What responsibilities do Christians have toward the poor? In this sermon, R.C. Sproul examines Jesus’ Beatitudes as they are recorded in the gospel of Luke, beginning with the blessing Christ pronounces on the poor.
This morning, we’re going to continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. We’re in Luke 6:17–23, where we have a shortened version of the Beatitudes found in Luke’s gospel, distinct from those found in Matthew:
And He came down with them and stood on a level place with a crowd of His disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem, and from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear Him and be healed of their diseases, as well as those who were tormented with unclean spirits. And they were healed. And the whole multitude sought to touch Him, for power went out from Him and healed them all.
Then He lifted up His eyes toward His disciples, and said:
“Blessed are you poor,
For yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
For you shall be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
For you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you,
And when they exclude you,
And revile you, and cast out your name as evil,
For the Son of Man’s sake.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy!
For indeed your reward is great in heaven, For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets.”
This brief passage gives us a segment of the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew, which has been called the greatest sermon ever preached. The bits of that sermon contained here in Luke are there for our instruction, edification, and supremely for our encouragement, for they contain promises that come from God Himself, who cannot lie. Please receive them as such. Let us pray.
Again, our Father and our God, we look to You as the source and fountain of all truth, knowing that every word that proceeds from Your mouth is altogether perfect and true, and by those words, Your people are sanctified and given a hope that is never ashamed. Be with us now as we look at these Beatitudes. Be with us in the power of the Holy Ghost. We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Oracles of Weal and Woe
A few years ago, when we looked at the longer version of the Sermon on the Mount contained in the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, I pointed out that the literary form of the Beatitudes is one that was familiar to the Jewish people. It was called the “form of the oracle.”
In the Old Testament, God would give His Word to His prophets, and they prefaced their announcements by saying, “Thus saith the Lord.” These pronouncements by way of oracle came in two distinct forms. There were the “oracles of weal,” which were good pronouncements, and “oracles of woe,” which expressed God’s wrath and judgment. In the book of Amos, the prophet Amos would go through the various nations and say, “For three transgressions and four, woe unto you Damascus,” and so on.
In the New Testament, we see Jesus pronouncing these oracles of doom on the Pharisees for their hypocrisy: “Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You go over the whole world to make one convert, and once you’ve made him, you make him twice the child of hell than you are yourselves.” He would liken the Pharisees to whitened sepulchers that were clean, pristine, and beautiful on the outside, but were filled inside with dead men’s bones. It was a dreadful thing to hear a pronouncement from God that included oracles of doom. There are some of these later in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. He gives four beatitudes and four woes, whereas Matthew gives eight beatitudes and several more woes.
Today, we are going to look at the first portion, which includes the oracles of weal. Those oracles were good pronouncements from God, usually prefaced by the word “blessed.” You get similar announcements of blessedness in the first Psalm:
Blessed is the man who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the way of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful.
But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be as a tree planted by rivers of living water,
Bringing forth its fruit in its season.
We know that Peter gave the great confession at Caesarea Philippi, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” at which Jesus turned to Him and said: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah. Flesh and blood did not reveal this unto you, but My Father who is in heaven.”
Not Just a Warm Puppy
One of my pet peeves is when modern translators attempt to contemporize the ancient language of Scripture by translating it in such a way as to bring it up to date, and when they come to the Beatitudes, they say, “Happy are those” instead of “Blessed are those.” That is a travesty to the biblical understanding of blessedness. In our culture, the word happy has been as trivialized as any word can be: “Happiness is a warm puppy.” When we’re talking about Beatitudes pronounced by Almighty God, we’re not talking about sentimental feelings that accompany the cuddliness of a warm puppy.
The idea of blessedness contains the idea of happiness, but it is so much deeper. Even still, we also trivialize the word blessed. Every time somebody sneezes, we say, “God bless you.” We say that with good intentions. That saying goes back to the days of the plague, where one of the first symptoms for the plague was an outburst of sneezing. When somebody would sneeze, people would essentially say, “God bless you; I hope you don’t have the plague.” Now, it is just a cultural thing where somebody sneezes and we say, “Gesundheit, God bless you,” but to be blessed of God is something deep and profound.
The Light of God’s Glory
One of the things I like about our liturgy at Saint Andrew’s is that the benediction at the end of each service takes us back to the classic benediction of Israel:
May the Lord bless you and keep you;
May the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you;
May the Lord lift up the light of His countenance upon you and give you His peace.
The Hebrew benediction is structured in a Hebrew literary form called “parallelism.” In this benediction, there are three lines or stanzas, each having two parts, and those stanzas are in parallel so that the keeping, graciousness, and peace, shalom, are all different ways of saying the same thing:
May the Lord bless and keep you,
Make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you,
Lift up the light of His countenance and give you peace.
