Joining the little old church ladies…

Yesterday was my first time going to a Bible study group at my new church. (I wasn’t slacking – they were cancelled for the summer.) Since I’m doing tutoring on most weeknights, the only one that works for me is on Thursday mornings. Of course, most people my age are working Thursday mornings, so my group ended up being predominantly women over the age of 60 – i.e. the church grandmothers.

Now I’ve just come from a very secular, college-heavy area. The average age in my last church small group was probably 25, the oldest person was 32. So I was understandably filled with glee to finally be hanging with a whole hoard of older Christian women dedicated to their faith. The hens were clucking about the relaunch of the church’s “Women’s Guild” – apparently this is just their term for a group for all the women in the church, to practice fellowship and service. (The middle-aged priest informed me that the term “guild” was more popular in the 1950s. One woman kindly told me it was just like an auxiliary. I chuckled. Note to self: this is how they must feel when their grandchildren talk about “selfies.”)

One trend that’s affecting churches and broader American society is fairly severe age segregation. You go to school with people your age, you go to college with people your age, you work with people your age, you raise families and interact with the parents of your childrens’ friends, you die slowly in a retirement home. The Boston Globe had an interesting article on the problem a few weeks ago: http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2014/08/30/what-age-segregation-does-america/o568E8xoAQ7VG6F4grjLxH/story.html  They focused on age segregation as a function of geographic location. As someone who lived in New England (albeit in a college setting) for 6 years, I can attest to the fact that just because you live right next to someone of a different age doesn’t mean you’ll actually engage with them, especially because the groups often have such different interests and priorities.

Ending age segregation requires intentionality, not mere proximity. I love the picture this article paints though: “seniors in retirement homes benefit when they spend time reading to children and playing with them, while young people are given the chance to absorb wisdom and life experience.” All of this age segregation is actually denying us the power that communities unlock. “It takes a village…” they say.

[My parents always cast some doubt on this phrase. I think it's because they only had me. My village were my books, and if my parents had needed to write books to keep up with my pace of reading, they would probably be more inclined to agree with the proverb.]

roman-paintings-womenwomen-in-the-bible--june-2010-2f0k69soSo I’m pretty excited to become a part of this community and to get to know the old church ladies. The most exciting thing is that we’re going to vote in a bit for what to study after we finish 2 Samuel. Judith petitioned for the apocrypha, and I seconded the motion. After all, I said, I want to learn the story of Judith!

Spoiler alert: it involves a future old church lady and a sword.

Speaking into the Hook-up Culture

Over at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf makes a good point about how Christians should talk about sex. He was raised Catholic, but I don’t gather he’s particularly religious himself. Yet he poses the hypothetical: if I were a Christian campus minister, what would I say to a group of college students about sex?

 

Hello again, everyone. You didn’t expect to spend your first day of college listening to a Christian minister talk about sex…Christianity prohibits certain things, like murder and stealing and adultery. But I want to talk today about something that Jesus calls on his believers to do. He teaches us to love one another, to be good to one another, to treat others as we’d want to be treated. Christians aren’t alone in preaching that code. I raise it today in part because I expect you all already agree with it. And if you do agree that we have a responsibility to be good to one another, I’d ask one favor: As you proceed through this college, bear that obligation in mind! Do so even when you’re deciding how to live your sexual lives here. Doesn’t that sound like it’s the right thing to do? But of course, it isn’t always easy.

The dean of students talked to you about consent. By law and the rules of this campus, you need consent to be intimate with anyone. I want to remind you of something: If we’re truly trying to be good to one another, consent just isn’t enough. Maybe there’s a person who has a huge crush on you. You’re at a party. Maybe you’ve had a beer or two, and in the moment, kissing that person would be a lot of fun. But you know, deep down, that you don’t share the same feelings they have for you—that if you kiss, you’ll be leading them on, and they’ll be all the more hurt tomorrow or the next day when you’re not interested anymore. You have their consent. You want to kiss in the moment—but you don’t, because you decide it’s more important to be good to them.

Say you’re dating someone. And you want to have sex with this person. They consent without being pressured. Yet you can’t help but sense that they’re not ready for intercourse. You understand this is a big decision with many physical and emotional consequences. And so, to be good to them, you hold off, despite their consent. You err on the side of caution, even though you’d rather go ahead.

