When blessing comes to one group, another group misses out. Jewish wisdom-teaching always worked like this: announcing blessings for those who obeyed Torah also implied woes for those who disobeyed.
So when Jesus said, “Blessings on the poor …” did he also mean “and woe to the rich?” When he said, “Blessings on the grieving …” did he also mean “and woe to those who are content?”
Shockingly, that’s exactly what he meant!
In Luke’s account, Jesus gives four blessings, and then clarifies what it means for the opposite group (Luke 6:20-26):
|20 Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.||24 But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.|
|21 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.||25 Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.|
|Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.||Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.|
|22 Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.||26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.|
God provides enough for everyone, even the birds (Matthew 6:24-34). If people are starving, it’s not because God failed to provide; it’s because greedy people grab power that should be in God’s hands, claiming resources without caring that others starve. Name that for what it is: evil. When humans submit to God’s governance, it will no longer be like that.
When God reigns, the poor will have plenty. But that requires the rich to relinquish their excess resources. People will no longer go to bed hungry when the world operates as God commands, but for that to happen those parts of the world that stockpile food must give up their excesses. The problem is not God’s provision; it’s human mismanagement. When God’s governance is restored, the losers will be the rich and powerful people who currently control wealth, power, and trade.
Woe to the rulers who build walls to exclude the poor and try to make the poor pay for it. Under God’s reign, people love their neighbours. If you don’t like that, you’ll be a loser.
The blessings of the kingdom of God are for those who are poor, mourning, powerless, and hungry for justice. Jesus promised the great reversal. The great reversal means loss for the rich, laughing, litigious, power-brokers who find it so difficult to give their power back to God.
If you thought of the kingdom of God purely in spiritual terms, with no relevance to politics or economics, think again: you have not understood what Jesus was saying. The kingdom of God means his governance — the world, in its entirety, running as he designed it to run. Nothing less than complete restoration does justice to what Jesus proclaimed.
It’s not that God hates the wealthy. It’s that those who find their identity in their wealth will lose their identity. Find your identity in the king you belong to and in the brothers and sisters you share the realm with. If you can’t be satisfied with a heavenly sovereign who treats us all as valuable, you lose.
But if you’ve been treated as a loser now, Jesus holds out great joy: you win under God’s reign.
What others are saying
Richard Bauckham, The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically, Second edition. (London: SPCK, 2011), 142:
So can we read, not just certain passages of the Gospels, but Jesus himself politically? To interpret Jesus and his significance in purely political terms would be to reduce Jesus. But we should also be reducing Jesus if we were to exclude the political dimension of his life and fate. Because the Kingdom of God he served embraces the whole of human life, and because he identified in love with human beings whose lives were affected by political structures and policies, his mission impinged on the political along with other dimensions of life. Politics, as we have observed a number of times, is not everything; nor is the political dimension a watertight, autonomous sphere of life; it interacts with all other dimensions of life. Thus we may expect to find that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, while not reducible to politics, have a political dimension.
Dr Helen Szoke of Oxfam Australia, commenting on the fact that just eight men own same wealth as half of world’s poorest (January 2017, despite critics):
This concentration of wealth is actually indicating there’s something wrong with the global system and as global leaders meet at the World Economic Forum and business leaders meet we’re really saying that this system that is broken needs to be fixed.
[next: How does he kingdom come?]