Luke 6:20-31: Then he looked up at
his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom
of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed
are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you
and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the son of
man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy for surely your reward is great in
heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you
who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full
now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will
mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their
ancestors did to the false prophets. But I say to you that listen, love your
enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for
those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also;
and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give
to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask
for them again.”
From the translators of the Scholars’ Version,
the Jesus Seminar:
Congratulations, you poor! God’s
domain belongs to you. Congratulations, you hungry! You will have a feast.
Congratulations, you who weep now! You will laugh . . .
From John Dominic Crossan’s translation of
“Every fox has a den. Every bird
has a nest. Only humans are homeless.
In 1987 with the
establishment of the Stewart B. McKinney homeless act, Congress created
the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. Stewart B.
McKinney funds are federal HUD allocations granted to local
communities. In our community they underwrite a broad scope of local
programs designed to end homelessness – from youth services, drop in
centers, housing programs and specialized programs that serve adults
with mental illness or other disabilities. The interagency council was
formed in 1987 and kept a very low profile until 2003.
In December of 2003
the USICH was given new life under director Philip Mangano who announced
the development of a comprehensive Federal approach to end
homelessness. “We can no longer tolerate the homelessness of so many of
our neighbors. Our commitment is to fulfill the promise of a home for
USICH announced the “Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness”.
Director Mangano is passionate about ending chronic homelessness and has
criss-crossed the country many times to rally support for developing ten
year plans. Today more than 53 states and territories have adopted ten
year plans – and more than 200 local communities have done the same.
Lane County adopted our local ten-year plan to end homelessness last
year. The State of Oregon will be adopting an Oregon Plan this month.
Mangano has stated,
“We are not content to manage the crisis, or to maintenance of the
effort, or to accommodate the response. We were called to one goal, one
objective, one mission – to abolish homelessness.”
As someone who has
worked in human services with programs that struggle to end homelessness
for more than 20 years, I appreciate the passion and national attention
now granted to a social disgrace that was ignored for many years. And,
I can report that there are some good things that have come out of this
Connect is a USICH initiative. In Lane County we have hosted two
Project Homeless Connects. This is a one-day event at the fairgrounds
where homeless and at-risk-of-homeless individuals and families can come
to receive medical care, haircuts, a great meal or two at the café, and
information about all kinds of resources that are available to them.
The guests at these events are grateful and feel supported by the
community. The community that volunteers outnumbers the 1000 guests and
becomes engaged with homelessness in a very personal and practical way.
initiative is a service design called “housing first” where individuals
who have been chronically homeless – on the streets for years – are
placed in permanent housing without restriction. Once housed, services
that support housing stability are “wrapped around” the individual
slowly but surely addressing the issues that contributed to a history of
homelessness for the individual or family. We have several “housing
first” programs in Lane County. St. Vincent de Paul offers one for
veterans. Looking Glass has a program for homeless youth. And my
agency, ShelterCare, provides “housing first” support for 28 individuals
who have been chronically homeless and have a diagnosis of severe,
persistent mental illness.
The USICH initiatives
are hopeful and where they have launched, the results are significant.
However, there is an under-story to this national press for ten-year
plans and a focus on chronic homelessness. And this is where politics
and poverty collide:
During the entire period since 1987, the poverty rate has climbed in the
United States. Today, many more families at risk of homelessness.
focus on chronic homelessness – the visual picture of homelessness so
many of us have of disheveled men or women on street corners – has meant
a redirection of resources away from programs that serve the “hidden
homeless” – families who are doubled up or sleeping on couches, in cars,
There is no funding attached to these new initiatives. The goal, in
fact, is to encourage local cities, counties, and states to find new
resources and new ways of doing business to fund new programs.
The rules about “eligibility” have changed. HUD’s definition of
‘chronic homelessness’ has gotten progressively more restrictive. To be
eligible for the HUD-funded programs now, one must be a disabled adult
who has been homeless for over a year or for four times in the past
three years. Our most recent HUD site review added yet another layer.
One might meet the exact terms of the HUD definition, but if he or she
has been hospitalized or served in a crisis program or is being released
from an institution, there is no entry to the program unless the
individual spends a night or more on the street or at the mission.
representative told a group of us two weeks ago, that HUD simply
couldn’t continue to be the organization charged with funding homeless
programs. Other public agencies need, now, to “pick up the tab” for
For those of us
providing these services in Oregon, that news comes as a bitter pill –
we are hard pressed to look to our state, our county or our local cities
as a source of new and substantial funding for the initiatives now
required by HUD if we are to retain our current funding.
So will we end
homelessness? I don’t think so. Will we stop trying? Never.