If you really try to be good to one another, if you earnestly question what that moral code demands and grapple your way toward answers, you may not always like what your reason and conscience tell you. It may tell you to stop slowly taking that person’s clothing off even though they haven’t said to stop. It may tell you that you need to stay in the room with a friend who’d clearly rather be alone with an intoxicated date. Students are at greater risk of sexual assault at parties where there’s drinking going on. Does that mean anything for your behavior if you’re obligated to be good to your fellow students? Do you stay sober, or drink less and keep an eye on those who drink more, or serve only beer, not hard alcohol, when you host, or throw a substance-free party?

You’ll need to decide. What’s truly best for my classmates, and what does it demand of me?

Some students will become depressed after hooking up with someone who doesn’t reciprocate the emotional intimacy they sought. Does that fact affect you? How? There’s always a chance that sexual intercourse will result in a sexually transmitted disease or the creation of a new life. What does that imply, if anything, about your own sexual behavior as you try to be good to one another?

There are so many situations you’ll face—so many more questions I could pose.

I don’t pretend that confronting these situations with the question, “How can I be good to others?” will lead all of you to the same answers, let alone to my answers, though I hope that you’ll keep your hearts open to the possibility. But if you really wrestle with that question in every situation that involves sex, romantic intimacy, dating, hooking up, whatever you kids call it these days—instead of thoughtlessly acting in whatever way most people seem to be acting—you’re much more likely to do right by others, much more likely to be proud of yourselves, and much less likely to remember your time here without the regrets that haunt some people, people who look back at their younger selves ashamed of how they hurt others. You’ll also bring about a community with fewer unintended pregnancies, fewer sexual assaults, less depression—just by trying your very hardest to be good to one another!

 

Four thoughts:

1. It’s almost laughable to imagine a university allowing any religious person to talk to freshmen about sex during orientation. Instead they force students to sit through drivel that could be straight out of a sexed-up afterschool special, and kick Christian groups off campus.

2. Granting that, it’s a bit silly to make this case, because that’s already how so many Christians talk about sex. Their arguments for avoiding sex before marriage always revolve around what it means to truly love other people well and to keep their best interests at heart. That’s why the pro-abstinence group at Harvard was originally named True Love Revolution. Because of course if you love people, you’ll think carefully about how you engage with them sexually.

3. It’s really good to see a secular(?) person acknowledging the ridiculous level of destructiveness and hurt caused by the hook-up culture. (Friedersdorf is one of the most thoughtful and respectful writers on religion I know.) Last year, I was struck by how much secular culture has changed on this question as I watched one of my favorite TV shows – Quantum Leap. It’s an old sci-fi series from about two decades ago, and the protagonist chastised another character for suggesting random sex, saying that it was wrong to have sex with someone you don’t love. This standard – something that falls seriously short of Christian ethics – seemed so quaint and out-dated, as many of my peers wouldn’t even be willing to say that it’s wrong to have a hook-up. Christian Smith’s Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood is a highly report of a sociological study of many young adults that paints a good picture of how the hook-up culture has proved incredibly damaging to many of them.

4. Friedersdorf concludes by noting that Christians may be saying this, but that others aren’t privy to their conversations. I’m pretty sure I’ve painted something along the lines of this ethic (that opposition to premarital sex stems from love) in every conversation I’ve had about it. The problem is not that Christians aren’t making good arguments; the problem is that our culture is so divided many get their impressions of Christianity from Westboro Baptist church protests and not directly from Christians themselves.

The Black Swan

I’ve been offline for a while as I needed a bit of a mental break in the midst of a cross-country move and settling in at home. But now that I’ve picked up more work to sustain me, I’ve had a bit more chance to read and have decided to record my notes in blog form.

black swanRecently, a friend referred me to Overdrive, a website that helps you find e-books available from different libraries. I managed to find a book that’s been on my list for about six years now – The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. No, I’m not considering becoming a dancer; I have enough mental health issues to deal with. It’s all about the impact of the highly improbable on life.

After a few chapters, I realized I wouldn’t wish reading it upon even my worst enemies. The author’s style is somewhat endearing at first, but as the chapters bear on starts to feel rather arrogant and pedantic. I’ve begun skipping around because it’s just too tiring to actually read every meandering word.

