Blessed are the poor – Greek gods and dystopian futures

Science fiction films depicting dystopian futures have been a cinematic staple for many years. A common background for the story is a society with a massive division between a small privileged elite and a powerless, poverty-stricken mass. The Hunger Games and Divergent series and Elysium are recent examples, but the theme goes back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and beyond. The scenario seems to resonate with us. This may be unsurprising when we consider that has been the reality of human society until recent history, and sadly is still the reality in many parts of the world.

This reality was well understood in the Eastern Mediterranean of the first century, where to be educated meant to be steeped in Greek language and culture. This had provided a cast of gods and heroes who were set apart from the mass of humanity. The Greek word ‘makarios’, which we usually translate in the Bible as ‘blessed’, was used to refer to these special ones. Most other religions also assumed health, wealth, children and happiness in general were a result of being favoured by the gods, favour that could be earned by pleasing them. The Jewish religion of the time carried the same assumption, with the corollary that ill-health, poverty, childlessness and all the other challenges of the human condition were the result of offences against God, either directly or by others in the family or community.

This is why the Beatitudes (Jesus’s ‘Blessed are…’ statements found in Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6. 20-23) are not just words of comfort and hope, but offer a radical transformation of what it means to be blessed. Being well-off and healthy are not barometers of God’s favour. The poor are not at fault for being poor. The sick are not ill because God has cursed them.

We have come a long way in 2,000 years and it is a common feature of the films mentioned above that the gross inequality in privilege they portray is seen as wrong and destructive. Assumptions about how society should be ordered have changed massively and Christians have been involved with, and have often led, those changes. Christians continue to work for social justice all over the world, building God’s Kingdom, at the same time knowing that our ultimate good does not depend on our material circumstances, but on our relationship with God.

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you.
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Those who have God lack nothing:
God alone suffices.

Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)