I think many of us can answer yes to one or even more of these questions. Some may even answer yes to all of them. Yes, most of us here have a place to call home, food for our next meal or at least the ability to purchase it, money to pay our regular bills, and a good name or reputation, and some level of hope for a good life until we join the heavenly chorus.
And then we hear our Gospel lesson for today and it reminds us, like so many gospel lessons, that there are many who live differently. People that make their way to the breadbasket week after week. People for whom we collect school supplies, food, coats, blankets, hats, scarves, and toiletries. People who stand in line at the grocery store hoping that they have enough food stamps left to pay for the groceries in their cart, while also wondering how they will get shampoo or toilet paper, or other hygiene items not covered by their food benefits. People who are often talked about with disdain, who know that others think of them as lazy or unmotivated even though many work night after night cleaning restrooms at the local McDonalds or working other underpaid jobs just to have a job at all. People who purchase those much smaller boxes of cereals at the Dollar Store that are more expensive in the long run; yet a one-dollar box of cereal can get you through the week or two until the next barely above minimum wage paycheck; a pay that never allows for long-term planning but only for day-to-day existing. Or people on small disability checks. Or seniors on small pensions.
There are so many people who cannot make ends meet.
There are so many reasons why people cannot make ends meet.
And once upon a time I was one of those others, those people, trying to somehow pay 750 dollars in rent and 500 dollars in daycare on a 1600-dollar paycheck. Always wondering which bill to pay when and how and looking for ways to somehow stretch the remaining 350 dollars to pay for food, clothing, transportation, phone, healthcare, and all other things, including my child, for an entire month.
“Blessed are you who are poor…who are hungry now…who weep…”
”Blessed are you when people hate you.”
Life didn’t feel all that blessed back then. Instead, blessed were those who had full bank accounts, good paying jobs, cars, houses, retirement savings, vacation, and more. “Blessed are…,” Jesus says, and I want to scream, “Stop, Jesus!” But Jesus doesn’t hear my objection.
Having spoken the blessings, Jesus now turns to those with resources, possessions, prestige and happiness, and he tells them:
”Woe to you who are rich…who are full now…who are laughing now”
”Woe to you when all speak well of you”
And maybe that should make me fee better, but it does not. Because all those things that I thought of as blessings have suddenly been made into woes or even curses. For me, going to college and then later seminary was a blessing. Making it out of that run-down apartment in a dangerous neighborhood and into a beautiful house with a wonderful spouse was a blessing. Being able to leave some of my blessings behind in order to use other blessings to follow God’s call, to follow my passion, to come here and live here and preach here and serve here was a blessing. And I am not rich by any means, but my bills are paid. And I laugh – a lot – a whole lot. And the kitchen is full, and I feel richly blessed…
As someone who has been one of the “Blessed are” and now finds themselves on some level as part of the “Woe to”, I can’t help but wonder just what the right way is to be. Is there even a right way? Is the only way to be, to give away all that we have and to become poor and hurting?
NO!. Let’s be very clear about this! The blessings aren’t poverty, hunger, weeping, or being hated. Jesus preached about lifting the lowly all his life! His entire life was rooted in that. Even before his birth, those were the words coming at us through Mary’s song – do you remember, back in Advent, when we prayed the Magnificat?
Jesus knew how hard it can be to have no place to go and to be without resources. He knew how hard it is for people when they are looked down upon. His message is a balm to the poor. And yes, Luke is talking not just about spiritual wellbeing, but those without resources.
The Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew state “Blessed are the poor in spirit” – but the writer of Luke constantly writes about lifting up those without material and social resources. About 90% of the population in Luke’s world were poor peasants[i] . They were those who came to Jesus as he stood there at the foot of the mountain, and “Jesus looks on the poor, the humiliated, and he blesses them, he sees them, he loves them.”[ii] He promises them the true blessings, “ the kingdom of God…be filled..laugh”, and he tells them that there will come a day when they can “leap for joy” because their “reward is great” [iii]. As Jeremiah tells us, they “shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream,” never fearing or anxious.
The Kingdom of God, that is their promise, their reward, their blessing. Because they are “those who trust in the Lord”. They are those aware of their poverty and their need. They are those meeting Jesus not on the mountain top but on level ground. One by one they are blessed, and they are healed, their faith making them well, because they believed enough to come and hear him and see him and touch him. Their need led them to Jesus. When all else failed them, they held on to their hope and their desire and their faith.
But when we are rich and without needs, when we measure our lives by the wealth we have accumulated and we want for nothing, then it is easy for us to forget how much we need God and even easier to forget how much God needs us to be Christ in the world. I. It is easy for us to turn away from God and to fill our wants and needs with things from this world and to cling tightly to our wealth; Wealth of any kind makes us feel safe and secure and in control of our lives. And it is hard to give up that control.
Jesus’ words make me squirm – a lot. And they made me squirm even more when I looked around the web and came upon a website called “Giving What We Can”, and after entering my household data I was told that my spouse and I are part of the richest 4% in the world.[iv] And even back when I couldn’t make ends meet, my income still put me at the top 14% in the world.
And knowing this I must ask myself – what group am I in? Which of these two groups that Jesus is speaking to as he looks out at his disciples and the crowd am I in? Which group are you in? Are we rich or are we poor? And if we find ourselves to be rich, how do we avoid being among those who are cursed?
Jesus’s words are a warning to us – to stop and check if we are still following a star, the everlasting light, or if we have succumbed to the electric neon light of this word.
The blessings and woes in our reading have a message for us.
The blessings and woes in our reading tell us that it is ok to have wealth and possessions, but they are blessings not only for ourselves but for the greater good. When we hoard them, then we are standing in the way of God’s will for the world. God gives so that we can give back – not to become poor ourselves, but to share out of our abundance.
The blessings and woes in our reading tell us that it is okay to be full, but if we are stuffed to the brim while a neighbor has nothing, we are spiritually empty. Our meals are not an end in themselves, they are God’s provision for us, and they are bread for our journey as disciples of Christ. Sustenance for us being the hand and feet of Christ.
The blessings and woes in our reading tell us that it is good to laugh with joy and gladness, but if we laugh about others, what we are really doing is putting down what God has lovingly created. We are all created in the image of God – and laughing about one hurts all of us. Laughing about one puts all of God’s creation down.
The blessings and woes in our reading tell us that it is good to be well thought off, but if pride grabs us and we think too highly of ourselves, if we live our lives to impress others, then we lose our way as Children of God. Our reward will be temporary. God, however, loves us forever, just as we are. And so, it is better to have God look at us and say one day “well done, good and faithful servant”, than it is to have others worship us.
I believe our reading is a call for a self-check. Especially now, just a few weeks before lent begins. Our reading is a self-check, a time to ask ourselves: Are we still walking the path of righteousness or are we stumbling and losing sight of the path?
Whatever the answer, we are assured that Jesus is with u. Jesus is standing right here with us, by us and next to us, and wanting nothing but blessings for us.
[i] Fortress Commentary on the Bible: New Testament. “Luke”, p. 230
[iv] https://www.givingwhatwecan.org, the site adjusts for the cost of living in your country and the size of your household. It also compares your income to the global median.