The Kingdom of God Belongs to the Poor
by T.V. Philip
T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. The following appeared in The Kingdom of God is Like This, by T.V. Philip, jointly published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Christava Sahitya Samithy (CSS), Cross Junction, M.C. Road, Tiruvalla-689 101, Kerela, India. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Luke 6: 17-26:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Our Gospel lesson for today is part of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew, the sermon on the Mount is very long, but Luke gives a shorter version of it.
The Sermon on the Mount is addressed to the disciples. It is about the nature of the kingdom and life in the kingdom of God. It is a beautiful sermon and millions of people are fascinated and attracted by its message. In India, a large number of Hindus have great love for the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. It had produced a great impression on Mahatma Gandhi. Reading the Sermon on the Mount gave him comfort and boundless joy, he once said. It was one of the influences which led him to adopt the principle of non-violence (passive resistance) in his political struggle against the evils of colonialism.
In the first century, Israel was eagerly awaiting the coming of the new age. This longing for the dawn of a new age was not confined to Israel alone. The people in Rome, long before the birth of Christ, were longing for a leader who would establish peace and inaugurate a new age. The last years of the Roman Republic were years of utter chaos, an age of agony for ordinary people. Military leaders fought against each other in their lust for power. It was a time of bloodshed. The people were longing for a leader who would bring about order and peace. When Augustus defeated the rival military leaders and brought about peace in the first century, he was hailed as a Messiah. The advent of peace under the Roman Caesars seemed to the poets of the Augustinian era as the dawn of a golden age. It was to such a situation that Jesus came.
Jesus preached the kingdom of God, inviting all ‘to repent and enter the kingdom of God.’ The kingdom of God represented a new age, the messianic age when God’s will would be done on earth as in heaven. What is the new thing about the kingdom of God? What happens when the kingdom comes?
In the Old Testament, the prophets foretold what would happen when the kingdom arrived. In Isaiah chapter 25, there is a graphic description of the new age to come.
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine -- the best meat and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.
In the new age, God will prepare a banquet for all peoples, not merely for the people of Israel. God will destroy the shroud that is spread over all people. The shroud means the sheet that is used to cover a dead body or the face of people who mourn. There is a shroud of gloom that spreads on all areas of the life of the world today, the gloom that is spread over the children of broken families, over single parents, over the unemployed, over minority communities. The banishment of sorrow and suffering, misery and pain, even death, belong to the very heart of the kingdom of God.
In Isaiah chapter 61, the prophet again speaks of what will happen when the Messiah comes.
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners.
In God’s kingdom all that destroy human life, human dignity and human freedom will be removed. This expectation has been fulfilled with the coming of Christ. In the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah and announced, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’.
The Sermon on the Mount is about life in the kingdom. The Beatitudes summarize the nature of the kingdom. "Blessed are you who are poor." In this world, in our society, the poor will always remain poor. They will always be hungry. The meek will always be persecuted and those who weep will always weep and no one is going to comfort them. This is the way of the world. In our society, ‘Blessed are the rich, for they will receive more wealth and influence.’
The coming of the kingdom of God creates a crisis in human society. It challenges our accepted political, economic and social order. In the kingdom of God, the tax collectors, the sinners, the prostitutes, the Samaritans and the Gentiles are accepted. When the Pharisees and the Scribes murmured saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them’, Jesus in reply told the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. ‘There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.’ Jesus accepted the hospitality of a tax collector and when the Jewish leaders complained that he had gone to be the guest of a man who was a sinner Jesus replied, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he is also a son of Abraham’.
This is the new thing about the kingdom of God. When the kingdom comes, the foundations of the old order will crumble. The mighty will be cast down and the lowly lifted up. Blessed are those who are poor, hungry and those who weep. They will all be satisfied. But, ‘Woe unto you that are rich, for you have received your consolation; woe unto you that are full now, you shall mourn and weep’.
‘Blessed’ means that the poor, the hungry and those who mourn are the favored people. It is the task of the followers of Christ to care for them and struggle for a social, political and economic order which is just and participatory. Blessedness also refers to the joy which springs from within, which is completely independent of the changes and chances of the situation one may be in. The beatitude also speaks of that joy which sorrow and loss, pain and grief, are powerless to touch. It is a joy which nothing in life or death can take away.
The wealthy and the mighty of this world depend on their wealth and influence. They have their reward in this world itself. The poor have nothing to depend upon except on God. Their joy and blessedness comes out of their utter dependence on God; it is the joy of walking in the company of God. This is what happens when we live in the kingdom of God. This is a new thing. The poor are favored in the kingdom not only because injustice is done to them in this world, but also because they trust in God. ‘This poor man cried and God heard him.’