Ignoring Jesus 101

Christ says “blessed are the poor,” (Luke 6:20) and the splendor of his words is that they contain a quality of invisibility, a capacity to be ignored and forgotten at a rate far excelling the human usual. Indeed, there are few words that demand more action and yet have the grand effect of no one doing anything at all, not for any inarticulacy in Christ, but for timidity in man.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” says Christ, and few believe he wants us to cheer on these peaceful people while remaining contentious sons of bitches ourselves. No, we understand that inherent to his blessing is his demand to become peacemakers. Blessed are the meek, he says, and once again, we understand we are to become meek, not nod in appreciation of meek people. But “blessed are the poor,” and suddenly the understanding shifts. No longer do our ears ring with the command to become. Instead, we are filled with the warm, comforting image of Christ blessing the poor, showering his benevolence on those others who are poor, patting the heads of the sorely afflicted — a constituency we may or may not be part of.

I say “we” because I am too frightened to say “I,” for this is my inability to deal with the radicalism of Christ. Far easier if his words present no demand upon my existence, and his blessing upon the poor remains no more than an interesting note about what God is into these days, as in, “Just so you know, and as long as we’re all on this Mount, poor people are great. Now then, back to my explicit synthesis of the methods by which you will be saved.” No, all human existence is a bad attempt at being blessed by God, and thus when God himself says “blessed are the poor,” he is advocating our poverty, a poverty which will be for us a divine blessing, that is, our salvation.

Why can’t we hear him? Perhaps we just don’t want to be poor. Or perhaps it lies in the added words of the Gospel of Matthew: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Typically taken, we say this “in spirit” refers to attitude, to the point that I might equate Christ’s words with “blessed are the poor in attitude.” Christ is not saying we cannot be rich, the idea goes, only that we must have an attitude of poverty towards our riches. Blessed is the man with the mental disposition of being poor, a man unassuming of his riches who — though he might own Costa Rica — nevertheless remains humble.

Now I would hardly argue that a mental disposition of poverty is anything but an improvement over pride and greed, but it is not an adequate response to Christ’s demand.

The relegation of poverty to the spirit does not cushion the crush of Christ’s words, but further radicalizes them. The spirit — or in the original Greek, the pneuma – is not an attitude. It is the innermost core of man, the locus of life, freedom and existence from which acts. It is the incommunicable interior of the person, expressed through his exterior — through language, gesture, and the body in general. The confusion between spirit and attitude is caused, in part, by our abysmal love for pop psychology and new age religion, where the “spiritual” is fluffy in comparison to the physical — the spirit the source of ethereal emotions and vague, hazy feelings. This notion of the spiritual is precisely what allows people to say “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual,” which translates roughly to “I have all these deep feels, and do nothing.” Blessed are the poor in spirit, we the hip hear, and thus turn inwards so as to render some secret, intangible spirit-space poor, a process achieved with nothing more than a slight grimace and a change in attitude.

But the spirit is not fluffy. The spirit is the animating principle of the body. The spirit, according to Kierkegaard, is the self. The spiritual is known through the physical because it animates the physical. I know someone is courageous — which is spiritual — through their actions — which manifest themselves in the physical. I know a woman is in love — which is a spiritual reality — through her actions, that is, through what she does. I know a man is evil — which is a spiritual state — through his actions. Call it the soul, subjectivity, interiority, self, and we will quibble over the distinctions later. The spiritual manifests itself by body-slamming the physical into movement, a process we call acting.

This seems to be what James is getting at when he says:

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

James says that any faith — an interior, spiritual reality — which does not manifest itself in exterior, objective action is dead. So too, a poverty of spirit that remains an interior attitude of poverty without manifesting itself in actions of poverty, in becoming poor, is dead. Christ was calling us to more, not less, when he blessed the poor in spirit. In fact, he cut us off from pretending that poverty could be anything but a total poverty that manifests itself in our objective, physical existence. He slapped us away from at the apocalypse appealing to an attitude of poverty that can never be a being poor.

