Luke is my favourite gospel, not least because of the theme of justice for the poor and hungry which runs through its telling of the story of Jesus’ life (and continues into the story of the newborn church in Acts). It is Luke who has Mary sing about the hungry being fed and the mighty put down. It is Luke who has shepherds worship the newborn Jesus (the pious description ‘humble’ of these shepherds doesn’t really cut it in terms of the impoverished, unclean and uncouth outcasts the evangelist has in mind).
There is a great temptation to ‘spiritualise’ biblical passages dealing with poverty and riches, as though God were concerned solely with some ‘inner’ part of me (the part which will survive my death), but had delegated less sublime matters to Donald Trump and the FTSE100. This is a travesty of the Catholic faith and antithetical to biblical religion. The temptation to think this way, however, runs deep and is fed from central aspects of modern living. So think about the Beatitudes. Luke’s version was read at mass today. But what most people think of when they hear talk of the Beatitudes is Matthew’s version (from Ch. 5 of his gospel):
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
There is no real sense of the gospel involving conflict on the part of its followers here (admittedly they are going to be reviled and persecuted). Instead the ‘peacemakers’ are declared blessed. Crucially it is the ‘poor in spirit’, rather than ‘the poor’, who get a positive mention here. It is easy for modern readers to hear these Beatitudes as communicating a depoliticised gospel, concerned with the inner and ‘spiritual’, and perhaps with being nice, making up with people (peacemaking). Nobody need feel threatened by such a gospel. Nor does this passage from Matthew condemn anyone. Were Matthew writing today, he would probably not have much to fear from the government’s Prevent strategy against religious extremism.
I ought to say, it is not Matthew’s fault that we moderns are so prone to read him in this way. No good Jew, as Matthew was, would have had any time for a division between the secular and spiritual. The ‘poor in spirit’ are the anawim of the Old Testament, the poor who wait for the Lord, who own their poverty as indicating their dependence on the God of Israel, continuing to hope for their coming redemption. But though their poverty is understood in relation to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it is real material poverty, the stuff of empty bellies and dashed hopes, for all that. Similarly, Matthew would have understood that God’s coming Kingdom, the reality of the ‘righteousness’ for which many hunger, was a this-worldly business. Nor is ‘peacemaking’ a woolly matter of shaking hands and agreeing to differ. It involves the radical transformation of the whole creation, such that the child may safely play in the adders’ nest, to use Isaiah’s image.
Still, we have to work to bring Matthew’s vision concerning poverty and peace back to this world from the ‘spiritual’ place to which modernity consigns religion. Luke is more blunt (in Ch. 6),
20 Then 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. 23 Rejoice on 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.
It is the poor (those in poverty) who get the Kingdom and the hungry (those with empty stomachs) who get fed. You have to try to spiritualise this passage (and of course people have tried). The meaning is plain: the Kingdom of God is coming among us when poverty is done away with, and when hunger is abolished. Worse still for the spiritualisers, we get woes. Luke, who also tells us the story of Lazarus and the rich man, a parable which promises damnation to those who oppress the poor, has Jesus curse the rich and the well-fed. Just as in the Magnificat, the world is to be turned upside down. And, with worldly pragmatism, Luke’s Jesus is aware that poverty and hunger are social phenomena based on exploitation – things cannot go better for their victims unless things go worse for those who benefit from them. Good news for the poor is bad news for the rich. (Of course, Catholic tradition would want to add – but people can repent of their past exploiting of others and receive the good news as genuinely that. This is right, but we shouldn’t add it too quickly. The discomforting of the comfortable is central to the message of Jesus, and of the prophets before him).
Luke and Matthew almost certainly had a shared source, a collection of Jesus’ sayings known by modern scholars as Q. It’s a interesting question whose Beatitudes are closer to that source, and whether each evangelist modified their source, and why. From a Catholic perspective, however, both sets of Beatitudes are canonical scripture, and in each of them we encounter the teaching of the Lord, now risen from the dead. At the present time, with the temptation for the Church to fit neatly into an unthreatening slot in the world very real, we have a particular need for Luke’s Beatitudes . The Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus, growing in the world and made sacramentally present in the Church is good news for the poor. And that comes with a warning for those who benefit from the poor being poor.
And we ought to expect to meet confrontation when we say that. It would be strange if the powerful looked with nonchalance on their coming downfall. Just look at the present Pope, whose articulation of this theme has won him some vocal enemies from the White House to the college of cardinals (to avoid the blog equivalent of vaguebooking: the neo-Protestant Cardinal Mueller, who is presently placing his own conservative understanding of the faith over his communio in life and teaching with Peter’s successor is a prime example).