More than a decade ago, I had a job working in an office at a strip mall in southern California, and I spent most of my time there. After dark, I would turn out the lights and sit at my desk and write. Not knowing I was there in the dark, nearly every night a homeless woman would arrive with a few cardboard boxes, put together a makeshift compartment to sleep in and situate it just outside the office in the cold air in a little cubbyhole that could not be seen from the street. I would sometimes hear her muttering to herself. On some nights when she thought she was alone and did not know that on the other side of the stucco wall against which she propped her head, I sat in a comfortable office writing book reviews and other assorted items on a computer screen, my fingers flicking over a keyboard, I would hear her, after she was done putting her box home together, softly sobbing to herself. Here we were, me in the camp of the haves and she in the camp of the have-nots, relatively speaking, less than three feet away from each other, separated by a thin wall, each of us lost in our own universe as if the other were light years away.
Jesus says, "Blessed are you poor..." Such a statement is contrary to common sense and to all of our expectations and wisdom about how the world works. How was this woman blessed? To be blessed connotes happiness, but also signifies a more profound reality than that. There is a sense in which it means to be held in the providential hands of God, to be on the right track and to know the implicit joy of being in such a state in accordance with its potential and promise. Jesus contrasts this in His sermon on the plain, when he says, "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation." St. James in his epistle follows this up with the words,
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter.
This seems to have things upside-down and inside-out. Isn't abundance and wealth a sign of blessing, and destitution a sign of shame and woe? Are not the rich happier because of their abundance of things, the multitude of conveniences, the ability to satisfy all desire and want? And are not the poor more woeful because of their lack of those same things, their misery, their unspent desires, their inability to access even the most basic necessities? Isn't wealth a sign of integrity and hard work, and poverty a sign of probable addiction and implicit laziness?
I recently overheard someone who said, "money can't buy happiness; it is happiness." It fixes problems. The thought of winning the lottery sends many people into hours of profound daydreaming. It would seem that money is not only the source of happiness, but also of hope. It is the meaning of Christmas. Anyone who has had to undergo the onslaught of advertising and jingles that comprise the contemporary celebration of Christmas without a lot of money for gifts and food and travel, money to temper the excited passions of kids who want every new toy that flashes across the TV screen, money to buy ourselves the things we crave and desire using the holiday as an excuse, might agree that a Christmas without cash is a joyless one.
But Jesus says, "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." What does this mean? One is initially tempted to think it refers to a pie-in-the-sky when you die theology, the notion that your suffering on earth will be rewarded in heaven. I consider this amid my own awareness of that which I lack, and I don't think it is the total truth or the point Jesus is making. The heaven to which He refers has an entrance, a door through which we go even in this life, Christ himself, and we become partakers with him and in him of the life of God even now prior to death and that which awaits us beyond death.
The kingdom of God is a realm of rulership wherein the walls separating us are dismantled: We become equal as human persons made in the image of God, and the judgments of comparison, either condemning others through pride or ourselves through shame, are thrown down. Jesus draws out the distinctions between the two kingdoms, whose kings vie to rule our hearts, later in the Sermon on the Mount as recorded by Matthew. "Do not lay up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys."
Does this mean that it is a sin to be wealthy? I don't think that is the point either, although at the same time there is no justification implied here for seeking wealth as an end, or for the sins of acquisitiveness or greed. The point rather seems to be one that pertains to the disposition of the soul. The poor person because he does not have riches does not put his trust in them, he does not find his security in them. We may want to have financial security, which is a good objective as long as we understand that the terminology is relative; financial security, as many people discovered in recent years, is not really secure; it can fall out from under your feet as readily as a trap door you did not know was there. The poor person is more easily predisposed to put his trust in God and to seek in Christ a sense of security that in His providential hands God will bring to him whatever medicine is most needed for his soul. That may or may not include a new car, a nice house and a beach vacation on some exotic island.
It is more difficult for a wealthy person to disengage himself from his attachment to riches and to put his trust in Christ. The temptation to feel secure because of affluence and wealth is overwhelming. By the same token, a poor person who desires to be wealthy is filled with the same avarice as the rich person who clings to his wealth, and Jesus advises that a heart captured by the deception that money buys happiness and security, whether rich or poor, will find it nearly impossible to enter the kingdom of heaven -- though not impossible because all things are possible with God, even a camel walking through the eye of a needle.