So next time, let’s talk about being poor.

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  • Tom

    Minor quibble: The quote at the end comes from St. James, not St. Paul.

    • badcatholic


  • M

    Isn’t romantic love a biochemical rather than spiritual reality?

    • Matt G

      Romantic attraction is biochemical, or at least, it begins by being biochemical, but it is not necessarily limited to it. One can be attracted to a person and choose not to act on it, for prudential or even selfish reasons. Or, one can be attracted and act on it but never fall in love. Actual romantic love, philosophically speaking, is not simple Eros (physical love) but is the cooperation of the mind and will with the biochemical attraction to manifest Storge and Philia as well.

  • Mike M

    I know that I’m going against the traditional majority opinion on this but I disagree with the idea that “inherent to his blessing is his demand.” I think that the term “demand” takes it too far, and risks creating a rather distorted Christianity. God blesses people in many ways. We are called to embrace his blessings, and to alter our worldviews to see all of these things as the blessings that they are. But, while a fruitful marriage is a blessing (“God blessed them saying ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’” (Gen 1:28, Gen 9:1, et al., cf. Lev 26:9, Ps 127:3), we are not universally commanded to a fruitful marriage… some are called to celibacy, others will not be blessed with children, or will only be blessed with a small number.

    One of the beatitudes is “Blessed are those persecuted (/hated/reviled/cast out) for the sake of righteousness (/The Son of Man).” They are blessed. We will be blessed if we are counted among them. That does not mean that we should seek persecution for its own sake. The martyrs generally didn’t pursue martyrdom.

    Similarly, God blesses the poor… we should view the poor as having God’s favor, and certainly not view them (as many do) as being cursed, and, if we’re called to a life of poverty, we should embrace it. Going beyond the beatitudes, the Bible doesn’t, overall, encourage a particular focus on the pursuit of wealth. But, we are not all called to poverty. A man who “owned” Costa Rica might very well be doing an ungodly thing by renouncing his wealth and leaving the country to chaos. If that wealth was entrusted to him, he is called to use it for God’s purposes, not to run away from the lot that God has given him.

    Think of the Parable of the Talents (Mt. 25:14-30, Lk.19: 12-28). Different people are born in different places, are given different abilities, different opportunities, and, yes, even receive different inheritances. If you’re the healthy, attractive, intelligent, well educated son of a billionaire, you might better serve the Lord, and the poor, by using your ability and your trust fund for good purposes.

    We all have to figure out the best way to use what we have, not the quickest way to get out of having it.

    • nanomanoman

      So much for rich men and camels and needles.

      Still, seems you are going by traditional majority opinion judging by your likes….

      • Cal-J

        Now, now, one named commenter and a handful of guests doesn’t equate to the “traditional majority opinion”. There have been comments on this blog that rack in hundreds of likes. (I hated writing that sentence — God, what the internet is doing to my vocabulary).

        And Nano, Mike has a point about the talents. Before we came to use the word for our innate skills, a talent (a “heavy common talent” — Wikipedia, “Talent (measurement)”, for reference) was a measurement of weight of almost 60 kilograms, and could be a chunk of gold, silver or other valuable material. In the New Testament, therefore, the parable of the talents is one of wealth — of God-given wealth, at that, and how it should be used for good (including expanded) in the service of the Master.

        The rich youth example is a warning, again, about the love of money. The youth’s problem was that he loved his wealth too much, which Jesus warns is the problem of, well, the rich in general. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.”

  • cheytewa

    When I lived in the projects, whenever I was tempted to indulge in self-pity, I would remind myself that to a lot of people in Calcutta it would seem I was living in unimaginable luxury. Now, although I never made it out of the barrio, I am free of government handouts (which do not make people inherently more spiritual!) – I do not have a lot of things I’d like to have but I do have all I need and more. Does this make me less blessed than I used to be? Am I more blessed than people in bigger houses who are financially secure? Those recipients of social programs today have it even easier than we did back then. Who is legitimately poor, is it the homeless, the third world poor?
    What really drives me insane is a Church that thinks the job of alleviating poverty is NOT its own job but rather the job of the government. That government doesn’t just tax believers to do this, and the waste is unbelievable.

