The readings for today are Jer. 17:1-5; Psalm 1; 1 Cor. 15:12-20 and Luke 6:17-26. Today I want to look at the question of who is Jesus referring to when he mentions the “poor” in Luke 6:20.
Ever since I finished Graham Twelftree’s book People of the Spirit I’ve had a big question mark over this issue. Twelftree referenced an article by Gary Meaders which I’ve also found very helpful. In fact Meaders did his Th.D. dissertation on the topic: “The Poor in Luke’s Gospel.” Previous to reading these authors I thought of the poor as primarily those in a purely economic situation. Twelftree and Meaders beg to differ. Rather, they believe the “poor” refer not to an economic situation, though it may include that, but rather more generally to those who need salvation. I will not rehearse all their reasons but offer here a simple outline. (References are as follows T183 = page 183 of Twelftree’s book; M310 = page 310 of Meader’s article.)
1. “In the three cases where Luke has Jesus describe his ministry to the poor, Isaiah 61:1 is either quoted or echoed (Luke 4:18; 6:20; 7:22). This strongly suggests that Luke’s understanding of the identity of the poor as the focus of Jesus’ ministry would be elucidated through noting how the poor are understood in Isaiah.” The quote is from the third section of Isaiah where the poor “are not a section of society but are the whole community—representing all Israel; the poor are all those who will be saved.” (T183-184; cf. M307-308)
2. Twelftree says that Luke’s use of the “poor” reflects that of Third Isaiah. That is to say the poor are “not some of those to whom Jesus ministers and who receive salvation. Rather the poor represent the entire scope or all recipients of his eschatological ministry. In the parables of humility (14:12-14, esp. 13) and of the great banquet (14:15-24, esp. 21), being poor is also the lead characteristic of all the recipients of salvation in Jesus’ ministry. Also, Lazarus, a representative recipient of salvation, is twice described as poor in the parable (16:20, 22). To put the point the other way around: only the poor are saved. At the same time, to be saved, the rich become poor (19:8; cf. 18:18-25). (T184, emphasis his)
3. Meaders notes the surrounding Lucan context which contains the “theme of conflict, rejection and persecution. This conflict and persecution theme is stated in terms of poor and rich within an eschatological reversal motif.” (M306) “Actual poverty which might exist is merely the attendant circumstance of those who follow Jesus. . . The interpreter cannot go beyond the intended audience in the identification of the poor in Luke 6:20. The poor cannot be the unbelieving hungry of the Third World. Such assertions border on universalism in light of Luke 6:20b.” (M307)
4. Meaders also notes the eschatological reversal motif of the passage. We see these themes in the OT in Psalm 37 and Isaiah 61. “The reversal is often stated in an antithetic formulation, such as rich/poor or wicked/righteous.” (M311) “The language in reversal genre is categorically symbolic. Poor and rich in Luke 6 are first of all categorical. The social situation behind the language is real but not foundational. The close of the sermon in Luke 6:46-49 illustrates this principle well from a different perspective. The houses and their fate are symbolic of one's response to truth.” (M312)
Both provide enough evidence to give serious pause to the idea that the poor is simply referring to the economically impoverished.