Historical Cultural Context
Rich and Poor
Mae West observed: “I’ve been poor, and I’ve been rich. Believe me, rich is better.” What is “blessed” about being poor? Why would Jesus say this? What poor person would believe it? At the very beginning of this reflection, it is important to remember that the word “poor” in biblical culture describes a social reality rather than an economic one.
In this cultural context, the labels “rich” and “poor” take on a meaning quite different than in our culture. In antiquity a person became rich because that individual had power to take wealth from those who were weaker and unable to defend themselves. While in the modern Western world wealth itself bestows power, in the ancient Mediterranean world power was the means for acquiring wealth.
The culturally more appropriate translation of “rich” and “poor” in the Bible would be “greedy” and “socially unfortunate.”
By the same token, a poor person in the ancient world was powerless, that is, unable to defend inherited status and wealth. Notice the kinds of people with which the word “poor” is most often associated. As a rule, we read in the Bible about “the poor, the orphans, and the widows.” What these categories share in common is a certain deficiency in social relationships and consequent powerlessness.
The orphan has no adults to protect its interests. The widow, even if she possesses millions of denarii but has no son, is regularly described (even to this day in that part of the world) as “a poor widow.” Economic considerations enter the picture only incidentally and then only for the wealthy.
The culturally more appropriate translation of “rich” and “poor” in the Bible, therefore, would be “greedy” and “socially unfortunate.”
What is “blessed” about being socially unfortunate (poor, hungry, and weeping)? A “beatitude” proposes a cultural value, belief, or behavior pattern that is truly honorable. In Mediterranean society, whose core value is honor, everyone wants to know the honorable thing to do. Obviously, being poor, defrauded of one’s wealth, persecuted, insulted, and the like are not honorable experiences. Such people would be judged as shamed.
In the Beatitudes, however, Jesus promises a reward from God for those who suffer these shameful experiences. The vast majority of people in the ancient world were poor. This condition was brought about by the greedy wicked folk, not by an economy gone awry, laziness, or bad luck. God is the ultimate arbiter of true honor, and the honor God bestows is unsurpassable. When God honors the socially unfortunate, everyone will know their true status.
Jesus’ Beatitudes therefore were primarily words of consolation to people who desperately needed to hear this good news. They also pointed to moral qualities that God-fearing folk should strive to achieve: to know one’s place and keep it (poor); to protest social injustice (hungry and weeping, which are ritualized elements of protest activities). People who behave in such honor-deserving ways will indeed be honored by God, which is the only honor that counts. Who can argue with that?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University