Likewise is the first part of the benediction, “May the Lord bless you,” followed by, “The Lord make His face to shine upon you,” and finally, “May the Lord lift up the light of His countenance.” The Hebrew was saying that to be blessed is to be brought into an intimate, close relationship with Almighty God, so that God would remove the veil and literally make His face radiate so the refulgence of His glory would shine on you. May He elevate, intensify, and turn up the light of His countenance upon you so that there would be no darkness in your life whatsoever. There is no higher possible felicity that any creature can ever enjoy than to bask in the presence of the light of the countenance of God. Our promise for the future is the beatific vision, where we will see Him as He is.
When the Hebrew says, “May the Lord bless you,” he’s not saying, “Don’t worry, be happy.” He’s saying, “May you understand in the depths of your soul, in the deepest chamber of your heart, the sweetness of the presence of God as you live before His face every moment.”
Returning to Luke, here comes the Son of God incarnate, who is the very brightness of the Father’s glory. He looks at His disciples and pronounces these beatific destinies for them, beginning with the first one, where He says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
Differences between Matthew and Luke
I want to look especially at the first beatitude found in Luke’s gospel. It differs slightly from the version we find in Matthew. Scholars look at this and say, “According to Luke’s recording of this sermon, it would take about nine minutes to preach, if that, so this must be an expurgated version,” or, “Jesus gave these same pronouncements on more than one occasion.” That may surprise you. It doesn’t surprise me because I’ve preached the same sermon many times in different places. It is common even for the Lord of Glory to repeat Himself at different times because we learn from repetition. So, I don’t think we should be troubled by any variance that occurs between Luke’s understanding and Matthew’s understanding.
In Matthew, we read, “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit.” That qualification of being poor “in spirit,” which is a description of humility, of a humble person, is not the same as saying simply, “Blessed are you poor.” In Luke’s version there is no qualifier. Jesus looked at His disciples and He simply said, “Blessed are you poor.” He might have been referring simply to the poverty in their spirit, the humiliation that they suffered, or He might have been speaking more directly to their economic circumstances and their status. I am going to consider the idea that He pronounced His blessing upon these disciples because of their economic status, because they were poor with respect to the riches of this world.
Distinct Groups of the Poor
The Bible has a lot to say about the poor, and what the Bible says about the poor does not always agree with what people say about the poor. Often, we hear simplistic descriptions of poor people. You might hear people say, “The only reason anybody is ever poor is because that person is lazy, that person isn’t willing to work, that person is a moocher,” and so on. We can’t be so simplistic. The Old Testament differentiates between four distinct groups of people who are poor and what God has to say is the difference among these four groups. For three out of four of these groups, God pronounces mercy, love, and kindness. We will look briefly at these four groups, beginning with the three that receive the favor of God.
Poor by Catastrophe
The first group of poor people described in the Old Testament are those who were poor as the result of catastrophe. An example would be the farmer whose crops were wiped out by a famine in the land, a severe drought, or some other natural catastrophe, leaving him without anything to sell for his labor. Another example would be a person who was poor because of a natural catastrophe such as a tornado or earthquake, or more commonly, a dreadful disease that left him incapacitated and unable to labor.
With respect to this group of the poor in the Old Testament, the heart of God, as it were, was greatly concerned that these people be cared for. Significant provisions were given by law to the people of Israel to take care of those who were poor because of catastrophe. It is the responsibility of the people of God to see that people in need, such the orphan and the widow, are cared for.
Poor by Oppression
The second group that the Word of God speaks about in the Old Testament who suffer poverty are those who are poor from oppression. They had been enslaved or had their property taken from them by the powerful. We tend to think that the powerful in view are mostly the merchant class, the businessmen, the wealthy, who were squeezing the life out of the poor laborers, but that is not the chief consideration.
The principal oppressors in view were governments. They were kings like Ahab, who confiscated Naboth’s vineyard, or other kings who enslaved their people, like Pharaoh. They were like third world dictators who get fabulously wealthy by squeezing all the wealth they can possibly squeeze from their subjects. The principal violators of the poor in the Old Testament were those invested with governmental power, and that is as true today in the world as it was then. We fail to recognize the ways in which government often destines people for poverty.
I remember that my first job as a teenager, apart from having a paper route, was working in a tiny shoe repair shop. It was so small that if the cobbler, who had machines on both sides, worked on one side, his back was touching the machines on the other side. If he worked on another side, his back was touching machines on the other side. I had a shoeshine stand behind the counter with the cobbler. There wasn’t room for any more than three people. If we had four customers come up at one time, one of them would have to stand outside and wait his turn.
