Blest are you who are poor
I recently read a story about how people catch monkeys in India. They cut a small hole in a sturdy box; then they put a tasty nut inside the box. The hole is large enough for the monkey to put its hand through, but it’s too small for the monkey to withdraw its hand once it has clutched the nut inside.
So the monkey has two choices. It can let go of the nut and go free, or it can clutch the nut and remained trapped. Monkeys usually hang onto the nut.
The author of the story then asks: What do we hang on to? As long as we hang onto the things that tend to ensnare us, we cannot be free. Like the monkeys, we remain trapped.
Today we hear St. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. It is quite different from those presented in St. Matthew’s gospel. Matthew has eight Beatitudes, Luke only four. Luke also has four woes, whereas these are absent in Matthew. Also, Matthew spiritualizes and expands the statements. For example, his first beatitude reads, “How blest are the poor in spirit…” For Luke it’s all about actual, material poverty: “How blest are you poor…” And just to make sure there’s no mistake about it, he also includes: “But woe to you rich…”
St. Luke’s gospel puts a great deal of emphasis on the poor. For example, the first to get word of Jesus’ birth are shepherds who are watching their flocks. Shepherds were pretty much at the bottom of the social ladder. Also, he makes sure that we know that Jesus was born in a manger, among animals, because the world could not make room for him.
By putting such emphasis on the poor and the weak, Luke actually follows the tradition that we find throughout the Bible. For example, who were the “Chosen People”? Initially, slaves, working on the building projects of the Pharaoh in Egypt. They were chosen, not because they were particularly great or worthy, but precisely because they were insignificant slaves who had no standing in society and no rights. We may also think of the great King David, who starts out as a shepherd. He then goes into battle against the battle-hardened giant Goliath, armed with a slingshot and a few stones. It is David who prevails, not the giant.
In recent times there has been a growing awareness that God has what is called a “preferential option for the poor,” which developed in Latin America. You can imagine the poor, landless peasants, forced to work on the plantations of the rich, being able to see themselves in the Hebrew slaves of the Old Testament, longing for freedom, dignity, and a land of their own.
Pope Francis has often taught about the dangers of living in a throw-away culture. This is certainly true of plastic, cardboard and other packaging that is often simply cast aside. The deeper tragedy is when we start to think of people as being insignificant or unimportant because they are poor, uneducated, unproductive or just plain old—and not useful. Such persons can easily be looked down upon and judged rather harshly by those who are more fortunate.
Let’s take just one example that we’re familiar with: the homeless. We tend to worry about those who have no place to stay during the winter when it is freezing cold outside. We remember the homeless persons who froze to death behind McDonald’s in Greenfield a couple of winters ago.
It’s easy to pass judgment on the homeless because of how they look, or how they smell, or how they lack a job and beg for handouts, or how they frighten us. Bud do you know the greatest cause of homelessness, at least in our nation? The lack of affordable housing. When I have helped out those in our area who are poor but fortunate enough to have housing, I’m amazed at how much they have to pay in rent. Often, most of their monthly income goes for rent, leaving little for them to live on.
One thing we should remember is that Jesus was homeless. He wasn’t born in a home, and he later said that he had “no place to lay his head.” And in today’s gospel he turns our usual way of thinking on its head: Blest are you poor; you’re going to inherit the kingdom—but not necessarily those who are hard-hearted and judgmental and rich.
You remember how the monkey gets trapped in the box? By hanging on to something he desperately wants. And we can get trapped very easily, too. I remember when I was in high school, working summers on tobacco. I was lucky enough to have my own spending money to buy clothes for school. And what did that involve? A few shirts, a couple pair of pants, a sweater or two, a new pair of shoes, and maybe a Timex watch. Did I know brand names back then? Probably not. Did I associate value with a higher price tag? Certainly not! But over the past forty to fifty years the advertisers have become pretty clever, inventing needs we don’t really have and wants that are pure fiction.
Today’s gospel suggests two things. First, if we want to become more like Jesus, we probably should give away a lot of our stuff we don’t need, simply so that others can have enough to survive. And second, we need to think twice before looking down on the poor, the jobless, the handicapped, and those who don’t come up to our standards. Jesus made it clear that, by choice, he is one of them and one with them. And declaring that the poor are blessed, he invites us to let go of what we don’t really need, help out our brothers and sisters who are often desperately poor, and become truly free!