The “Poor” Jesus and His Teaching

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Jesus of the poor

By Fr. James H. Kroeger, MM

JESUS of Nazareth, as portrayed in the Gospels, is a poor man. Though he belonged to a family that was not poor (Joseph, his legal father, was a skilled laborer), Jesus and his parents encountered several situations wherein they faced the same life circumstances as the poor.
The Holy Family was forced by the decree of Caesar Augustus to make the arduous journey to Bethlehem. “While they were there the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to a son, her first-born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Lk 2:6-7).
The family had to flee into Egypt, because King Herod was searching for the child to destroy him. “So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, left that night for Egypt” (Mt 2:14). They lived as exiles in a foreign land until Herod died. Only then did the family finally return to Israel and settle in Nazareth.
Facing difficult life situations beyond one’s control is a common experience of the poor; the Holy Family was not spared such hardships. Indeed, their faith—and ours—is often tested through life’s daily trials.
Jesus’ Public Ministry. Jesus voluntarily left the modest comforts of his family in Nazareth; his goal was to preach the coming of God’s reign. Thus, when John the Baptist sent his disciples to inquire about Jesus’ identity as the messiah, Jesus told them to return to John and report the signs they saw. One clear sign was that “the Good News is proclaimed to the poor” (Mt 11:5).
As Jesus began his public ministry, he entered the synagogue in Nazareth and read from the prophet Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor” (Lk 4:18). Jesus goes on to claim that “this text is being fulfilled today even as you listen” (Lk 4:21).
These Gospel texts indicate the great importance of the poor in the development of Jesus’ ministry. In a special way he announces the Kingdom of God to the poor. One author has called this the privilege of the poor; God will never forget the poor and needy.
For Jesus, the Poor are Blessed. The Gospels contain two versions of what is known as the Beatitudes. Both begin with a declaration of the blessedness of the poor. In Luke (6:20) one reads: “How happy are you who are poor; yours is the Kingdom of God.” Matthew (5:3) states: “How happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
We should not think that these beatitudes call actual material poverty a good thing. Jesus would never have called blessed a situation where people live in the slums and do not have enough to eat. Such poverty is an offense against human dignity, and Christians must work to alleviate it.
The only poverty that is blessed is the poverty of spirit, an attitude which realizes that one cannot rely on his own material, physical resources to live a full human life. True poverty of spirit accepts that the only genuine source of strength and happiness is found in God alone.
Poverty of spirit opens one to the values of God’s Kingdom: sharing, forgiveness, neighborliness, joy, and peace. Indeed, one is blessed only when one realizes his own “poverty,” one’s utter helplessness without God. True joy is found in God alone.

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