“Blessed are you poor” said Jesus. “God’s kingdom belongs to you. But woe to you who are rich, you have had your consolation” (Luke 6, verses 20 and 24). That was the Gospel reading for one Sunday in February (13th). It’s clear enough what he meant in the context of his own day. According to Hebrew Law every family was entitled to the land it needed to provide for itself- and the same Law mandated a regular restoration if land should be lost through debt or any other cause (see Leviticus chapter 25).
But that was not how things had ever worked out. If we have any doubt about that the words of Isaiah tell us differently: “Woe to you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land.” (chapter 5, verse 8). Powerful and wealthy people could always find ways to subvert any land redistribution or reform, until by the time of Jesus resources were in the hands of a small minority of the people, with many others reduced to the position of landless labourers, standing around in market places every day in the hope that someone would hire them (compare Matthew chapter 20, verses 1 to 16).
“Blessed are you poor”, says Jesus. And Matthew’s translation “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (chapter 5, verse 3) is no different. Hebrew words for poverty do not only describe material deprivation, but what that deprivation and the injustice that has caused it do to your spirit. “Blessed are those whose spirits are crushed by their poverty” we might more accurately translate it.
But that was two thousand years ago. Today we live in a society of untold wealth (or some of us do, at least)- and precisely because we have ignored those old laws and allowed resources to come into the hands of only a few people. They became wealthy enough to develop industry, machinery and technology to produce abundance, and to employ many people in their enterprises, paying them well enough to be able to afford to buy the goods and services created. Capitalism, we call it. And on the face of it, what we have now seems far better than the peasant economy that went before it.
Today Capitalism produces great wealth for some, and relative comfort for many. But for everyone? There is a problem. Production needs a market- enough people who are prosperous enough to buy its products. But if enough is produced to satisfy everyone the price falls and profit margins disappear. That perhaps does not matter for luxury goods, but it does for necessities.
The clearest example is the housing market- build enough houses for everyone and the price drops until there is no profit. A “crisis of overproduction” it’s called. So some must be left homeless. Cheap food can be guaranteed only if supermarkets squeeze farmers’ prices so that land and animals are exploited unsustainably. And the grand post-1945 experiment to create full employment broke down in the 1970s- with unemployment the only cure for inflation, according to one UK Chancellor. All these problems could be solved with adequate taxation. But eventually people resent paying taxes to support “the poor” who “should stand on their own two feet” and it becomes politically impossible.
“Our society is no longer divided between the Haves and the Have-nots”, it was said in the 1990s: “Now it is divided between the Haves, the Have-nots, and the Have-a-Lots. And the Have-a-Lots have got the Haves on their side”. And if democracy means rule by the majority it is hard to see how that will change. “Blessed are you poor” must therefore remain the Church’s watchword, even if that is a challenge for many who sit in pews today. We have to move beyond capitalism to create real justice. And that will demand from us hard thought, planning, and action.