Jesus and The Oppressed of the Earth
What place do the materially poor occupy in the economy of God’s salvation? On one end of the spectrum, some have made the case that throughout the Bible God exhibits such a clear and consistent “preferential option for the poor” that the materially poor are to be unequivocally identified as the true covenantal people of God. At the other end of the spectrum, others would deem any reference to socioeconomic class as an interpretive lens to make sense of the work of God is a form of Marxist “class consciousness” and is to be firmly rejected as being outside of the bounds of historic orthodoxy. Here at Until Zion we seek to hold together the theology of the Reformation (as found in the historic Reformed confessions) and a commitment to “center the margins” because we take Jesus at his word that the poor are blessed and will inherit the Kingdom of God. Can these two commitments hold?
In 1895 on the eve of a Dutch national election where the expansion of the franchise to the poor was at the center of debate, the Calvinist statesmen and theologian Abraham Kuyper addressed this very question in a series of articles in his daily newspaper De Standaard. Kuyper insisted, quite forcefully, that these commitments not only can hold together, but that they must. And this not for political reasons but for the sake of the integrity of the gospel itself. Earlier, Kuyper had made a bold statement that had raised eyebrows even in his own camp. He wrote: “It is our firm conviction that the Saviour, if he were still on earth, would again align himself with the oppressed and against the powerful of our age.” The series of articles, which was recently reprinted as “Christ and the Needy’ in an edited collection called On Charity and Justice, could be seen as an extended apologia for that statement.
He begins by challenging his Christians readers about how the materialism of the West in his time had thoroughly saturated the church. He quotes a French scholar, who pointed out that “After eighteen hundred years (since Christ), mammon has again become king of the world. Those who are most pious divide their time between serving God and serving mammon.” Kuyper put an even finer point on the matter:
Alas people read the Sermon on the Mount and find it beautiful, but they do not believe Jesus really meant it … They find it to be delightful poetry but spiritually too high for the prose of our lives. Even the best Christian always retains a small chapel for Mammon.
Kuyper argues that this materialism, what we could call a “preferential option for the middle class,” is entirely inconsistent with the life and ministry of Jesus (Tragically, Kuyper did not fully employ his own perspective, as he himself still held particular racial prejudices. In coming posts we hope to address his own inconsistencies). He points out that in his incarnation Jesus, under no external compulsion, deliberately chose to take up for himself the social position of the poor. “This eloquent fact … is … striking from every angle and in every way.” But he goes on to point out that “the importance of this fact for our social relationship has not been sufficiently felt. People called attention to it in order to honor Jesus’ humility. They spiritualized his earthly smallness and used it to exhort to heavenly mindedness.” Kuyper here names a particular habit of mind that continues to persist today: the impulse to spiritualize the economic and social elements of the gospel.
A formidable counterpoint to Kuyper’s argument might be found in the Sermon on the Mount itself, particularly as it is found in the Gospel of Matthew. In Luke’s account, Jesus says “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20) whereas in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3). Isn’t this clear scriptural warrant for at least some measure of spiritualization with regard to the place of the materially poor in the economy of God’s redemption?
To answer this question, Kuyper turns to John Calvin and his commentary on the gospels. There Calvin argues that it is in fact the materially poor who are being blessed, but that it is those among the materially poor who have also discovered a deep poverty of spirit that Jesus pronounces blessed in the kingdom. Calvin states,
… there can be no doubt that the appellation poor is given to those who are pressed and afflicted by adversity. The only difference is, that Matthew, by adding an epithet, confines the happiness to those who, under the discipline of the cross, have learned to be humble.
For Calvin, in order to faithfully translate the word “poor,” the adversity that “presses and afflicts” must be understood plainly – as being economic and social in nature. As such, he essentially argues that material poverty is a necessary but not sufficient condition for this particular beatitude. One must be both materially and spiritually poor to be blessed.
Does this reading do justice to both accounts? Is this what Matthew has in mind when he quotes Jesus as saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit”? Why the difference in language? For Kuyper the reason lies in the slight but significant difference in who is being addressed in the two accounts.
In Luke, the words are directed specifically to those who are already his disciples (see Luke 6:20), so he uses the second person without qualification: “Blessed are you (of my disciples) who are poor.” In Matthew’s account, Jesus’s words are spoken to a much broader crowd (see Matthew 5:1), where he would be understood to be speaking more generally about the poor irrespective of their response to repent and follow him. So to accurately retain Jesus' meaning in a third person context, Matthew’s version says: “Bless are the poor in spirit.” Kuyper puts it this way:
Transferred to the third person, the saying “blessed are the poor” would have become baseless. Or how could all of the poor, including the most mischievous among them, be blessed? This saying was only correct and true when Jesus spoke personally to his disciples and the circle of believing poor who stood around him: “Blessed are you [among my disciples] who are poor,” …. When Matthew proceeded to turn this into the third person … then a spiritual element had to be added … Jesus did truly bless the poor in the social sense though with the reservation, of course, that social oppression should not lead to spiritual demoralization but to the fear of God.
For Kuyper, he believed that Christendom had taken Matthew’s attempt to highlight the blessedness of the materially poor among his disciples and twisted it into a spiritualized poverty that no longer had any meaningful reference to the materially poor. Kuyper goes on to lament “Oh, how different things would be in Christendom if Jesus’ preaching on this point were also our preaching and if the basic principles of his kingdom were not cut off and alienated from our society by overspiritualization.”
So what is Kuyper’s conclusion to the question “What place does the materially poor have in the economy of God’s salvation?” He does not mince words:
… it is shocking and outrageous the way that the prevailing conditions and personal relationships in our Christian society blaspheme the person and word of our blessed Savior … whoever lets himself be led by the gospel, and whoever imitates Jesus, must stand on the side of the little people and the oppressed of the earth … woe unto you if you take just half the gospel of our Savior and admonish submission, while concealing the divine mercy of the Christ of God for the socially oppressed …
What would it look like if those who most boldly and faithfully proclaimed the historic, evangelical gospel of Jesus Christ were also those who most boldly stood on the side of the socially oppressed of the earth? If we take the Sermon on the Mount at its word, it seems that the Kingdom of God would be all the more visible and all the more attractive to a watching world. So, can these two commitments hold? They can. And they must.
*All quotations are from Abraham Kuyper “Christ and the Needy” in On Charity and Justice, ed. Matthew J. Tuininga. Lexham Press, 2022.