Good News for the Poor

Jesus came to bring good news to the poor. That much we can agree on.

Blessed are the poor, he declared.

And yet, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend among some affluent Christians. It’s the tendency to skip past the implications of these words and co-opt them for ourselves.

We rush to the phrase “poor in spirit” with gratitude and relief.

Whenever I say, “Blessed are the poor,” there’s an almost knee-jerk reaction in certain churches to add the words, “… in spirit,” in a defiant whisper.

And in doing so, we marginalize those who live in poverty all over again.

We reduce the good news of God’s kingdom on earth to something that is only emotional and anemically spiritual, instead of world-changing.

We ignore the economic component of discipleship.

Theologians Glen Stassen and David Gushee collected evidence from early church documents to show that for the first 300 years or so after Christ, the Beatitudes was the single most quoted piece of Scripture evoked for teaching, discipline or doctrine in the church.

The church fathers regarded the Beatitudes as the master key to Christian discipleship. And that sermon starts with the amazing pronouncement, “Blessed are you who are poor …”

But after the conversion of the big shot Emperor Constantine, Christianity was co-opted by the state, and this revolutionary sermon began to lose its central place in the church’s teaching because it threatened those in power and subverted the authority of the empire.

It was almost as if Christians finally had a big powerful leader in political power who could advance their agenda.

Sound familiar?

Well it didn’t go well. It never does. Over time, Jesus’ radical “blessed are …” promises were sidelined and spiritualized away.

Instead of “Blessed are the poor,” the church began to focus solely on “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

(OK time out. Yes, the poor in spirit are surely blessed—and that may include us. But it should never be just about us.)

A strong corrective is still needed, even now, centuries later.

For example, Jesus talked about blessing the poor with a wealthy young man when he earnestly came seeking religious advice. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus “looked at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow me.’”
—Mark 10:21

It is truly striking in Mark’s telling of this scene that Jesus looked at this affluent young man and loved him—and it was love, not judgment, that motivated this invitation.

That detail is so beautiful and important that it challenges me every single time I read it.

But see how there is a clear economic component to this discipleship invitation? Give to the poor.

By asking the young man to give up his grasp on his possessions and join Jesus’ subversive community of sharing, Jesus was inviting him to embody a picture of the kingdom of God on earth.

Sadly, the young man, like many of us, rejects this vision of sharing, “The man’s face fell and he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

Is that our response when Jesus insists that we stop marginalizing the poor with our unnecessarily affluent lifestyles and our hyper-spiritualized faith?

In Acts 2, we see that in the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection, heaps of people did respond joyfully to this invitation and they, “sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:45).

That right there is economic discipleship.

It’s not the whole gospel. But the gospel surely doesn’t exist without it.

In a beautiful outworking of Jesus’ vision, all the believers chose to “meet together daily” and “hold their possessions in common.” (Acts 2:44–46)

Folks, this is truly good news for the economically poor! It’s not capitalism. It’s not socialism. It’s the kingdom of God on earth.

That’s why he says, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God!” (Luke 6:20).

Today, too many of our churches have concocted a dozen ingenious reasons why these stories and teachings no longer mean what they say. We dodge, twist and over-spiritualize what is plain to see—that there is a costly economic component to our discipleship.

As the disciples gasp and splutter over this teaching, asking each other incredulously, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus lays out a practical outworking of kingdom economics, one that reaches deeply into how we conceive of our family and possessions:

“Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”
—Mark 10:29–30

Houses, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, fields.

By the way, why does Jesus focus on our concept of family when describing the kingdom of God?

This list makes perfect sense when we see that the word economics comes from the Greek word oikos, which literally means household or extended family.

Our finances and our concept of family are closely connected.

For those who are called to foreign lands, we will physically leave our homes and families for Jesus’ sake. But there is a deeper meaning in this call to forsake all for Jesus, a meaning that challenges our idolization of the nuclear family.

In the kingdom of God that Jesus is describing, which will be good news for both the rich and the poor, our families will be expanded a hundredfold.

Yet to be part of that sharing economy, we have to leave behind our narrow focus of faith and widen our embrace to include others, especially the poor, the orphan and the widow.

So, the solo mom in my community becomes another mother for whom I am called to care.

The elderly recluse, another father.

The orphan or struggling kid becomes another brother or sister or foster child in my extended family.

Such communal caring erodes the harsh boundaries that our contemporary culture has erected in order to“protect our nuclear (and idolatrous) vision of family.

Jesus is saying, “For my sake, and the sake of the good news of the kingdom, give up your grasp on your tight nuclear family and possessions, because I have so much more for you. A hundred times more.”

This call invites us to dismantle the fences we have erected around our finances, our family, tribe and nation so that God can expand our vision a hundredfold until we see everyone as part of the extended family of God.

Good news for the poor. It’s not about us. Or is it?

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Craig Greenfield
Craig Greenfield

Craig Greenfield (@craigasauros) is the founder of Alongsiders International and author of Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy, and Faithfulness in a Broken World (Zondervan). A storyteller and activist living in urban slum communities for the past 15 years, Craig’s passion is to communicate God’s heart for the marginalized around the world.