4. Commentary on the Kingdom and Poverty
There are two goals for this final section. The first is to investigate what is meant by Christ’s phrase, “the Kingdom of heaven,” and the second is a reflection on why the here-and-now-ness of the kingdom has particular relevance for the blessing of poverty in Luke’s Beatitudes.
As stated in the previous part, Christ’s promise, “yours is the kingdom of heaven” immediately harkens back to His own proclamation, “The Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:14-15). We have already seen the interpretation given by Origen/Pope Benedict, but let me diverge for a moment and examine one other interpretation. During the later half of the 20th century, a particularly secular view (held mostly in Catholic theological circles) of the Kingdom of God gained considerable ground (Benedict, 53). This position is motivated by the desire to apply Christ’s supposed message to the widest possible audience. It is a slow process of moving from any kind of specificity with regards to God’s people to a meaningless generality. Beginning with the rejection of Judaism in general (for in Judaism the focus is on a specific people), Christ, it is claimed, came not for a chosen subset of people, but for the individual; he came to establish a Church that is inclusive of all people. This desire for an all-inclusiveness is seen as violated by the Church in her so-called “pre-Vatican II nature,” a nature that was guilty of “ecclesiocentrism.” Thus, to continue this search for all-inclusivity there was a move towards “Christocentrism” (and away from the Church herself) which strived for a less “divisive” message. However, the next two steps were quick to follow. Since Christ belongs exclusively to Christians, perhaps we should be concerned only with the general idea of God, hence a “theocentrism.” The final step was a surrender of the very idea of God, since even God can be a cause of division among people and the various religions of the world. In the end, we are left only with man, and in this stripped down theology, the “Kingdom” is simply a name given for a world governed by “peace, justice, and the conservation of creation” (Benedict, 53). The task of religion, it is held, is to work in harmony to bring forth this kingdom on earth.
On one hand, this seems laudable; it finally allows all people to enjoy Christ’s message in harmony, to appropriate it in their own belief systems and world views. On the other hand, there is not much left of the message itself; it has been stripped down to what amounts essentially to secular humanism.
To rescue Christ’s message from such deprivation, we must first recognize that the Lord never preaches simply a “Kingdom” but instead preaches the “Kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of Heaven.” “When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he is quite simply proclaiming God, and proclaiming him to be the living God, who is able to act concretely in the world and in history, and is even now so acting…. The new and totally specific thing about his message is that he is telling us: God is acting now – this is the hour in which God is showing himself in history as its Lord, as the living God, in a way that goes beyond anything seen before. ‘Kingdom of God’ is therefore an inadequate translation. It would be better to speak of God’s being-Lord, of his lordship” (Benedict, 55-56). This is consonant with the prior observation that the Hebrew word malkut and the Greek word baseleia are action words. It is also consonant with the use of the present tense in Luke 6:20.
To further our understanding of Christ as the Kingdom of God incarnate, let us examine Saint Thomas Aquinas’ observation that man’s final cause is identical with his efficient cause, i.e. from God we have come and to God we must return. Our fulfillment, our telos, is in nothing other than God himself. In order to be fully man, we must give our entire existence back to the very source of our existence. Man is unique in the world in that he alone can actively strive away from his proper telos. That is, man can, by the gift of free will, choose not to give himself back to God. To do so is to be in-human, to remain unfulfilled. Given that man’s proper end is God himself, we can understand why Vatican II says, “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22). Finally, if what it means to be human is to give of ourselves to God and to possess God deep within our souls, and if the Kingdom that Christ promises is none other than His very self, we can conclude that the promise, “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven” can be understood as, “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is Christ,” or rather, “Blessed are ye poor, for you have already within you what it means to be fully human.” When understood this way, if it is true that the poor already possess within their being their own fulfillment, then is is abundantly clear why they are “blessed.” *
It remains now to try to come to grips with why poverty brings with it such blessing. What is it about poverty that is so authentically human? We must first make a critical distinction between poverty and destitution. All human beings are entitled to have their basic needs met. The fact that millions are living in our world in the state of destitution, where hunger and disease ravage entire cultures, is a great sin against humanity, and it cannot be ignored that Christ was relentless in his call for a preferential option for the destitute. Every time we withhold our cloak from the naked or our food from the hungry, we perform sin not only against the human person, but also against Jesus himself. Poverty, on the other hand, is not identical with destitution. The Latin word used in the Nova Vulgate is pauperes. It is true that this is best translated as “poverty,” but what is perhaps more noticeable is that the Gospel does not use the word egenus or the word inops, both of which could be translated as destitute (though inops is more often rendered as “helpless”). Nor did the author use a form of the verb destituo (forsaken). Poverty (pauperes), as opposed to destitution, is the state of having only what one needs. It is this state of simplicity that Christ calls “blessed” and to which he attaches the promise of the kingdom of heaven.
