Jesus was anointed to proclaim good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). The poor are a major focus of Luke’s account of the life of Jesus. Looking at these various passages within their context will shed light on why the gospel is good news for the poor. It’s also helpful to spend just a few brief moments talking about the words used in the Greek of Luke 4 and the Hebrew and Greek of Isaiah 61.
Poor, Humble, Afflicted
First, let’s look at the word “poor” in Greek. In both the Greek New Testament and Old Testament, the word ptōchos is used. It means to be economically poor, but it also used to suggest that “since they are oppressed and disillusioned they are in special need of God’s help, and may expect to receive it shortly” (BDAG). In my version (NASB), the Hebrew in Isaiah 61:1 is translated “afflicted” with an alternate translation “humble.” The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon says this term can mean, “poor, afflicted, humble, meek” and offers this additional comment: “poor and weak, oppressed by rich and powerful.” When we think of someone being humble, we typically think of attitude, but this term also has the economically poor in mind as seen in the Greek translation of this passage and Jesus’s use of the term.
So “the poor” in Luke 4 are those who are economically poor, but how can they be poor in the promised land? The answer is the same as it was in the context of Isaiah 61: Israel was oppressed by other nations, David wasn’t reining on the throne, and the cities were in ruin. Basically, the Jews who suffered under Roman occupation and oppression are the “poor” in this context. This is why “the rich” are spoken against so strongly by Jesus. They had no compassion for their brothers and sisters who were going without even though they had a surplus of wealth themselves.
[This Hebrew word translated “afflicted” in my Bible is also used in passages like Isaiah 11:4; 29:19; 32:7 and Amos 2:7; 8:4 if you’d like to do some additional reading.]
In Luke 6, Jesus traveled through the countryside preaching, casting out demons, and healing the sick. After being criticized for allowing His disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath, Jesus visited a synagogue on a Sabbath day some time later. The scribes and Pharisees watched closely to see if He would heal on the Sabbath. When He realized that they were observing Him, He called a man with a withered hand over and restored it. He showed once more that mercy triumphs over judgement.
After these interactions with the religious leaders, Jesus chose His twelve apostles and began to gather large crowds to heal them of their diseases.
As they looked on, He began to preach, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied… But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry” (Luke 6:20-26).
He goes on to say that they should give, expecting nothing in return, love their enemies, and to not judge or condemn others. Instead they are to “pardon” someone from their debts and to treat others how they would want to be treated.
This is good news for the poor to whom Jesus preached, but it was also good news to the rich from one perspective in that it gave them an opportunity to give back and share the wealth, but they would only receive it as good news if they were willing to hear.
After delivering the sermon in Luke 6, John the Baptist sends a delegation to see if Jesus is who He claims to be. Jesus simply responds by referencing Isaiah 61 again. Can people look at how we treat those in need and tell that we are a follower of Jesus? If someone wants to know that we are a Christian, can they tell by our mercy towards the poor and afflicted, or is all we have to show perfect attendance on Sundays?
Luke 14:13, 21
And He also went on to say to the one who had invited Him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”Luke 14:12–14
This is similar to what Jesus said in Luke 6. The kinds of people we need to help may not be able to help us in return, but think about it like this: is there any way we can repay God for the blessings He has given to us? No. So, we should go and do likewise!
Luke 16:20, 22
Luke 16 documents the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In this story, a poor man named Lazarus was laid at the gate of a rich man. Surely, his friends thought, the rich man would be able to spare something to help this poor sore-covered man. Eventually, Lazarus and the rich man died. Lazarus was carried to a place of comfort, but the rich man ended up in a place of torment. Even though he had received many good things in his life, he had no compassion or mercy for others. Like Jesus said in Luke 6, Lazarus received the comfort he longed for while the rich man had all of his comforts removed.
Even in the afterlife, the rich man had no compassion. He wanted Lazarus to leave his place of comfort to come and serve him, something he wasn’t willing to do for Lazarus. When this turns out to be impossible, he wants Lazarus to leave his place of comfort and be resurrected into his sore-covered body to warn his brothers. It turns out that the great gulf between true comfort and torment is the rich man’s cold, merciless heart.
Had he helped Lazarus, had he shared the love, then he would have been blessed. Sharing a small portion of his wealth with the poor man wouldn’t have been a burden for him.
An entire article could be written on the rich young ruler, but I will leave it at this: the rich man allowed his possessions to come between himself and God. Though he was “extremely rich,” he was apparently not benevolent despite the widespread poverty among God’s people. His sin was not that he was rich; it was that he was beyond wealthy while people like Lazarus and the people who Jesus healed had nothing. He had no compassion and no mercy.
One might think that Jesus’s demands were extreme, but we’ll see from the following passage that Jesus knew the man’s heart and that he probably would have been sad about any amount.
He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”Luke 19:1–10
Zaccheus only offered half of his possessions, and Jesus said that salvation had come to his house. The rich man from the previous passage didn’t have a money problem, he had a heart problem. Had he had the character of Zaccheus, then salvation would have been his as well.
Isn’t it interesting that the people of the town had such a negative impression of Zaccheus because of his profession that they weren’t able to see the type of person he really was. From his statement, it is as if he is saying that he had never intentionally taken more than what was needed. Zaccheus, though he was rich, was apparently not the cheat people make him out to be.
Zaccheus had abundant wealth. He knew that even if he were to give half of his possessions to the poor, he would still have enough left over to right any wrongs. These passages condemning the rich in Luke are not a blanket condemnation of anyone with extra money; instead, they condemn those who refuse to help the needy around them even though they have more money than anyone could ever need.
And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And He said, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.”Luke 21:1–4
The tragedy of the widow and her copper coins is that the rich were putting gifts into the treasury out of their surplus when they should have been caring for this poor widow. As Jesus says in the following verses, the temple was going to fall. The implication is that instead of pouring money into a treasury doomed for destruction, shouldn’t one use their surplus to help other humans, who live forever?
Further, if we look at all of our physical possessions as temporary, then we should prioritize helping those in need. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have nice things and enjoy life, but it does call us to be willing to sacrifice our surplus for the sake of those who have nothing. This is a real challenge. Jesus makes it plain that this isn’t an easy decision to make, but for those of us that have been given the incorruptible gift of eternal life, what could be more natural than to show mercy, love, and grace to everyone around us?
Jesus was anointed to proclaim good news to the poor. We know that faith without works is dead. Can we proclaim that same good news without acting on it?