Poor and Poverty in Luke’s Gospel

In Luke Jesus mentions four types of people whom he calls ‘blessed:’ the poor, those who are hungry, those who mourn and those who are persecuted. Here the poor are really materially poor and not symbolically, spiritually poor. Jesus promises them the kingdom of God. They are in the kingdom of God without being aware of it.

Poor and Poverty in Luke’s Gospel

By Fr. Dr. Robert D’Souza, Pasaydaan, Vasai

Saint Luke’s Gospel is known as the Gospel of the Poor. On the one hand Luke underlines Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and on the other hand he condemns those rich people who place all their trust in wealth and riches. Let us reflect on Jesus’ attitude towards the poor in Luke’s Gospel.

Hebrew language uses two terms for ‘poor’ in the Bible: ani (a poor person) and anawim (poor of the Lord). The Psalmist never groups himself with the anawim (poor of the Lord) unless he has first identified himself as an ani: O Lord I am poor and needy. In his affliction and suffering, the psalmist refers to himself as an ani. It is only after his deliverance from trouble that he groups himself with the anawim. (This poor man called and the Lord heard him).In short, the ani is materially poor, he or she depends on provision. The anawim are the ones who depend on God’s providence for all their needs.

Poor in Luke
Keeping in mind the basic difference between the ani and the anawim let us reflect on passages from Luke’s Gospel which highlight the blessedness of the poor who totally depend on God for help.

Luke presents Mary and Joseph (Luke 2: 1-14, 22-24) as a poor couple from Nazareth. Mary calls herself ‘the handmaid of the Lord.’ She thanks him ‘for he has looked on her lowliness.’ The couple does not have any place to rest and hence had to give birth to their first born son in a stable in Bethlehem. In Luke they are visited not by three kings (as in Matthew) but by poor shepherds. When they go to present the baby in the Temple they do not offer sheep or goat (as the rich would do) but just a pair of turtle doves (an offering prescribed for the poorer section of the society). Jesus is looked down upon as the son of a poor carpenter in Nazareth. At his birth the shepherds who are counted among the poor, visited him.

Though we are told that shepherds (Luke 2: 15 – 20) were simple, humble, illiterate and poor, the reality of Bethlehem shepherds was different. The world renowned scripture scholar Dr. Lucien Legrand informs us that shepherds were considered sinners because for the sake of a good pasture for their flock they would cross the boundaries of Jerusalem and would not follow the Jewish law concerning Sabbath and fasting. In one of his letters St. Francis de Sales wrote to St. Jane Frances de Chantal, “The shepherds’ field was enlightened by heavenly light and was filled with angelic music. Whereas the crib in Bethlehem was surrounded by darkness, biting cold and the cry of the new born baby Jesus. However, it was not in the shepherd’s field but in the crib of Bethlehem that God was found.” On the Christmas day we may search for the baby Jesus merely in the dazzling light and heavenly music. But he may be struggling in the poorest of the poor. Jesus’ mission manifesto shows his preference for the poor.

Jesus’ preaching in the Synagogue of Nazareth (Luke 4: 18 – 20) was the summary of the vision of his ministry. After reading the text he says, “This text is fulfilled even while you were listening to it.” Jesus was trying to tell them that with this he has inaugurated the year of God’s favour for his people. Jesus was anointed to give the good news to the poor. He was to open the eyes of the blind, to liberate those who were in bondage or were oppressed.

Therefore when John the Baptist sends two of his disciples to find out from Jesus whether he is the one who is to come or they should wait for someone else, Jesus replied saying: Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind are given sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news is preached to the poor’ (Luke 7: 18-22). The Beatitudes also focus on this poor whom we will find in Luke 6: 20 – 23.

St. Matthew has placed his beatitudes in the context of the sermon on the mountain. Luke places his beatitudes in the context of the sermon on the plain (Luke 6: 17). Besides, in the beatitudes he has also included the woes to those who are rich (6: 24-26).

In Luke Jesus mentions four types of people whom he calls ‘blessed:’ the poor, those who are hungry, those who mourn and those who are persecuted. Here the poor are really materially poor and not symbolically, spiritually poor. Jesus promises them the kingdom of God. They are in the kingdom of God without being aware of it. It is those who strive to become rich are outside the kingdom because they are unhappy until they gain some riches.

Similarly those who are hungry should consider themselves blessed because they will experience genuine satisfaction. The wealthy do not value a piece of bread neither are they satisfied with all the sumptuous meals. Those who mourn are sensitive to the loss in their life unlike those who are all the time laughing without knowing the value of being safe and secure. It is only those who have tasted the bitter tears of crying over life who will value smiles and laughter in their life.

In short, just as Mary predicted a reversal of social order in her Magnificat, Jesus prophesies a social reversal in the beatitudes and in the woes.

Teaching on Worry (Luke 12: 22-34)

Human mind is fashioned in such a way that it cannot remain in the present for too long. It either broods over the past unnecessarily or worries about the future indefinitely. This becomes possible because of two faculties which are at work in the mind of a person: memory and imagination. One has to train these faculties to think in the right way. This means one has to think of the past with gratitude and look at the future with hope.

This is what we have to learn from Jesus. He is helping us to put our priorities right: life is more important than food and body is more important than clothes. In Hindi there is a saying: Shir salamat to pagadi pachas meaning if your head is in its right place then you can afford to have many turbans. Jesus gives the example of the birds of the sky and the grass in the fields. He reminds us about Solomon who was not clothed in all his glory as magnificently as the flowers in the field are with variety of colours, shapes and sizes. 

Now instead of worrying about certain things let us resolve to do something about them. The best that you can do is to pray over them and follow Jesus’ bottom line: “Seek first the kingdom of God and all his righteousness and all the other things will be granted to you,”... ‘Because your heart will be where your treasure is.’ That is what the poor widow demonstrates (Luke 21: 1 – 4)

Deuteronomy 26 speaks of giving one tenth of one’s produce of the field or income to the dwelling place of God (later on to the Temple). Malachi condemns the people for not following this instruction seriously. Hence he appeals to the people to bring in the one tenth of all foods in the Temple and to test and see that God will not bless them (Malachi 3: 10).

However, three classes in Jewish society were considered as dependent: the widows, the orphans and the sojourners. They were exempted from this rule but they were expected to contribute whatever they could. There were rules in favour of them such as they were to be looked after by the people. During the harvest festival they are to be remembered and certain portion in the field is to be left behind for them (Lev 19: 9-10 followed by Boaz in Ruth 2: 15-16).

It is against this background that we have to see the widow’s mite. It was customary according to some Jewish legends that people who used to put big amounts in the treasury of the Temple used to blow various musical instruments. Matthew 6: 2 supports this legend. The hypocrites used to blow the horn before them in the market place as well as in the synagogue to make others know their generosity. No one could blow any horn for the poor widow because her amount was nothing compared to the rich people’s donations. Yet she wins the favour of the Lord because she gave out of her nothingness.

It is said that the value of your donation depends on the amount of money you have kept behind than the amount that you have given away. The widow had kept nothing for herself. Those two copper coins would have satisfied her physical hunger for a day but fulfilling the religious duty satisfied her spiritual hunger which she considered higher. She was both ani (materially poor) and anawim (dependent on God) at the same time. Did you any time have an experience of exhausting all your resources and depending on God completely for his help?

(October 17 is marked as the International Poverty Eradication Day. According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, one of the keys to ending child poverty is addressing poverty in the household, from which it often stems. Access to quality social services must be a priority.)

(Image / Photo Courtesy: Unsplash.com)

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