As the Fathers of the Church unanimously observed, to advance in the life of virtue, poverty must come first. This is due to the ontological difference between God and the world. It is the unique Christian distinction that God is absolutely other to the world. God is not part of the world, nor is the world as a whole equivalent to God. Because of this distinction and because of our call to return to God, this world becomes God’s gift to us to be used as a means for this return. Simply put: God is the end; things are means to this end. On one hand, when one is deprived of the basic needs of life, this physical state of destitution necessarily brings with the challenge of spiritual destitution (for the human person is a body-soul unity). This is precisely why we must work to eliminate destitution in the world, not primarily because of the physical sufferings, but first and foremost to allow God’s people the freedom to worship Him in health of body, mind, and soul **. On the other hand, the possession of goods beyond that of basic necessity brings with it the risk of using goods as ends in themselves. It is interesting that, while Christ cured the sick, made the blind see, made the deaf hear, to my recollection, he never once made a poor man rich.
Christ, in this first beatitude, does not say, “To those who are impoverished, I say to you, do not think that this most unfortunate state is permanent, for the day will come when I will relieve you of this poverty and make you rich.” Instead, he says, “Blessed are you poor.” Poverty itself bring with it blessing, or rather sanctity. If the possession of goods beyond that of basic needs bring with it the risk of treating this excess as an end in itself, then it follows that the more we possess, the further we find ourselves from pursuing our proper end: God. The further we are from our proper end, the less human we find ourselves. We are now in the position to reason our main thesis.
In proclaiming, “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven,” Christ is making an ontological observation. Poverty brings with it the simplicity to give oneself to God, which is the final cause of all of humanity. In other words, poverty provides a more authentic human experience. In this, there is blessing.
Of course, all of this is more pressing given the large percentage of humanity that are living in the state of destitution, a state that potentially hinders their ability to know, love, and serve God. It becomes all the more crucial for us to divest ourselves of our excesses to satisfy the basic needs of others. However, we must be careful to avoid misrepresenting the Gospel as a kind of call for a distributive justice. Virtue is always performed in the heart of the individual. We cannot expect political agendas and government policies to force virtue upon the hearts of its citizens. To do so ignores the authentic freedom that is at the core of the dignity of the human person. The ends of such policies can only be atheistic ends, as history has demonstrated. This does not mean that charity and generosity cannot be cultivated among groups of people, but the Church has consistently and wisely taught the principle of subsidiarity, that things are best handled by the smallest competent authority.
In summary, I would be remiss if I did not clarify one last thing. The state of poverty is not purely material; material poverty alone does not bring salvation. Recall Basil’s comment from the second part, “For many are poor in their possessions, yet most covetous in their disposition; these poverty does not save, but their affections condemn.” On the other hand, neither is poverty is purely spiritual. There are those who want to reduce Christ’s call to poverty to the mere detachment from goods. This too is a distortion of the Gospel message. Recall also from the first part the two critical Greek manuscripts (Papyrus 75 and Codex Vaticanus) deliberately avoid the phrase “poor in spirit” and instead opt for simply “poor.”
Finally, there are many other aspects of the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount that could enrich this discussion, such as the connection the Beatitudes share with the presentation of the Ten Commandments. Many writers far more learned than myself (Pope Benedict, Servais Pinkares, and Thomas Dubay to name only but a few) have already done so; thus, I humbly leave the reader to take up the various texts on this topic for further spiritual reading.
* As a side note, the present possession of our eschatological fulfillment is at the heart of the Christian virtue of hope. See Pope Benedict’s second encyclical letter Spe Salvi for a more lengthy discussion of this.
** In Pope Benedict’s first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, he warns against separating the preaching of the Gospel from humanitarian efforts to alleviate people from their sufferings. Primarily, we are called to preach Christ crucified.