Some main ideas:

  1. The Black Swan is supposed to be the prototypical example of Hume’s problem with induction. Basically, everyone in the world thought that all swans were white until they discovered a black swan in Australia. In practical matters (history, financial markets), you often don’t realize that x is really possible (dot com bust, 9/11) until it happens. History is often shaped by these seemingly random events that couldn’t be fully predicted (think World War I).
  2. Don’t trust people who think they can predict history or finance 25 years into the future; they can barely predict the next 6 months. (Personal note: keep this in mind for things like Obamacare / the national debt.)
  3. We’re always constructing narratives, because that’s simply how we remember things. We come up with explanations ex post facto, looking at history and pretending that we can find reasons for what occurred even if it was actually random or hard to understand. We try to fit things into our self-constructed patterns, fitting it to a platonic ideal – our map of the world – instead of recognizing the messy reality. (Example: the French thought Hitler was going to be out of power quickly, which is why they didn’t react as quickly. It’s only afterwards we call the French stupid and easily conquerable for not realizing it.)
  4. Remember the difference between “there is no evidence of cancer” and “there is evidence of no cancer.” Basically, just because there is not evidence of the existence of a black swan doesn’t mean there is evidence of no black swans; the absence of evidence for something is not evidence denying its existence.
  5. Interesting idea: maybe capitalism works because it allows people to be wildly unpredictable and try totally unusual things.
  6. Sometimes the more you know, the worse you are. As you try to develop theories, you construct more bad ideas, and then fit future information into those bad theories. (They did a psych test where they focused an initially blurry image. Those given fewer images were more quickly able to identify what the image was, over an even amount of time.)
  7. We generally are bad at predicting risk, because the riskiest things are the least predictable. Don’t trust the “suits” – financial advisors, political consultants, etc.
  8. The Ludic Fallacy: studying probabilities via games is bad, because theirs is sterilized, domesticated uncertainty, whereas in the real-world, you need to discover both the odds and your areas of uncertainty. Example: a casino spends most of its time focused on security in the casino and its clientele, but those numbers are highly predictable. Its four biggest possible financial crises came from completely unexpected places: a tiger maiming his beloved trainer (they’d only planned if the tiger attacked an audience member), an injured construction worker trying to blow the casino up, an employee failing to properly file taxes, the owner’s daughter being kidnapped. The worst risks are not computable, because they are hard to foresee and therefore impossible to model.
  9. A big problem: most risk assessments don’t contain a reasonable possible error rate to their estimation ratios. The error rate is often higher than the projection! Uncertainty is not found in bell curves; it is found irregularities. We should expect deviations from the norm. It is like the turkey, who after being regularly fed day in and day out for a year, is stunned by his death on Thanksgiving. The regular doesn’t always give a clue to the end story.
  10. Hayek’s nobel prize winning acceptance speech was the “the pretense of knowledge” – is this all just a variation on Socrate’s wise realization, “I know that I know nothing” ?

I’ll add more notes as I keep reading skimming.

The Surprising Wisdom of John Chrysostom

While investigating John Chrysostom for quotes about the role of women, I came across many accusations of misogyny in his writing. It’s been hard to track down the source of many of the quotes, but I was surprised to find the context of one. Amongst other gems I’m having difficult times finding, one was, “The beauty of woman is the greatest snare.” Look at Chrysostom – blaming women for the sins of men! Women get blamed for our very existence!

505px-Johnchrysostom

Of course, those quick to dismiss the Christian faith as anti-women have pulled this quote out of context. From his Homily 15 on the Priesthood:

The beauty of woman is the greatest snare. Or rather, not the beauty of woman, but unchastened gazing! For we should not accuse the objects, but ourselves, and our own carelessness. Nor should we say, Let there be no women, but Let there be no adulteries. We should not say, Let there be no beauty, but Let there be no fornication. We should not say, Let there be no belly, but let there be no gluttony; for the belly makes not the gluttony, but our negligence. We should not say, that it is because of eating and drinking that all these evils exist; for it is not because of this, but because of our carelessness and insatiableness.

While at first seeming to blame women (perhaps utilizing a rhetorical device to snare his patriarchal listeners), he immediately chastises this view. Against the misogynists, he argues “we should not accuse the objects, but ourselves,” firmly planting responsibility on the part of men to treat women well instead of as sexual objects.

