During his earthly life, Jesus of Nazareth is recorded as having said many things to many different audiences. Many of these sayings can best be termed “cryptic” and “radical”. In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus is reported to have said:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; he who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10: 34-39).
Obviously, the saying of Christ that he wishes to not bring peace but a sword and to set fathers and daughters against each other is extremely puzzling. It is beyond the scope of this blog to try to explain this particular passage. I will attempt to explain here however and focus on Jesus saying in the beatitudes which Matthew 5:3 reports Jesus as saying “blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the king of heaven”, and Luke reports Jesus as saying “blessed are the poor” (Luke: 6:20). The term poor in spirit may be interpreted as being humble, as opposed to arrogant or prideful. However one may put it or cut it, these are extremely puzzling statements.
The idea that poverty or humility are somehow blessed stated runs strictly counter to our current society’s emphasis on material goods and the desirability of the acquisition of material wealth which permits those who succeed in this enterprise to obtain a measure of dominance, if not arrogance. Clearly, the acquisition of large amounts of wealth can hardly be thought to result in humility.
Therefore, we must ask in what sense does Jesus mean that humility and poverty are blessed?
I think that Jesus thinks here that great material wealth presents a barrier to faith and belief. I Those who acquire great wealth may erroneously come to believe they are all-powerful, autonomous and independent beings and can come to reject the notion of an invisible god who created, rules and will come to judge his dependent created creatures.
Great material wealth allows us to come to believe in ourselves alone. With wealth and goods, we no longer may feel the need for repentance, salvation, worship, or service and we surely do not come to feel and exercise humility.
Wealth in some sense is a barrier to personal self-growth since it fools us to believe not in God but ourselves as God, or better put, ourselves alone. Wealth may fool us into believing temporary, earthly mortality where the truth of it that in any second of our lives, we may be taken and removed from the little drama and play that constitutes our lives, bringing us to an abrupt end.
Poverty and humility, Jesus means, is blessed because it enables us to face our limited humanity and basic powerlessness and the reality that we are set in the precipice of tomorrow.
This saying of Christ is radical, puzzling, and shocking, since in thought, he sets himself in the church against the values of the secular and material society in materialism, power, pride, and arrogance. How then is poverty and humility blessed and why are those states blessed as Jesus says?
They are blessed because the truth is we do not run the show and we all share a limited life span, or, in a word, a short spree of immortality. Wealth may lead us to believe in our personal power and immortality when the truth is, each day we live on borrowed time.