What did Jesus mean when he called the poor blessed? Your initial thoughts as you find yourself in a place of the kind of poverty that is scattered across South Africa is not how blessed people are to be living in shacks. In one of our long stints in Cape Town I decided to simply live in those words of Jesus, turn them upside down, pull them inside out and seek the ultimate potency of their wisdom.
So, as I meditated on “Blessed are the poor” among the poor I couldn’t help but notice some things that sat awkwardly in my own life. One day we gave Thulani and Lucas, our favourite builders, sleeping bags. The next day we asked Thulani what he had done the night before. He waxed lyrical about that sleeping bag and wrapping up with his children on the settee. It was extravagant luxury for him. And I thought of the difference for Thulani as a father and me as a father. For him there is little to do but spend time with his kids. For me, my life is filled with so many options, as are my children’s. I can go to the internet, do my emails, watch a soccer match, listen to my Ipod etc etc. They are all the vestiges of wealth that keep me away from quality time with my children. Blessed are the poor!
You see very quickly on the township the lack of desire for privacy or independence. You also find the need for dependence upon neighbour. I remember while building a house with my students and Coldplay came on the radio from the shack next door. In Belfast we would have been asking for the noise to be turned down or phoning the council’s noise control. In townships it is more likely they will ask their neighbour to turn it up, especially if it’s Bob Marley! There are no stupid behavioural manners that fill life with false airs and graces. Who you see is what you see. There are no slaves to fake here. This is community. It is honest. It is relational. It is dynamic. Blessed are the poor.
Mark, our old Resident volunteer, said to me one evening, “As the man said, ‘It is not their poverty that makes them happy. It is their lack of wealth’” “Who said that?” I asked him. “You” he replied! Wow! Cool! Wealth is a dangerous thing. In its purity of course it has many advantages but it is tainted and I believe I watch it eat up our souls of more and more every year. I watched my students for fifteen years gaining more and more possibility for instant gratification. We can’t deal with a text that is not immediately responded to. We can carry around 15,000 songs or a library of movies in our pockets. We have most of the knowledge in the world on our phones. If we want therapy we have the Church of the shopping mall where the right purchase will sooth our souls. The impact of that is terrifying. It is dreadfully difficult decision as one of the the wealthiest and most spoiled generation in history to deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow Jesus.
Where it goes wrong is that it causes us to drift, blandly away from the real meaning of life. The soul gets starved with what the body can do. The soul becomes marginalized. It is about material and physical attainment that we are focused. And when we find ourselves in relationships – and I mean with God as well as friendships, families and particularly marriage – that don’t cash in the cheques of our desires immediately, like we are used to, then problems set in. Wealth has consequences. I lived one spring and summer in the west end of Vancouver where people were so materially satisfied that God was not a necessity. Indeed he would have been a hindrance. When the rich hear God’s call they ask “How much will it cost?” When the poor hear it they shout, “Look what He is giving me.”
Of course I am not saying – let us all be poor. Whatever Jesus meant when he asked us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” he didn’t mean what Gordon and I saw on a Nyanga cemetery (see Blessed are the Poor Pt 1 on this blog). There was wisdom when the writer of Proverbs (30:8-9) asked,
“give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
9 Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, 'Who is the LORD ?'
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonour the name of my God.”
As we deal with poverty let us also deal with wealth. Jesus was not kidding when he said that we cannot service both God and money. He wasn’t kidding when he said that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to have a healthy spiritual journey to heaven. If we are to follow Jesus and be part of his revolution to rid the world of poverty one of the greatest danger to achieving it is the wealth that is too easily available. It will ensnare, bland out, dull down and suck our souls dry. When you are caught between the poverty that the Old Testament prophets raged against and the poverty Jesus called blessed you need to learn the blessedness of not being wealthy and also see the cursedness of an unjust world that leaves some in terrifying danger of poverty and death.