Not all of Chrysostom’s quotes are nearly so helpful. It is not my intent to defend all the Church Fathers against claims of misogyny, which some of them no doubt possessed. I believe that it was primarily their cultural context which influenced their dismissive views of women and not the teachings of Christ, who let Mary learn at his feet, who was anointed by a woman, and who revealed his resurrected body to women first. Not to mention the emphasis of Paul that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” and his regular example of lifting up female deacons and apostles.

It doesn’t help that critics are so quick to take others out of context. Again, an example from Chrysostom. A website named Rejection of Pascals Wager paints him as a crude hater of women, summarizing:

To help believers overcome the temptation of women, Chrysostom devised the following description: “The whole of her body is nothing less than phlegm, blood, bile, rheum and the fluid of digested food … If you consider what is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the mouth and the cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned body is only a whitened sepulchre.”

Again, a fuller context. This is a letter to Theodore, who has recently fallen away from the faith. In the middle of a lengthy exhortation, we come to this:

I know that you are now admiring the grace of Hermione, and you judge that there is nothing in the world to be compared to her comeliness;

He’s not saying this in the vacuum of thinking about women or beauty in general, but rather to a specific man who is lovestruck by a particular woman, not simply for her attributes but for her beauty. He then proceeds to note how much more important for us to pursue God, to seek for beautiful souls:

but if you choose, O friend, you shall yourself exceed her in comeliness and gracefulness, as much as golden statues surpass those which are made of clay. For if beauty, when it occurs in the body, so fascinates and excites the minds of most men, when the soul is refulgent with it what can match beauty and grace of this kind?

It’s in this context, arguing that we pursue inner beauty which surpasses earthly beauty, that he says:

For the groundwork of this corporeal beauty is nothing else but phlegm, and blood, and humor, and bile, and the fluid of masticated food. For by these things both eyes and cheeks, and all the other features, are supplied with moisture; and if they do not receive that moisture, daily skin becoming unduly withered, and the eyes sunken, the whole grace of the countenance immediately vanishes; so that if you consider what is stored up inside those beautiful eyes, and that straight nose, and the mouth and the cheeks, you will affirm the well-shaped body to be nothing else than a whited sepulchre; the parts within are full of so much uncleanness.

Would I have put it quite so strongly? Probably not. But do I think he’s right that someday all earthly beauty will pass away? Yes. Just look at every beautiful actress when she turns 75. He then goes a bit more extreme:

Moreover when you see a rag with any of these things on it, such as phlegm, or spittle you cannot bear to touch it with even the tips of your fingers, nay you cannot even endure looking at it; and yet are you in a flutter of excitement about the storehouses and depositories of these things?

This sort of anti-body rhetoric smacks of the Platonism that I think the bodily resurrection of Jesus challenges. But his point again is to question the value of worshipping (of being in a “flutter of excitement”) bodily beauty when there is another form of superior beauty to be pursued:

But your beauty was not of this kind, but excelled it as heaven is superior to earth; or rather it was much better and more brilliant than this. For no one has anywhere seen a soul by itself, stripped of the body; but yet even so I will endeavour to present to you the beauty of this soul from another source. I mean from the case of the greater powers. Hear at least how the beauty of these struck the man greatly beloved; for wishing to set forth their beauty and being unable to find a body of the same character, he had recourse to metallic substances, and he was not satisfied even with these, but took the brilliancy of lightning for his illustration. Daniel 10:6 Now if those powers, even when they did not disclose their essential nature pure and bare, but only in a very dim and shadowy way, nevertheless shone so brightly, what must naturally be their appearance, when set free from every veil? Now we ought to form some such image of the beauty of the soulFor they shall be, we read equal unto the angels.Luke 20:36 Now in the case of bodies the lighter and finer kinds, and those which have retreated to the path which tend towards the incorporeal, are very much better and more wonderful than the others. The sky at least is more beautiful than the earth, and fire than water, and the stars than precious stones; and we admire the rainbow far more than violets and roses, and all other flowers which are upon the earth. 

All in all, Chrysostom fares surprisingly well when put in context. I’m still searching for the source of The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager’s other quote: “It does not profit a man to marry. For what is a woman but an enemy of friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a domestic danger, delectable mischief, a fault in nature, painted with beautiful colors?”

But until I find it, I have to say – Chrysostom has been full of some surprising wisdom thus far. Far from being a misogynist, he actually keeps pushing for an outwardly-focused society to look toward inner, higher beauty.

