) with spring fever, and haven’t heard a word of this. Or, you’re like twelfth-graders with senioritis, and you’ve heard, but you quit caring long ago. But I have the hope, just like Jesus had the hope, just like the valedictorian has the hope, that after some time has passed these words may be remembered: “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” Those who have the least will inherit the most. The words of the Teacher turn your expectations upside down, calling you to radical faith that will change your world.
[i] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.
[ii] Swanson, Ana. “You might be among the world’s richest people and not realize it.” January 21, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/01/21/you-might-be-among-the-richest-people-in-the-world-and-not-realize-it/?utm_term=.136699ef5a38. March 19, 2018.