  • nanomanoman

    You folks are the bible experts here but isn’t there that bit in the NT where a rich kid wants to join the disciples and Jesus says, great, now all you have to do is renounce your wealth and you can follow me. The kid then skulks off.

    My point is Jesus repeatedly attacks wealth (Mammon) and emphasizes it is only through poverty (by renouncing worship of Mammon) you shall know him. It’s pretty clear. And I suppose there is even a reason for it – that you cannot worship both. Or am I missing something?

    • Christian

      I think God is okay with people being rich so long as they were willing to let it go for him. It’s possible to have money and enjoy the benefits without worshiping it.

      • Robert

        May I add that this is usually never the case. Few are these people who can truly detach themselves from material possessions when they are so many in quantity. It’s just he nature of man to become attached to things that he can immediately experience and enjoy. The spiritual virtues take time to cultivate. Material wealth is ready and set to go right away.

    • Cal-J

      Close, but not quite the mark.

      Jesus warns against the love of money, against serving Mammon. Quite often, to be honest. But that is not the same as warning against money itself; that worshiping money is wrong is not to say it doesn’t have its time and place.

      Wealth itself is not a bad thing and can be put to good use in the service of God. It was a rich follower of Christ who procured his body and the tomb, for example.

  • Laura

    My husband and I (both converts) have been trying to understand the teaching on poverty so as to better apply it in our lives. I’m so glad you’re writing about this! I’m sure it will be helpful. Have you read Fr. Dubay’s “Happy Are You Poor”? I highly recommend it. He’s very no-nonsense about Jesus’ words and yet encouraging. Also, he uses many examples from the saints as to how poverty can be practiced in any vocation.

  • Ina

    I like how St. Josemaria describes the virtue of poverty in The Way:

    “Rather than in not having, true poverty consists in being detached, in voluntarily renouncing one’s dominion over things.

    That is why there are poor who are really rich. And vice-versa.”

  • Chris W.

    This article is comparing apples to oranges. Matthew 5:3-11 are the Beatitudes from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” Luke 6:20-22 are merely social conditions from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain.”

    Luke’s counterpart is not contrary to Matthew’s account, but it does use different language. Matthew’s gospel “emphasizes the religious and spiritual values of disciples in the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus” (the quote is from the footnotes of the NAB). So, when Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, “meek”, “merciful” and “peacemakers” etc. he wants us to BECOME these things.

    However, in the gospel of Luke Jesus says “Blessed are the poor”, “who are now hungry”, “who are now weeping”. All of these things are social conditions of humanity in all times, but Jesus is not calling us to hunger or weep or even be poor. He is saying that these social conditions will be fulfilled and eradicated in the life to come.

    Also, with the thought that we are demanded to become poor. If you think about it, being poor does not automatically mean that you do not hold on to your possessions. Even the poor can have a false sense of ownership when it comes to the little that they have. We are called to not be possessive of what we do have, to give everything we are and have to God. I think we should care for those in these social conditions and look at them with Luke’s gospel in mind and help them realize that all will be fulfilled when the ONE who IS, WAS and EVER SHALL BE grants those who are worthy enough with eternal life.

    • Cal-J

      The commenter Ina earlier posted a quote from St. Josemaria (Escriva?) that touches on your point.

  • Cal-J

    Marc, can I use that “deep feels” bit?

    Because I think I just found my favorite anti-spiritual jibe ever.

  • http://shackra.bitbucket.org/ shackra sislock

    “who — though he might own Costa Rica — nevertheless remains humble.”

    Hey, hey, hey!! You have one fan in that country :D!!!

    and is me!! :’D