Blessed Are the Poor … In Spirit

In his infamous Sermon on the Mount, the Gospel of Matthew records Jesus as saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is the first beatitude … front and center.

Luke’s gospel records what Jesus said somewhat differently, as “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Luke’s version differs from that of Matthew in three distinct ways:

  • Matthew’s version of the blessing is for those who are “poor of spirit.” Luke has a totally different twist, focusing the blessing on the “poor” in material being. This different nuance pervades Luke as a social gospel – most interested in lifting the poor out of the poverty. Unlike Luke, Matthew is focused on humanity’s spiritual rather than physical condition – a perspective that pervades his entire gospel.
  • Luke’s version of what Jesus speaks is more inter-relational, focused on “you” while Matthew is interested in them and “theirs”.
  • Finally, Luke describes a “kingdom of God” while Matthew depicts a “kingdom of heaven.” For Matthew, the afterlife is about a place – called heaven. For Luke, the kingdom is about “God” and our relationship to the divine.

With the 2016 Republican convention just behind us and the Democratic just ahead, the question posed by this blog is: What does being poor (or poor in spirit) have to do with the 2016 U.S. presidential election? Plenty.

Jesus for Trump?

At first glance, there appears to be little in common between Jesus first beatitude and the behavior of Donald Trump. Mr. Trump is neither poor nor poor in spirit. He flaunts his wealth and exhibits anything but a humble spirit. By the measure of either Matthew or Luke, the Donald would appear to fall short of the kingdom.

But there may be an out. What if, unlike the rich young ruler of the first century AD, Mr. Trump was prepared to sell everything – whether literally or methaphorically – and give it all to the poor? At the GOP convention, he certainly talked a good game. Well, not so much for the truly poor. But rather for the forgotten and shrinking middle. As he declared:

“I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice. I am your voice.”

Is this the real Donald? Or just a part of the act? Does he really care? Or is he just looking to ride the presidency to feather his own nest? Will the forgotten middle become even more invisible if and when Mr. Trump becomes president?

Most likely, we won’t know until and unless the American people take the leap of faith with the Donald into the unknown – unknown perhaps even to him.

Jesus for Hillary?

Even though she has long talked a good game, Hillary Clinton appears to fail by the metrics of either Matthew or Luke. Starting at Wellesley college and extending beyond to roles as wife of a governor and president, then U.S. senator and secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton has lived an adulthood of privilege. She fails the material test and doesn’t do much better on when it comes to humbleness of spirit. She is quoted as saying:

“We need to raise pay, create good-paying jobs, and build an economy that works for everyone—not just those at the top. I’ll cut taxes for the middle class, raise the minimum wage, and ensure the wealthiest pay their fair share.”

Sounds good, but how real? No less than primary opponent Bernie Sanders has repeatedly taken Clinton to task for favoring big business and wealth over the everyday American. As he pithily noted earlier this year:

“I introduced legislation to [prevent banks from being predatory] when Secretary Clinton was busy giving speeches to Goldman Sachs for $225,000 a speech.”

And this is the same Clinton who has also observed that “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” Hardly a helping hand to workers who’ve now been on the short end of the stick for decades.

An Aside

There’s one small additional problem we are only recently beginning to get. The Americans who get the best shake today are the wealthy elites followed by those with the lowest incomes. The wealthy represent modern protective guilds. Those with the lowest incomes are increasingly catered to by the American welfare state – with little incentive to improve their lot on their own.

Which leaves what once was called working class and middle class. Slipping further behind. While perhaps not yet fully financially impoverished, they are clearly emotionally and culturally spent. And anger expressed as a result – as represented by the extremes of Trump and Sanders.

These are the poor in spirit of the early 21st century – with no blessing in sight. 

Does Anyone Really Care?

There is an old Chicago lyric that goes something like: “Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?” The answer: “If so, I can’t imagine why.”

The pivotal economic questions of this presidential campaign are: What do we do about a growing disparity of American incomes? About leaving more working and previously middle class Americans in the dust?

What we get from the Republican and Democratic candidates is less than reassuring. Trump talks about making America great again; Hillary about raising pay. In both cases, actions speak louder than words. As Jesus would say of the teachers of law in his day:

“… be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

With the election of 2016, it has never been more important to test the rhetoric against past performance and readily understandable proposals for the future. Then vote accordingly. Vote for the candidate demonstrating reasonable knowledge of the issue coupled with articulated solutions and the track record of past performance to match.

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