The Poor is a phrase with particular meaning. Like the term beatitude, it is a technical term. Perhaps you have not thought of the phrase in that manner. Perhaps because the New Testament has been so widely read and propagated on a weekly basis it is forgotten these words were addressed to a specific group of people in its day. When the definite article is noted, one discovers that the two word phrase is used 145 times within 142 verses of Christian scriptures. Only 25 of those verses are found in the New Testament. The remaining 117 verses containing the poor are found in the Old Testament. That indicates it is predominately an Old Testament people being recognised. Looking at its historic meaning is the beginning of understanding this Beatitude as a help. Jesus Christ was addressing a people living under an Old Testament Legalism. While remaining faithful to the texts, Jesus was offering liberty from Legalism.
There is a traditional rule of interpretation which states a term’s first mention fixes its meaning. In the least it becomes the standard for comparison. The axiom provides a guide-line to follow the meaning of a word within the genre of scripture. Applying this rule, the poor is first mentioned in Exodus 23:11. The text is instruction for land-owners. They are encouraged to exercise sustainable practices and to allow charity access to their profits.
Historically, Jesus was speaking to a specific culture. They were aware of an ancient code of ethics where the property owners were not to be greedy. There was not a condemnation for owning property or benefiting from that property. The principle revolved around what to do with the excess.
The poor are those dependent on the harvest leftovers. They are not lazy for they are willing to glean their own food. They were, in the eyes of society, a step above the beasts of the field; grazing for food. Yet they are people whom Providence had sympathetic feelings. He guarded their place in society commanding those more affluent to be contented with their harvest. The owners of the fields from which the harvest is drawn do not need its gleanings. The harvest is sufficient to meet their costs and fund their life-style. Any resources left behind in the main gathering were meant to be left for the benefit of others. They were for the poor.
The dignity of the poor is noted in that they were to labour for their sustenance. Welfare systems distributing to those in need without giving them the opportunity to contribute in a non-monetary fashion disempowers and robs their dignity. The dignity of the poor is preserved when they are required to labour for their sustenance. Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David, was one such person. She discovered she was in a situation of poverty. She chose to glean from Boaz’s harvest thus protecting her virtue.
The first Beatitude is a place of dignity. It knows deep down within you are worthy. Your worthiness is not determined by material ownership. Blessed are the poor is an historic reference to divine protection. Is there a better place to be? The poor who glean off the goodness of Providence is at peace with their circumstances. Most often it is those with plenty who struggle with purpose.
Spend time each day in books of wisdom. It might be only 5 minutes and every minute is an investment in YOU. You will find the ability to respond to life’s challenges instead of reacting to them. You will empower yourself to determine the circumstances instead of them determining you. Concentrate your energies on recognising there is a Power greater than you on your own. Tap into that Power and in so doing you will be ministering to your fellow human being. This inner quality learned from the position of poverty is far more valuable than houses, lands, or possessions.
[reprinted from sermon series originally delivered in Auckland, New Zealand, 2005]