Or, as Paul elaborates in his first letter to his spiritual son, Timothy, "...we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition."
A person who is poor in spirit, on the other hand, does not trust in riches, or in the natural feeling of security afforded by a good job, or in the apparent stability of a comfortable home. Such things are necessary, desirable and part of life, and there is nothing implicitly wrong with one's enjoyment of them; but the person who is poor in spirit does not invest in them beyond their usefulness. Someone who is poor in spirit depends finally on God, and this dependence leads to peace.
Jesus goes to great lengths to describe the peace that exemplifies the kingdom of God, the realm of the rulership of Christ over one's own heart, body and mind. It is a realm where violence is not an alternative, where enemies are forgiven, where one gives to all who ask and does not judge. It is a kingdom of forgiveness, fulness, mercy and eternal life.
The kingdom ruled by riches, however, is one of spending and thrift, pride and shame, and constant comparison with others and what others have. Given notions of scarcity and feelings of unsatisfied desire, conflict is born, and perpetual unhappiness becomes the status quo despite the acquirement of many things, all of which I am ultimately ungrateful for and which I take for granted. All the thanks that we give once a year on Thanksgiving Thursday is canceled out on Black Friday when we mob and fight each other over things, stuff on sale, stuff that we are apparently poised to give to someone we love even if it means crushing other people in our effort to get it, stuff that breaks and does not last. Against the backdrop of eternity before God, this stuff has no value and attaches to us inexorably through our desires for comfort and pleasure and pulls us down to hell.
The way we relate to money and to things in some sense determines the way we relate to other people, those in need and therefore how we relate to Christ. I am reminded of the words of St. Basil, which I read in the Winter issue of In Communion, the international quarterly journal of which I am an associate editor:
"To whom am I unjust when I keep what is mine, asks the rich man. Tell me, which things are yours? Where did you get them from at the beginning of your life? It is like someone who has a seat in the theater, and who objects when others also take their places. He claims that he owns what is for the common use of all. So too with the rich. They claim in advance that which is common property and make themselves the owners of it. Moreover, if everyone acquires what they need and leave the excess over for the destitute, then there will be no rich and no poor. Did you not come naked out of your mother's womb? Are you not going to return naked to the earth? Where did you get your present possessions from? If you say 'from fate,' then that makes you an atheist who neither acknowledges your Creator nor gives thanks to your Benefactor. If you acknowledge that they came from God, then tell me the reason why He gave them to you. Is God unjust that He gives the things of life to people unequally? Why are you rich while another is poor? In any case, is it not so that you can receive the reward for good and faithful stewardship, and the other can receive the reward for his patient effort? But you, who grasps at everything in your insatiable greed, do you really think that you are doing nobody injustice by plundering so much? Who is the greedy one? The one who is not satisfied with that which is enough. Who is the plunderer? The one who takes that which belongs to all. Are you greedy? Are you a plunderer? The one who steals clothes off someone's back is called a thief. Why should we refer to the one who does not clothe the naked, while having the means to do so, as anything else? The bread that you have belongs to the hungry, the clothes that are in your cupboard belong to the naked, the shoes that are rotting in your possession belong to the barefooted, the money that you have buried belongs to the destitute. And so you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them."
Jesus says to us, "Blessed are the poor." To those of us who struggle in these present difficult times, this should come as a word of consolation and hope. Our struggles give us an opportunity to follow Christ, to place our trust in Him and let God be our strength and security.
The Beatitudes, if nothing else, are not only a set of blessings and promises, but they are also descriptive of the character and attributes of Jesus, who with extreme humility and poverty of spirit willfully submitted himself to death in order to redeem us from death. Let us take up our crosses and follow him. This, and not riches or possessions, is the path that leads not only to contentment even amid the trials and difficulties of life, but also leads to peace.
The foregoing is a truncated version of Episode Four of my podcast, Seeking Peace, at Ancient Faith Radio.