Lust & the Like

So I recently wrote an article on female masturbation, in response to a blog post that’s been linked as the best of her.meneutics, Christianity Today’s blog for women. My basic premise was that Christians need to stop pretending that women only masturbate because they want to “fill a void” or have “attachment issues.” The root of the problem – something many Christians feel weirdly uncomfortable acknowledging – is that women lust for sex just like men do. (Though on a spectrum, they may lust less on average.)

There have been many bizarre responses, which I feel weirdly compelled to detail here, even though they make it painfully clear that many of them haven’t read the article at all:

1. This article smacks of patriarchy. I specifically criticized the traditional accounts of female masturbation because I think they are patriarchal and downplay women’s agency in sex. See quote below:

The doublespeak here—that women are supposed to be simultaneously sexually adventurous, available, and willing yet without possessing lust themselves—is an impossible contradiction to embody. It treats sex as a man’s playing field, reinforcing the notion that women should cater to men’s desires without possessing similar desires of their own.

To fully address female masturbation, we don’t need more psychoanalysis about sex that implicitly negates female sexuality. We need a biblical approach that recognizes both the immense pleasure of the female orgasm and the inherent goodness of sexual desire while reserving its proper place for within marriage.

2. What century is this? The 1800s? No, if it were the 1800s I’d be saying:

Some young women actually anticipate the wedding night ordeal with curiosity and pleasure! Beware such an attitude! A selfish and sensual husband can easily take advantage of such a bride. One cardinal rule of marriage should never be forgotten: GIVE LITTLE, GIVE SELDOM, AND ABOVE ALL, GIVE GRUDGINGLY. Otherwise what could have been a proper marriage could become an orgy of sexual lust.

That’s a real quote, from a Victorian marriage guide, written in 1894 by Ruth Smythers. It’s very clear my article is written from a 21st century perspective, drawing from the wisdom of the ancients as well, instead of being completely oblivious to anything before 50 years ago.

Of course, we can simply assume that something is false because it’s old, right? In the end, this is little more than chronological snobbery. People don’t study history and so they assume that whatever is present or current is good, right, and true. Anything from before 1969 is clearly regressive and antiquated and false. Nevermind that attitudes toward sex have varied throughout the ages, especially in cities and the upper classes. Buy let’s just ignore those pesky historical facts!

3. It’s inappropriate to talk about such things in a magazine. Guess what. Everybody’s doing it and nobody’s talking about it. It’s because there is such stigma around this topic that the pastoral responses have been so unhelpful. Because no women are talking about it, every woman who struggles thinks she’s weird or on sexual overdrive or something. So we need to talk about it, and we seemingly can’t talk about it in person due to stigma. A magazine is a good way to resolve this tension.

4. My personal favorite: where is the Bible in all of this? Without getting into the sin of Onan, there actually was a Bible quote in the article. But it was subtle – “to stir up and awaken love before it pleases.” I quoted the Bible like Jesus quotes the Bible – without giving book, chapter, and verse. But you have to be knowledgable to track these more subtle clues… I won’t comment on what this says about the average commenter.

5. Masturbation can be performed without lust. I actually agree with this point; it’s possible to get off without lusting after a particular person. But I don’t think that’s a very common case, so it didn’t seem worth getting into arguments about it. I do worry about what it means when we start using a sexual act intended to be used in communion with another for purposes like our personal stress relief or soporific intents. I don’t have time to get as far into this, but I’ll write about it more later. I just don’t think this is a serious possibility for most people, and that lust is the more common problem.

6. Masturbation is perfectly fine. What’s your problem? This has not been the traditional opinion in the church, and some people I know and respect (Richard Beck, for example), hold the unorthodox position. The purpose of the article was not to make the case for why masturbation is wrong. It was an argument about a pastoral approach to a problem – once we agree something is wrong, how do we treat it? Most pastoral approaches I’ve seen in sermons have been significantly misguided, which is why I wanted to write this. I’ll present a longer argument on another day.

7. My favorite response from my boyfriend: Reading the comments on your article made me feel like this:

troll

Big Life Changes & A Job Opening

The news has been out for a little while, but I think it’s worth explaining here. After much prayer and petition, I decided to leave my position at The Veritas Forum effective in May. I love the mission of Veritas, and I don’t think there’s any other ministry doing quite what they do. But I realized that my life goal is to be on the speaking side of Veritas and not the planning side, and that I need to take the proper steps to get there.

