As Luke’s gospel has unfolded before us during these Sundays in Epiphany, time and again we have been told Jesus has been teaching – in his hometown synagogue, in the town of Capernaum, and by the lakeside as he sat in Peter’s boat. But until today we have not been privy to the content of his message.
In the reading for this morning, Jesus is standing on a level place. It is an expansive, open plain. A great number of people from all over the region have come to see him. Some need healing while others need relief from troubled spirits. They are a rag-tag lot – the outcast and downtrodden, those who do not have the benefit of education or the comfort of material possessions.
Jesus looks at them and then turns to his disciples and says, “Do you see these folks in their pitiful conditions? Believe it or not, they are truly blessed.” And then addressing the crowd he says…
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.
The beatitudes as St. Luke records them speak to real socioeconomic conditions rather than to spiritual well-being. They declare God’s partisan commitment to the poor and the oppressed.
It is a message so scandalous that revisionist interpretations of it began to appear as early as Matthew’s change of the “poor” to the “poor in spirit” and his change of those who “hunger” to those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Matthew spiritualizes the beatitudes so that we who are not poor and not hungry and not weeping and not hated can still have access to the kingdom of God and its blessings. This is not entirely a bad thing and Matthew’s gospel provides a necessary compliment to Luke’s. But if we dismiss Luke’s hard words we run the risk of domesticating the teachings of Jesus, which clearly envision a time when fortune and misfortune will be reversed.
A theologian by the name of Gustavo Gutierrez says that…
God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will. The ultimate basis for the privileged position of the poor is not in the poor themselves but in God, in the gratuitousness and universality of God’s agape love.
More than any other gospel, Luke expounds on the dangers of wealth. The woes we hear this morning pick up a thread from Mary’s Magnificat: God sends the rich away empty. Luke proclaims the teachings of Jesus state the rich are shortsighted and are lulled into false security if they believe their present abundance ensures their future comfort. He records Jesus’ words encouraging us to lay up treasures in heaven, not here on earth.
I am aware of several reactions I have when I hear the beatitudes of Jesus in Luke’s gospel…
· A part of me wants to say, “I am not rich. I am not well fed. I do not laugh. I am not well spoken of. Therefore, I do not fall under these woes.” But, when I am honest with myself, I know that I do. I know that I have all the advantages the crowd around Jesus does not.
· There is a part of me that becomes defensive. It hardly seems fair to have blanket condemnation thrown over all people with means.
· A part of me is mystified. Why would a loving God who wants good things for all people be so unhappy with those of us who are blessed?
· A part of me feels guilty. I overspend, overeat, and overindulge when so many have so little.
· And there is a part of me that hears a trumpet call in Luke’s gospel: a trumpet call to love and service and sacrifice.
I know I can’t solve the world’s poverty problems, but I can begin to tackle them one person and one family at a time. I can do with a little less and give a little more. Enrolling in Episcopal Relief & Development’s automatic monthly payment program enables me to partner with development projects in 35 countries touching the lives of over 3 million people. And I can take care of what I do have so that when I need it no more it can be useful to someone else.
I can’t provide food for every hungry person in the world, but I can contribute my time and my wealth to St. Paul’s Food Pantry. I can donate household goods and cleaning products to support For Kids in their work of setting up homeless people in a permanent residence.
Life is good for me. At this time there is little for me to weep or mourn, but this doesn’t mean I can’t comfort those who do. There are people in our parish and community who grieve the loss of someone close. There are people who live alone with little or no contact from others. When you reach out to someone who is lonely, it makes a difference, a huge difference. I have great respect for people who visit prisons and the ministry they do there. These are places of tremendous weeping and mourning. I think of children and young people growing up in broken homes who have lost the love of one or both parents. Theirs is a special kind of weeping and another caring adult in their life will be gladly welcomed. I think of so many of the people who come to our church seeking a light in the darkness of their present moment. All we do and all we give that goes into offering a weekly service of public worship speaks of God’s comfort and hope to those in desperately need of it.
I’d like to think I have a good reputation among my friends, in the parish, and around the diocese. And while it does not make sense to seek out hatred, insults, and cursing, I can reject the impulse to gossip when others gossip, to criticize behind another’s back, to seek discord instead of peace. I can stand with those who are unfairly attacked. I can reject racism, prejudice, and all forms of injustice directed at minorities. I can muster the courage faithfully to side with the right.
Surely these are the things Jesus seeks from those of us who are advantaged. We are in a position to provide the blessings Jesus so clearly wants to impart on the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the attacked. Yes, we are receiving our reward now in this life. We can use our reward either for selfish ends or for Godly pursuits. In our abundance we can come before God, not begging for more, but seeking direction. Who can I touch? How can I serve others? How can I love as Christ loves me? Christ gave Himself for me, how can I give myself to others in his name?
This I believe: When we who are blessed by the world’s standards share with those who are not, God is pleased. There will come a day when we will be poor or hungry or weeping or hated. On that day and in that hour God’s compassion will be stirred because we have actively sought to reach out to others. On that day, God will stir those who are blessed to come to our aid.