Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 5:1-12
January 30, 2010
Reacting to an article “The Free Market for Hope” in Newsweek, Indranil Chaudhuri of Culcutta, India concurred with George Soros that it is poverty and a sense of desperation that lie at the root of terrorist carnage. “The problem is that this simple truth has been overlooked for decades by affluent nations. Though there has been much oohing and aahing regarding the profit-maximization achievements of financial markets the world over, there has never been an adequate trickle-down effect from the miraculous growth of the free-market economies of the ‘core’ nations to the ‘periphery’ nations. Instead, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened more than ever. Unless this anomaly is given utmost consideration, the menace of terrorism can never be wiped out.” It seem, of course, that the rich nations do not care for the poor ones. As Maharaj Muthoo of Rome, Italy, complains in his letter to the editor of Newsweek, “who,” for instance, “talks about the millions of people living on less than a dollar a day in forest-dependent communities? They are voiceless and powerless.” In a dog-eat-doing society like ours, it may be difficult to find a rich country truly altruistic, generous enough to care for the needs of the poor ones. But for a Christian, there is a more fundamental question to ask: does God care for the poor?
One of the points that the readings—all the readings—make is that God cares for the poor. But which poor, to begin with? Are they the descamisados (shirtness ones)? Does the word refer to the hungry who are mesmerized by the beauty of an Evita? Can they be identified with the mobs who marched in the Edsa III, now known as the rebellion of the dispossessed, and who remain the constituents of populist politicians? In the Bible, the poor are the needy, without power, and abused by those with power; they are lowly because their “power wavers” (Lev 25:35); they do not have the capacity for provide for themselves the essentials of life. Behind such poverty lies economic conflict (Eccles 4:1), the intensity of which is reflected in the prevalence of slavery (Neh 7:66-67), since this is the lot of those who lose in the economic struggle (Amos 2:6-7) (C. Mott, “Poor” Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary). But the meaning of the word, as used in Matthew, is not solely related to the economically disadvantaged; by adding the word “in spirit,” the evangelist emphasizes the moral dimension: economically poor, but humble. This is what the Hebrew word anawim or amhaarets means. The poor understood sociologically is not synonymous with the poor understood theologically. However, the former would seem to be the precondition of the latter. The poor people mentioned in the introduction are therefore the most fitting candidates for becoming the anawim—all they need is their humility and their dependence on God; they must become a humble and lowly people (Zeph 3:12, First Reading).
To these people who are poor—no matter if society looks at them as wretched, starving, lost, useless, defenseless, worthless—yet humble, God has a good news for them. They are blessed or fortunate, because God is establishing a kingdom for them: “How blest are the poor in spirit; the reign of God is theirs” (Matt 5:3). What is this reign of God? If we take the meaning from the Old Testament images, God’s kingdom is one where the sound of weeping shall no longer be heard, where people shall not build houses for others to live in or plant for others to it; it is where the wolf and the lamb shall graze alike (Isa 65:17-25). According to the New Testament, it is where God dwells with men, where he wipes away the people’s tears, and removed death and mourning (Rev 21:1.3-4). In other words, the Kingdom of God answers the longings of the poor; it is where they will find integrity and meaning of their lives, which the present society denies them. With the promise of the Kingdom, God in effect is liberating them from their misery, and is giving them a new life; he will bring about a new era of salvation. This is what the beatitudes mean. If the poor only humble themselves, God will bring about a new order, for he will bring an end to their suffering.
In pronouncing these blessings, Jesus makes it known that God is a “God of the lowly, the helper of the oppressed, the supporter of the weak, the protector of the forsaken, the savior of those without hope” (Judith 9:11; see also Deug 26:5-9; Ps 68:5-6). He loves the poor, not because they are morally better than the rich, but because God himself is good: “God chose the world’s lowborn and despised, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who were something” (1 Cor 1:28). It is for this reason that to mock to poor is to insult God, their maker (Prov 17:5). As their defender, God will punish those who oppress them (Amos 4:1-3). Hence, their situation of poverty calls for justice. Indeed, their poverty is not God’s will, but an evil (Deut 1:11) that needs correction. Which is why God opts to take up their cause. It is only from the vantage point that we can understand why God, in taking the human flesh, lived in poverty. Jesus could have been born to the aristocratic families of priestly or Sadducean lineage—there is no theological difficulty in that—but he did not. To the contrary, he even took on the life of a slave, being born in the likeness of men (Phil 2:6-7). He did not merely preach to them; he feed them, healed them, and took on their condition. He opted for them in terms of orientation, life, word and deed.
If the Church is the sacrament of Christ, the Church must be a Church of the Poor. The Church in the Philippines realizes this. At the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (1991), it declared that “in order credibly to witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus, we need to become the Church of the Poor.” And 10 years after PCP II, at the National Pastoral Consultation on Church Renewal (NPCCR), among the pastoral priorities identified is the “Active Presence and Participation of the Poor in the Church.” Says the CBCP President Orlando Quevedo in his final message: “In order to make authentic our commitment to becoming a Church of the Poor, we must be evangelically poor. Therefore, we shall seek to liberate ourselves from mentalities, values, behavior and lifestyles that discriminate against the materially poor. We shall listen to them and with them create conditions in which they are heard and can enjoy the blessings of God’s creation. As poor among the poor, with the poor, we shall understand, live, celebrate, and share our common faith in Jesus Christ crucified and risen.”
It is not difficult to see how relevant it is to our society for the Church to become a Church of the Poor. Ours is a world divided into the majority who are poor and the minority who are rich, and by becoming a Church of the Poor, we will show that such division is utterly wrong. Of course, this is not to make judgment on the rich, but simply a recognition that as Christians we are striving toward a community where the poor are not exploited, abused, taken advantage of, or oppressed. We are trying to establish the beginning of the kingdom where the rich do not dictate the life of the poor (Jas 2:1.5-7), We are looking forward to a society in which there is a sharing of resources (Acts 4:32-54), since a community without it is a scandalous community (1 Cor 11:22). Perhaps, if the Church becomes truly a Church of the Poor, it will become a credible witness not only to the presence of God in his love for the poor, but also to the whole world that the form of this world is passing away and that, ultimately, material riches do not count.