The first step is to go back to school. I know a good amount about the Bible for someone who has only been Christian 5 years, but it’s not nearly enough to start teaching about it. I’m hoping to eventually do a PhD, but that will require learning the Biblical languages – Greek and Hebrew – which means I need to go to seminary or divinity school.

Before I do that, I want to be able to afford it. A couple years ago, my pastor very helpfully gave some of us copies of David Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover, which explores how people get into and can get out of debt. A lot of people go deep into debt to pay for school. If I were going to law school or medical school, I think my end salary could justify this because I could pay off the loan in a reasonable length of time. This isn’t the case for graduate degrees in the humanities. I know I’ll have much more peace of mind and flexibility if I save up the money before I go to school. As for scholarships – it’s possible that I could get a scholarship, but they’re harder to get for masters degree programs. Even if I got a scholarship, it wouldn’t be a full-ride, which means I need to save up.

It’ll be much easier to save up if I’m living at home, so I’m moving back to Irvine. I love my parents dearly and we get along well, so I’m looking forward to making this transition. Cambridge rent is sky-high, so I’ll effectively be saving $10,000 a year by making this switch alone. (That’s more than 1/4 of the total tuition right there if I go to Fuller.) As for my actual job, I’ll be doing tutoring in Irvine. If anyone is looking for a tutor, I can do high school English, history, and SATs, or middle school and below in all disciplines. I’m also cooking up a innovative idea for SAT tutoring that I’ll probably announce in the nearish future.

In the meantime, if you‘re looking for a great company to work for and have mad project management skills, I’d strongly suggest looking at the positions open at The Veritas Forum. Check them out at: http://veritas.org/about/jobs/

We’re currently looking for a Northeast Regional Director and a Southwest Regional Director.

Poor vs. Poor in Spirit

I was doing a Bible study last month in which we went through the Beatitudes together. One of the questions that came up was the fact that Luke says “Blessed are the poor” whereas Matthew says “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” So which is it? Are all the poor blessed or just those who are spiritually impoverished or what?
So I started poking around and found a wonderful resource answering this question from Hans Kvalbein: http://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-documents/journal-issues/12.3_Kvalbein.pdf

He does such a good job explaining that I’m not going to even attempt a summary but will just share key highlights: 

“The beatitudes of Luke are not in the third person [they], but in the second person plural [you all]. His beatitudes are directed to ‘you poor,’ to a specific group Jesus has in front of him. The context leaves no doubt as to whom Jesus is speaking: ‘Looking at his disciples, he said…’ (v. 20). The message of Jesus according to Luke is not that everybody who is poor is blessed, but that the disciples, in spite of their bad condition now, are blessed because they are receivers of the kingdom of God.”
The beatitudes seem to be drawing from a particular passage in Isaiah 61, which is “a promise to the ‘poor,’ the ‘brokenhearted,’ the ‘captives,’ the ‘prisoners'; it is a word of comfort to ‘all who mourn’ and ‘those who grieve in Zion.’ …When we look at the content and the wider context of Isaiah 61 it is evident that the promise refers to Israel as a whole. It does not refer to a limited group of the economically poor within the people, nor does it refer to all the poor and destitute in the world.” (Note well, here, that Christians consider ourselves to be in the lineage of Israel, that is that the Israelites were the “people of God” under the Old covenant and Christians have been “grafted into” this family tree (cf. Romans 11).  This would mean that the promises to the poor/afflicted of Israel apply to the poor/afflicted in the church.)
“The meaning of the word ‘poor’ here is not the economically poor, destitute, or needy… ‘Poor’ here means ‘helpless’, dependent on others, unable to pay back. The recipients are in this word indeed described as beggars. But the word does not refer to their economic or social status. The tax collectors, the fishermen, and the farmers in the fellowship around Jesus were certainly no beggars and could hardly be called ‘poor’ in a material or social sense of the word. They were able to sustain themselves by their own work. But they were beggars before God. They were dependent on his grace as it was proclaimed and demonstrated in the preaching and person of Jesus. The word is used in a transferred sense and describes the fundamental position of man before God.
One of Martin Luther’s last words was this: ‘We are beggars, that is true.’ As far as I know, Luther had never been a beggar in the literal sense of the word. But he had learnt both from Scripture and life that we are dependent on God, we are beggars before him. The gospel is the message that God gives his gift, his kingdom, to beggars, into empty hands. We have nothing with which to pay him back.”