“But if Yahweh’s justice is incarnated in his people, then a very close relationship is established between idolatry and the oppression of the poor, so that these become interchangeable terms; then God takes zealous action both for his name and for the poor, and his judgment extirpates the proud and haughty, who have taken this attitude visa-a-sis God and the poor simultaneously,” Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord VI: Theology: The Old Covenant.Trans. Brian McNeil and Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 316 – 317.
Jesus came to be among the poor, the downtrodden, the dispossessed, bringing to them the very presence of God. Of course they didn’t recognize it. How could they? Yet the God of Israel, the God of all creation came – and did as promised; he set his camp with the downtrodden. But if they listened, they would have known, for he had told them. “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’ And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,‘” (Luke 4:16 – 21) Sadly, even those who listened to him did not fully comprehend.
Today, people are often confused as to why Scripture is so focused upon the poor. They can’t understand why are they among the blessed. Why is the kingdom of God theirs? What does it all mean?
Their blessedness should never be used by anyone to remain satisfied with the status quo, to look to the impoverished and say, “Oh well. Look at it this way. We are helping them to be blessed.” Man’s inhumanity to man can be seen by the structures of sin which create the framework from which poverty is established. Poverty is never good; it is always a social evil. “Poverty as such is not a value, should not be, and must at all costs be abolished. It humiliates the human person to the status of a needy beggar (‘ebjon), to one who is bowed down (‘ani), thin, physically and intellectually weak (dal), one who is absolutely poor (rash),” Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord VI, 316.
Passage after passage of Scripture can be brought up to indicate the relationship between social injustice and sin, between social systems which keep the poor downtrodden and idolatry. God’s anger is constantly taken out against those who perpetrate such crimes; one needs to just look at the long history of Israel to see that this is so. God is indeed a jealous God, and his wrath strikes out against injustice. “”Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are in the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, `Bring, that we may drink!’ The Lord GOD has sworn by his holiness that, behold, the days are coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. And you shall go out through the breaches, every one straight before her; and you shall be cast forth into Harmon,” says the LORD. “Come to Bethel, and transgress; to Gilgal, and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days; offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel!” says the Lord GOD” (Amos 4:1 – 5). The day of the Lord is brought upon Israel; they have forgotten the widow, the orphan, the poor. “Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil upon their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in the power of their hand. They covet fields, and seize them; and houses, and take them away; they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance. Therefore thus says the LORD: Behold, against this family I am devising evil, from which you cannot remove your necks; and you shall not walk haughtily, for it will be an evil time” (Micah 2:1 -3). Restoration comes from repentance, from fixing the social order and removing social injustice. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16-17).
Only when we explore this in depth can we see that God understood himself as the protector of the poor. From this we can begin to understand the meaning of the words, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). For God’s heart is with the poor. It was because of his solidarity with the poor that Jesus became an agitation to the ruling class. He was a threat to them and the social order they tried to keep in place.
To Jesus, of course, we are all poor, and the rich man who understands this can find their place among the kingdom. Everything which exists is God’s and is meant to be distributed and used justly by all. “For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it. If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty. This is why God has allowed you to have more: not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indolence, but for you to distribute to those in need. Just as an official in the imperial treasury, if he neglects to distribute where he is ordered, but spends instead for his own indolence, plays the penalty and is put to death, so also the rich man is a kind of steward of the money which is owed for distribution to the poor,” St John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty. Trans. Catharine P. Roth (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), 49-50. Those who are rich in the eyes of men are called to share their riches (and not to reject the stewardship and gift given to them); if they do they will find the true riches of the kingdom of God. In this way we must not understand the elimination of social distinction; instead, we must realize that the greater the distinction the greater the responsibility.
Who among the ruling classes of the world want to hear this? How many take their role seriously? Like the prophets before him, Jesus was to experience man’s inhumanity to man; the response towards his yes to humanity was the tyrant’s no to God’s justice. The tyrant always believes he is within his rights to control and own anything as he sees it; he might try to boast of his acts of charity by returning a small portion of what his has taken to the populace. That of course is a farce, and such a farce will always come to an end. And it has proleptically been shown its end in the person of Jesus. Lifted up on the cross, placed next to thieves, Jesus’ solidarity with the poor was complete (although his solidarity with the sinner was just beginning as he entered into hell); and it was God’s response, God’s yes to Jesus, that is, in the resurrection God’s kingdom breaks open and is released upon the earth. What was once low is brought to glory. Only when we completely take up our own cross, joining in solidarity with Jesus, who was in solidarity with the poor, will we find our place risen up in glory. This is what it means to be a follower of Christ. This is what Pope Benedict understands being stated in the Sermon on the Mount, “The setting in which Luke frames the Sermon on the Mount clarifies to whom the Beatitudes are addressed: ‘He lifted his eyes on his disciples.’ The individual Beatitudes are the fruit of this looking upon the disciples; they describe what might be called the actual conditions of Jesus’ disciples. They are poor, hungry, weeping men; they are hated and persecuted (cf. Lk 6:20ff.). These statements are meant to list practical, but also theological, attributes of his disciples – of those who have set out to follow Jesus and have become his family.” Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth. Trans. Adrian J. Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 71. We have Christ’s description of his disciples. It’s never easy to become one. It takes unity with God’s grace, which is at once as merciful as it is purifying. It is only by becoming so low and so poor that we have died to the self that we will rise up and be given our true place in Christ.