Happy are the Poor! A Deconstruction of a Gospel Riddle

povertyThis is oxymoron at its best. For neither could we find a happy person languishing in poverty nor a destitute man romping in complete jubilation.  Language like this is prevalent in religion: more absurd it is, more it is believable.  Otherwise there is no room for faith to practice.  And, as I made my point above, nothing is more absurd than a person that is poor and yet happy.

Happiness indeed is the ultimate goal of every human.  None, I assume, would say that her goal is to drag her life between agony and misery. Jesus himself understands this well that made him hoist happiness as the ultimate purpose of his sermon in the mount. He did a good guess of the basic driving force of every human being, but seemingly failed deplorably on his offered path towards it.

In the study of social justice, the onerous part falls always on the search for a just distributive system. Social cooperation threatens by the claim of one faction of a society, usually the smallest group, to the largest portion of the produce of communal labor.  This propensity of some for the largest share of the social gain baffles many social thinkers as it drags the largest members of the society into abject scarcity and thus leaving the society in unhealthy imbalance condition.  The current trend in the analysis of capitalism tilts into blaming the passage from hunting-gathering lifestyle of our nomad ancestors into sedentary life of agriculture.  I doubt however if the territorial-sedentary life indeed caused this “propensity for more,” or it was unwittingly subverted into an efficient tool to accelerate the craving for more to secure happiness of the self to the extreme.

Yes, it is happiness that gives life to this perseverance for more.  “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry, “the Rich Fool prides himself.  The more plenty you have, the more pleasurable your life would be, and the more you will be happy.

Outside of your gated wall however are the majority of human beings fighting for the morsel left for them. The evil of unjust distributive sharing actually is not some people have taken large portion of the economic pie, but too small was left on the unprivileged majority that could not even sustain a decent life.  And as beings created not only with faculty of reason but same with sensibility of emotion, a view of a sick and stricken Lazarus at the gate would surely send a sickening nausea into our veins.  Colossal walls that characterized now the exclusive existence of these privileged few could no longer hide the disgusting view of hunger outside these walls and the chafing cry of dying children which made these formidable walls porous.  How could you stand then such view of horror from your pompous table?

It was said that the used of gas chamber in exterminating the Jews during the Shoah (Holocaust) was not to make mass murder more efficient and effective.  The firing squad which was used at first made the murderers to stand face to face with their victims and able to look directly to their eyes.   No amount of political ideology could stand that glance of a human being you are about to murder.  This brought chilling dread to many NAZI soldiers that softened if not disheartened them in the process.  The gas chamber was invented to hide the victims from the view of their murderers; to cut this face to face and eye to eye encounter and proceed therefore with the killing without any chance to be affected by the harrowing view of the carnage.  All for the purpose of maintaining the killing instinct among the German soldiers.  After many years, however, Germany remains hunted by its past and painfully dealing still with the collective guilt of their crime against humanity.  The cloister of the gas chamber has not made them less guilty of the suffering of the victims;the reeking odor of burning human flesh and the cry of pain and turmoil have indicted them even more of the evil they refused to see face to face.

The world is designed as a home for all of us; otherwise each of us should have been given a planet of her own in the huge galaxy to live completely unaffected.  No amount of walls and secured gates could keep us safe from the view of the suffering and hunger of people outside our city.  The continuing increase of this imbalance and inequality is dragging us in economic collapse, social unrest, political upheaval, and even ecological chaos.  Something must done, we must stop somewhere,we must say no to the temptation of having more for the self – of what Emmanuel Levinas called the horror of too-much-of-the self.

From there we remember the teacher back in Palestine.  He could barely find a lofty place in order for his voice to reach as many as he can. “Blessed are the poor in the spirit” he shouted.  I like the Matthean rendition where in the qualifier“spirit” appeared, for what Jesus wants to see is not poverty as social condition but the internalization of poverty as principle; the embracing of the spirit of scarcity.  I still remember him teaching his disciples how to pray.  He said, “Give us this day our daily bread”. I heard someone saying that it reflects the prayer of a daily laborer.  But I say no!  Jesus was teaching all of us, rich and poor, that we should only be concerned of our daily stipend.  Because the moment you start thinking of tomorrow, the same moment you will start hoarding for tomorrow, for the day after tomorrow, and so on and so forth.

It comes to my mind too his discourse on worrying.  How the birds and the flowers live freely each day without the worry of tomorrow’s concern.  Because when no one is hoarding, when no one is picking all the fruits and store them in her big barns, you will be sure that after today when you go back to the field tomorrow you will still find plenty of food dangling around every corner. Everyone then is filled, everyone is happy, and you can eat and sleep well knowing that no children will go to sleep tonight without having even a hot water for dinner.

So the word of the sage from Palestine is right; it was actually the way to happiness.  Each day we need to live in the spirit of scarcity, we live to tread the path of precariousness, of uncertainty about tomorrow, and learn to live in faith that tomorrow the field remains full of blessings to fill us all, for no one is keeping them to herself alone.  And this is what biblical faith really means!

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