A few years ago I did a blog series going through the gospel of Luke, discussing what it said to us about the poor (which can be found here). Having recently re-read this series as part of some sermon prep on the same theme, I found (with the help of a commentary) some important additions from chapter 7 of Luke.
John the Baptist is in prison, shortly to be beheaded, and he is having doubts. He knows he is the one who was to announce the coming of the Messiah and prepare the way for him, so he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus whether he is the one, or it there is another to come, presumably for his peace of mind. This is Jesus’ response.
21 At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. 22 So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 23 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Luke 7:21-23
“Good news is proclaimed to the poor.” A question here would be to ask, who is the poor? Another would be, why is this incident placed here in the gospel? Just before we have two accounts of miracles by Jesus. The first is the centurion who comes to Jesus asking him to heal his servant (7:1-10). He exhibits his faith by saying to Jesus “Just say the word and by servant will be healed.” Following that is the account of jesus raising the dead son of a widow, brought back to life off his funeral bier (7:11-16). After the incident with John the Baptist’s disciples, we have the description of the Jesus having dinner at a Pharisee’s house when a woman who “had lived a sinful life” came in, began crying over Jesus feet and then poured expensive perfume over them – during the meal! (7:36-50)
It is well known that Jesus called to him those who were on the edge of society. In this chapter, Michael Wilcock (from the BST commentary) argues that all the recipients of Jesus grace in these accounts were poor in some way. The centurion was a Roman, and whilst probably materially well-off, he wouldn’t normally have had access to the synagogue, the temple, or Israel’s God. In this sense he was socially poor as he was from the wrong ‘tribe’. The widow was facing material hardship. Her husband had already died at some point in the past, leaving only her son to be a wage earner. In the days before social welfare, families would have been the last line of support before financial hardship, and now her son has died too. Jesus not only reaches into her grief but alleviates her poverty at the same time.
In the final passage, the ‘sinful woman’ was spiritually poor. By being labeled “sinful”, she would have been on the edge of society, and most respectable people would have avoided her. She cries over Jesus’ feet and Jesus proclaims her sins forgiven, and declares “Your faith has saved you”.
So we have the socially poor, materially poor, and spiritually poor all encountering the Kingdom of God in Jesus, with the latter being declared ‘saved’. This reminds me of one of the Lukan Beatitudes: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (6:20). Jesus’ understanding of the word ‘poor’ goes beyond the material sense that we often associate it with.
Here and elsewhere, Jesus talks about “preaching” or “or claiming” good news to the poor. Yet it is evident from his actions that this also involved practical help. The Kingdom of God comes where gospel words are supported by actions, and actions by words.