17He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” By any rational or logical metric, this sentence fails to make sense. Generally, being poor is not considered a “blessing,” and the power inherent in the term “kingdom” would never be handed to the poor. Yet, here this paradoxical sentence exists, spoken by Jesus, the first in a long line of seemingly paradoxical statements. This scene begins following one set of rules and logic, and very quickly, Jesus flips the script and presents something entirely different, yet paradoxically exactly what the world truly needs: the paradox of a world turned entirely upside down.
When Jesus emerges onto the scene at the beginning of the passage (verse 17), he encounters masses of people hungry for something life-affirming, something which would not only grant them physical healing from whatever ailed them, but healing from the damages done to them by their society – physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Jesus’s fame had spread rather rapidly, and far, for his context: geographically, the crowd is coming from across the entirety of Palestine, and in rather surprising numbers. Just a few verses earlier (6:13-16) Jesus had finally assembled his core crew of disciples.
The people who gathered were obviously starving for something different than they had been offered by their society, especially to risk gathering in such large numbers in the face of a Roman government. The Roman government was deeply suspicious of the wave of similar “messiahs,” spiritual teachers, and political revolutionaries which sprung up across Palestine with, for Rome, disturbing regularity.
Jesus is seemingly following a regular, expected formula: healing from ailments, some words of encouragement, possibly even an emotional cry of rebellion against the oppressive government. The gathering itself is not remarkable. Politicians are still gathering people together in large rallies, offering them the equivalent of bread and circuses, snake oils of racism and xenophobia as salves for their poverty and pain.
What IS remarkable, however, is that Jesus takes the expectations of the crowd and flips them, presenting a vision of life, and truth, not rooted in previous definitions of power and human reality. He is presenting a framing of reality in direct rejection of any human conceptions of reality, and power, a reality where humans don’t grant the state power for its own sake. To illustrate the point, we should examine its mirror opposite:
War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength
These words are the slogan of the English Socialist Party (INGSOC), the oppressive regime which controls the alternative country of George Orwell’s 1984. They represent the approach INGSOC takes to social control and political power: dominate all reality by maintaining control over truth itself, manipulating all markers of meaning and existence, thus ensuring that society is constantly unsettled, uncertain of what reality is, and what and whom to trust.
The INGSOC approach leaves people in a state of perpetual confusion, breaking down their capacity for independent thought and resistance to the paradoxes inherent in a society. What is “true,” even the words in textbooks and the words chiseled into statues, can be changed literally overnight by the government.
In this nauseating situation of whiplash, the state presents itself as the only option for comfort, safety, and mental stability. This isn’t simply a situation where one hands the duty, and privilege, of individual thought over to another; this is a complete recalibration of reality where what is “real” and “true” are controlled by another.
It could be argued that these elements—manipulating perceptions and interpretations of reality, control of human behaviour, and deliberate framing what is valued and respected—are the hallmarks of human society, and the institutions that give structure and meaning to society.
Don’t schools teach curated narratives of truth to students about their world, aiding them in understanding the world, and their place in it? Don’t religious communities offer their own interpretations of human events and sacred scripture? Doesn’t society offer culturally-specific meanings of the concepts “truth,” “life,” “blessing,” “joy,” and “pain?”
Sure, we understand the meaning of “blessing,” in part because of how we have been taught to understand it. Our framework, in part, determines our reality. If accepted as a general framing, then, it’s a question of degree: the problem lies with how MUCH control each society exerts over perceptions of reality and the meaning which is therefore derived.
This also begs the question, inherent in any discussion of power: who benefits? Is this manipulation for the benefit of humans, aiding in full human flourishing, or is it to serve the state/institutions/business?
Society tells me that I shouldn’t eat too much pie, and my health—and waistline—are guaranteed to benefit. Yet, society might also tell me that I should give over the best years of my life wholly in service to a company, for the purpose of greater profit for those in charge. I need not be a socialist to take issue with the perception of reality which says that is a “healthy” use of my time, and my life.
Who controls our perceptions, and our mental frameworks controls us, our lives, our very existence. In this lens, we can see the definition of the concepts of “proper,” “normal,” and “healthy” in an wholly different light. A willingness to serve one’s country in rebuilding after a natural disaster is quite proper, while some might argue that appropriating the resources of another country simply to enrich your own is not.
This takes on a particular salience in our current political situation where those in power use every means necessary to undermine truth, cries of “fake news” seek to undermine our faith in our own perceptions of reality. The most radical statement we can make is to say we refuse to be bullied into seeing walls as “beautiful,” human existence as “illegal,” love as “immoral,” and funneling money towards the rich and away from the poor as “beneficial.” Ye certainly SHALL know the truth, and the truth we’re being told by those in power is actually enslaving us.
In response, this question must emerge: to whom, or to what, do we grant the power to frame our realities, our perceptions of truth, and define what is “normal” and life-affirming?
Luke makes it abundantly clear that it is God, and God alone, who can best align our lives and realities, to make us whole and healthy, and to give us a life worth living, a life most “human.”
In Jesus’s view, poverty (and its attendant hunger and sadness) is powerful, for it frees you from the slavery of maintaining earthly power and control. In verse 20, Jesus makes the still-shocking, and in human terms paradoxical, claim that “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
The kingdom Jesus is talking about is, as he’ll state later to Pilate, not of this world, so it stands to reason that it wouldn’t follow what this world would frame as logic or sense. Thus, poverty is powerful precisely because it strips humans of the illusion that their power is anything but a temporary thing.
Poverty entails a lack of worldly power, which presents an intriguing paradoxical situation for the poor: by lacking power, they are free from the need to maintaining human structures of power, and are thus free to re-imagine the meaning of “power” and re-frame their perceptions of what is healthy, life-affirming, and valuable.
This reflects Jeremiah’s claim in 17:6 that trusting in human perceptions of power (making “mortal flesh his strong arm”) is actually rooting oneself in a situation of poverty, an “arid shrub in the desert” precisely because it is rejecting the true source of health, life, and flourishing: rooting oneself in God’s paradoxical frame of power as submission to the will of God.
Jesus is therefore not making the claim that poverty is a good in and of itself: hunger is still awful, and pain—no matter what variety—is not inherently valuable. Jesus doesn’t claim that people will remain in their state of poverty in the kingdom of God, simply that it will flip all perceptions of value, and as such, will flip people’s actual reality. This is a necessary distinction, for this passage could, and has, been seen as a valorization of poverty itself, as something for people to seek out as a dualistic rejection of this world for joy in the next.
In fact, while Jesus acknowledges in verse 23 that it is not likely for the poor to receive their reward in this world, he is not foreclosing it. In verses 24-26 Jesus is setting himself firmly in the prophetic tradition of calling upon those in power to repent of their treatment of the poor.
He calls upon those who are rich, are full, are laughing, and are highly regarded by the world’s standards to turn back to the way of the Lord, for it is only through becoming dead to the world that they can realise, in their rebirth through Jesus Christ, how utterly dead they had become: empty husks sucking at dry riverbeds, serving the gods of the state, the marketplace, and money which suck the human dry without any hope of rebirth, leaving “chaff blowing in the wind” (Psalm 1:4).
In the end, our current reality still feels far more Orwellian than we might care to admit. Our fears and lust for power often combine to create paradoxical situations where we accept the self-defeating sickness inherent in placing ourselves entirely at the service of the state, and its needs, over and above service to God, and God’s needs. Yet, what’s the true paradox: service to a self-serving state in pursuit of a moment of earthly power and control, or service to God in the pursuit of the true power of everlasting life and rebirth?