English novelist W. Somerset Maugham observed that there is nothing particularly blessed about poverty. He wrote, “Poverty is the surest route to bitterness and resentment.”
Maugham’s thought contrasts greatly with the pronouncement of Jesus Christ recorded by St. Luke and read in this coming Sunday’s Gospel: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh.”
Jesus, of course, was thinking of the Palestinian peasant who, in spite of challenges and reversals, earned a subsistent living from the land, was strengthened by a hardworking family, was faithful to his religious traditions, and was grateful to God for each of his mercies. Probably most of the individuals met in the pages of Scripture are numbered among these poor. The Blessed Virgin and her spouse, St. Joseph, are hard working villagers at Nazareth. Elizabeth and Zachary do their share in Judea. Anna and Simeon rank among these faithful Jews. Mary, Martha and Lazarus are certainly among these stalwart believers whose hopes were placed in God rather than in passing wealth. The biblical poor were not impoverished indigents. Rather, they were persons who were content with a modest sufficiency in this world placing their true hopes in the next world. Indeed, the kingdom of God was theirs.
Maugham, on the other hand, witnessed the grinding poverty of modern urban neighborhoods and rural communities. The novelist saw many persons who were spiritually deprived, economically beholden, educationally wanting, often physically addicted, emotionally confused, relationally deficient, and, most likely, sadly neglected. Twentieth century poverty in Maugham’s England and 21st century poverty in America are not the rustic hardship that bred the hardy souls of the past.
Poverty in the modern world is a luckless circle of deprivation and desperation, deficiency and discouragement. Unlike the humble but honest wages of the past, modern poverty robs the individual of self-esteem, deprives the family of support, and denies the community of the “social capital” that Pope Benedict XVI highlights in his recent encyclical “Charity in Truth.”
By social capital the supreme pontiff means the combined energy, inventiveness, and talent found in the human family. The pope describes this social capital further as “the network of relationships of trust, dependability and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence.” When many of our fellow citizens are constrained by unemployment and illiteracy and even by hunger and disease from contributing their full share to human productivity, the whole society suffers. Because of poverty, civilization’s greatest resource, the human person, is prevented from sharing his intelligence, gifts, and uniqueness with the world at large. Thus mankind’s social capital is depleted. The reservoir of human potential is diminished. Poverty makes poorer persons of us all.
Clearly, the elimination of poverty in the modern world will improve the living standards of all citizens. Elevating the poor will actually enrich the prosperous.
There is little doubt that St. Luke’s versions of the beatitudes (“Blessed are you . …”) are much keener than St. Matthew’s renditions. St. Luke frankly writes, “poor ... hungry … weeping.” He does not qualify his descriptions at all. St. Luke sees poverty clearly as a blessing since the poor may hope only in God. They have no earthly resources in which to trust. God is their only consolation. St. Matthew, on the other hand, often does modify his image of the blessed. He writes “poor in spirit … hunger and thirst after justice … pure of heart. …” St. Matthew is more concerned about attitudes, frames of mind and spiritual dispositions. St. Matthew extends poverty of spirit to anyone, rich or poor, who makes God his exclusive hope.
The poor of spirit are those who recognize their need of God regardless of their earthly circumstance. The poor in spirit might be wealthy, comfortable, financially secure. But they do not trust only in their material resources. They have a firmer ground on which to base their hopes for fulfillment, namely, the goodness and kindness of God their Savior.
St. Matthew’s embrace of the “poor in spirit” is a riskier business because material goods can be very alluring, very enticing. The genuinely poor are spared this temptation. St. Luke sees this not as a curse but as a blessing.