The cobbler was the only shoemaker in town, so his business was brisk and so was mine. In addition to repairing shoes, I noticed that several people came in during the day without shoes, but with money and paper, and they would give their paper and money to the shoemaker. It didn’t take me long to realize what was going on—my boss was working for the mafia in the numbers racket, collecting bets from people and then delivering the payoff. People would come in, say a number, and then say, “Box it.” I was learning how it worked in Pittsburgh.
They don’t do much of the numbers racket anymore because that’s been taken over by the state. The state has an amazing lottery. The other day, in one state, $346 million was the payoff for somebody that hit the lottery. State governments are collecting millions, if not billions of dollars every year in lottery tickets. The overwhelming majority of people who buy lottery tickets are those who can least afford it, but the government knows that poor people will buy these tickets day in and day out. They know that those who buy tickets are hoping for the big hit, the big payoff. The irony is that if you want to win money in the lottery, you’ll get far better odds from the mafia than you would get from the government. It is a sad thing to see people who have such little disposable income throw it away on a virtually hopeless dream of getting rich. That is how the government keeps people poor.
God’s judgment falls upon kings and governments that enslave their own people and keep them tied to welfare, masking the reality of the situation. God pronounces His woe upon that sort of oppression in the Old Testament.
Poor by Righteousness
The third group distinguished as being poor are those who are poor for righteousness’ sake. When Jesus gave this beatitude, He said, “Blessed are you poor,” speaking to His disciples. He was talking directly to people who had voluntarily given up their quest for wealth to serve Christ.
I have never met a missionary who was motivated to go into mission work to become rich. If I do ever find such a missionary, I know I’ll be meeting a foolish one, because there is about as much hope in being a rich missionary as there is in winning the lottery. There aren’t many people who have gone into full time ministry to get rich. Some have gotten rich, but it was not their expectation at the beginning, and it was certainly not their motivation.
There are people who voluntarily and willingly set aside any hopes of great financial gain to become servants. Jesus said, “You left your nets.” Matthew left his tax collecting table, which was a lucrative business. The disciples gave up everything to follow Jesus, and Jesus said, “Blessed are you, for yours is the kingdom of God.” God’s blessing is poured out on all those who forsake riches voluntarily for the sake of the kingdom of God. So, three of the four groups designated as poor in the Bible receive the blessing of God.
Poor by Slothfulness
What is the fourth category of the poor? The Bible has much to say about this group, particularly in the Old Testament. The fourth category is people who were poor because of slothfulness. They simply would not work. They were people who despised the creation mandate to be fruitful and to labor.
In the New Testament, Paul spoke candidly on this point. He said, “If a man will not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). That sounds harsh, but Paul was also aware of the other three categories. If a man cannot work then he must eat, and we must make sure that he eats because we are called to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to shelter the homeless. But if a man is poor because he will not work, then Paul says, “There is no free lunch for you, because you’re trying to live at the expense of the labor of your neighbor.”
This situation is at an epidemic level in the United States of America, which is the wealthiest nation that has ever been on the face of the earth. Further, it is encouraged by government, as de Tocqueville learned so long ago. He commented that any democratic republic will be destroyed when people find out that they can vote for themselves largesse. That is, they can vote that the government will take from one group and give it to another without their working. That is sinful.
You must never as a Christian ask the government to take somebody else’s possessions and give them to you. That is evil. That is legal theft. We now have a situation where there is class warfare. You can’t listen to an ad or read the paper in the current presidential election without seeing, front and center, the whole debate about who is going to get the money.
Equity vs. Equality
God wants righteousness. God wants equity, not equality. Equality is a myth of Marxism. Take, for example, a college classroom with thirty students. Fifteen of them study for the final exam and make As while the other fifteen go to a party, don’t study, and make Fs. Imagine if the professor said: “Wait a minute. We’re not equal. I’m going to take from the As and give to the Fs, and I am going to give everybody a C.” That’s equality, but it’s not equity. When we do that, we call it social justice, when in fact it is social injustice.
I have a new plan for social justice that we are going to apply to the National Football League. At the end of the half of every game, if one team has 14 points and the other team has zero, we are going to call the score 7-7. At the end of the game, if it’s 28 to 14, we’re going to call the score 21-21, and every game will end in a tie, and that will be the end of the NFL and season tickets. You’ll have equality, but no equity.
Woe unto us when we assume that anybody who’s poor is in that economic condition because they’re lazy. That is just not true. There are plenty of people who are poor and are not lazy at all. Woe unto us, also, if we think that no one who is poor is lazy. There are poor people who are not lazy, and there are poor people who are lazy, and we must be able to distinguish them if we’re to be concerned with biblical ethics and biblical righteousness. Let’s pray.
Our Father and our God, You have so enriched us in a manner that we cannot believe. You have given to us an everlasting kingdom. You have adopted us into Your family and given us a legacy that will last forever, so none of us in any ultimate sense will suffer from poverty, because we have the richness of the pearl of great price. Thank you for Your mercy. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.