I now blog on chapter seven of my book. When I first started reading the Bible seriously, Luke 6.20 bothered me. At first, I tried to harmonize with Matthew 5.3 by saying that Luke really meant for the poverty to mean a kind of spiritual hunger. After I studied the Bible for a while in a more critical way, I came to the conclusion that perhaps Matthew and Luke both drew from the same source and Matthew added to the source “in spirit,” making Luke’s invention more original than Matthew’s. Still, even if Luke’s invention of this entire discourse was trying to play to his own ideological bend, how can being impoverished be a blessing? In my book, I try to take Luke’s formulaic saying and lok at it from evidence from perspective both internal and external from the text.
Within the text and within the immediate context, one way to look at Luke 6.20 is to see how it fits. The setting of the saying is from the selection of the Twelve who eventually went down to where Jesus was teaching and the entire saying was first addressed to the disciples (Luke 6.12-17, 19). The saying itself, though addressing the disciples, was set against Luke 6.24-26. Thus, the disciples who should be “blessed” were set against the “rich” of Luke 6.24. In order to find the answer, we need to look at the overall plot of Luke in seeing how the poor were set against the rich. After seeing that, we need to ask the question, “In what sense should this teaching impact the disciples’ view of material wealth?” In answering this question, we should probably understand the Luke’s formation of this particular story and the meaning of “blessed are you who are poor.”
The external place we can look for answers should be in extra-biblical history. The best source is probably Josephus. When we read Jesus’ statement about material wealth, we often read our view of material wealth into our interpretation. In that society, people viewed wealth to be one form of God’s blessing. Within the area where Jesus ministered, the majority was very poor. There was no middle class. The best way to gain wealth was to acquire land and have someone else farm it. It would serve us well to see how acquisition of land took place by our reading of authors such as Josephus. In such a society (somewhat unlike ours), poverty and wealth could have moral implication.
There is danger in reading Luke 6.20 straight. Some might see that Jesus exclusively ministered to the poor, making our ministry to be entirely focused for the poor. By doing so, we deny the universal scope of the kingdom. Others may think that being poor and not working ahead is fine because we already are given God’s wealthy kingdom. This also plays havoc into that stereotypical image of Protestants being uneducated lower class losers who only quote the Bible and know nothing else. Interpretation has its own consequences.
As I always say, the texts are not at fault. The interpreter is!