Poverty is a constant
for compassionate humankind. Deuteronomy reads, “There will never cease
to be some in need on the earth.” The gospels report that Jesus said,
“The poor will always be with us.” From the beginning of our
Judeo-Christian tradition, a poverty-awareness has been an ingredient in
the recipe for righteousness.
And just as politics
influences poverty and homelessness today, the politics that contribute
to poverty were very much a part of Jesus’ time.
When the gospel
proclaims, “Congratulations you poor! God’s domain belongs to you!” who
do we understand the poor to be? When Jesus says, “Blessed are the
poor,” is he describing the monk whose vow of poverty has nourished a
life of prayer on a pastoral hillside? Is he advocating a life-style
choice for discipleship as he did when he sent his disciples out to
preach in the villages and told them to take only one cloak?
understandings of poverty have a very rich and rewarding role in the
catalogue of faith we inherit. But there is a danger that we may
sentimentalize the gospel vision of poverty in a way that hinders our
full understanding of Jesus’ ministry and call.
New Testament social
historians tell us that poverty and deprivation in the first century
were “urgent, actual and devastating realities.” The peasant class was
fast becoming marginalized. Families that had once known the security
of land and inheritance were being forced to give up their land for
taxes. They became indebted to the urban rich and many were forced into
lower caste, itinerant occupations. They went hungry. They often had
no roof over their heads.
Roman occupation was
particularly hard on the Jewish peasants. The combination of taxes to
Rome, taxes to the regional governor, and tithes to the temple amounted
to more than one-third of a person’s income. One writer notes, “In our
day this amount would be considered excessive. For the poor Palestinian
peasant it was positively staggering. It nearly wiped out the middle
class – leaving only the very poor and the very rich.”
In a time when the
poor are getting poorer and the rich are doing quite well – when an
itinerant preacher speaks on a public plain to crowds of disenfranchised
and frustrated peasants and says, “Blessed are you who are poor, Blessed
are you who are hungry,” one imagines that the listeners knew intimately
what poverty and hunger meant as disruptive and frightening forces in
It is possible that
Jesus, himself, had a first hand experience with poverty. The religious
rules of his day designated acceptable and unacceptable professions –
clean and unclean occupations. One’s work
as acceptable, marginal or outcast in relationship to community. The
class of carpenter carried a marginal status in the first century. On
the list it fell somewhere below acceptable peasant occupations and
above those that were deemed unclean and outcast occupations.
Carpenters were not independents in Jesus’ day. Others pressed them
“Blessed are you who
are poor.” One New Testament writer, John Dominic Crossan has provided
an insightful word study to help our understanding of this saying of
Jesus. There are two words in Greek that mean poor. One word refers to
the poor of the peasantry, the lower income bracket of the first
century. The other word – “ptochos” – is used to name the destitute,
the outcast, the underclass, and the miserably poor. When Jesus says,
“Blessed are you poor” the Greek word that is used in the early
translation is “ptochos” or “destitute.” An accurate translation of
this passage might be, therefore, “Blessed are you who are destitute.
Blessed are you whose stomach cries out for food. For yours is the
kingdom of heaven. God’s domain belongs to you.”
Crossan writes, “In
any situation of oppression, especially in those oblique, indirect and
systemic ones where injustice wears a mask of normalcy or even of
necessity, the only ones who are innocent or blessed are those squeezed
out deliberately as human junk from the systems’ own evil operation.”
Crossan translates Matthew 8:20: “Every fox has a den. Every bird has
a nest. Only humans are homeless.”
As Christians and as
spiritual sojourners we are called upon to hear the gospel word as it
comes to us in chilling, fresh and challenging terms. Jesus’ words on
that hillside long ago challenge us to be conscious of and honest about
the harsh realities of economic deprivation that harden the lives of so
many in our community. We are not asked to redirect the poor or pity
the poor or judge the poor. We are simply told by Jesus that the poor
are blessed. God’s kingdom belongs to the poor.
Frederick Herzog has
written, “If we do not turn our attention to the oppressed, we will
never understand the Gospel . . .. Theology today must begin with an
identification with the wretched of the earth, the marginal figures of
life who are still struggling for personhood and dignity.”
I think Philip Mangano
and the United States Interagency on Homelessness are wrong in their
belief that homelessness can be stamped out in ten years. There is
something inherent in human nature and the societies we build that leads
to the sad reality, as Deuteronomy says, “There will always be poor
people in the land.”
However, I think
Mangano and USICH are right in their passionate appeal to our hearts,
minds and practical sensibilities to work innovatively and effectively
to address the conditions that create poverty. Our calling as
Christians and disciples of Christ is to heed Deuteronomy’s challenge:
“If there is a poor
man among your brothers . . . do not be hardhearted or tightfisted . . .
rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs . . . I
command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor
and needy in your land.”
May it be so, Amen.