In the first of a new series on the Beatitudes, Hugh Bates identifies ‘the poor’ and explains why so much is promised to the seemingly undeserving

The Greeks had a word for it. Sometimes they had two – as for ‘the poor’. One word for the deserving, the other for the undeserving poor. The shock is that in ‘Blessed are the poor’ it is the undeserving variety who are beatified. Like the prodigal son in the parable they have brought their poverty on themselves.

There are no excuses, no extenuating circumstances. They are utterly destitute and should be left to stew in their own juice. That is all they deserve. ‘Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.’ St Luke has simply ‘Blessed are the poor.’ Perhaps ‘in spirit’ was added in St Matthew by those who felt that it was all a bit too much, the same people who were worried by the Lord’s word about the difficulties experienced by camels seeking to negotiate the eye of a needle.

The blessing is for the really poor, the down and out, not just those in a manner of speaking. In his reply to the messengers sent by John the Baptist, asking if he really was the One who was to come, game, set and match, was that the poor are hearing the Good News. The deaf hear. The blind see, the dead are raised. But what really counts is Good News for the poor. The trumpet announces the beginning of Jubilee Year when debts are cancelled, and everyone will regain their original inheritance. Good News at last!

Cancellation of debts

This is roughly what the first audience of the Sermon on the Mount would have heard. The undeserving poor of Israel had this advantage, at least, over our modern poor. They had the Jubilee, the Acceptable Year of the Lord to look forward to, even if it was only once in every fifty years. For today’s poor, there is no escape from the cruel and pitiless laws of economics and market forces. No room is left either for the poor nations of the world, or for those of our own society who are trapped in increasing levels of personal debt. They have borrowed beyond their means and must live with the consequences – if they can.

Blessed are the poor! The blessing is for the desolate, the bankrupt, for those who are down and out. Those who nobody knows, those who, in the words of the Lenten Office hymn, ‘seek with generous tears / Renewal of their wasted years.’ The kingdom of heaven is for the undeserving poor. By our modern western standards, the first Beatitude is thoroughly subversive. Cancellation of debts and the redistribution of land were the twin planks of any self-respecting revolutionary programme in the ancient world.

The Year of Jubilee gave its own distinctive character to the programme. Every so often, maybe not often enough, things were made to return to the state that God had intended them to be – just to show that it could be done. You lend in order to help your brother at a time of difficulty, not to profit by his (temporary) misfortune. Nor can there be any such thing as real estate as now understood. The land had been distributed among the clans and fathers’ houses at the time of the settlement. Naboth could not have sold his vineyard to Ahab for redevelopment even if he had wanted to.

The kingdom of heaven

In its turn, the Jubilee is a working model which foreshadows the kingdom of heaven. Debts are cancelled. In the Lord’s Prayer, we are bold to demand the remission of our own debts on the grounds that we have relinquished our claims on others [Matt. 18.23-35]. There is no need for borrowing and lending because there will be no more hard times. There is no poverty or differentials of wealth. The poor receive their infinite God-given inheritance

‘With the rich man and the poor man,
All the sum of things possessed,
Like a child at first to wonder,
Like a king at last to rest.’

This is why it is the undeserving poor who are to inherit the kingdom. They deserve nothing; they are promised everything.