No Purchase Necessary
The following is the transcript of a sermon given on February 17. No audio is available.
Scripture: Luke 6:17-26
The beatitudes is one of the more well-known and oft-quoted passages of the bible, or at least of the New Testament.
There are two versions of this story in the Bible, in Matthew and in Luke, where today’s gospel reading comes from. And as is typical for the gospels, each story is a little different. Matthew’s gospel has the more ‘famous’ version of the beatitudes, blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy, blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God, blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, etcetera.
In a sermon in the fall I talked about what our society might look like if we used the beatitudes as our ‘house rules’, as a way of showing us how to live. In other words, we took at look at the beatitudes as though they were prescriptive. It was a neat exercise- remember imagining courthouses inscribed with “blessed are the merciful”, the pentagon with the sign “blessed are the peacemakers”?
Luke’s version of the beatitudes is a little harder- well- a lot harder to do that with. You see, Luke’s version of the beatitudes really deals with the here and now. Blessed are you who are poor, ….blessed are you who are hungry now, blessed are you who weep now….And then Jesus goes onto what some preachers like to call the woebetudes. Woe to you who are full…woe to you who are rich…
There are a couple sticking points if we try and look at this story the same way we’ve looked at Matthews version in the past- I mean, I can understand striving to be a peacemaker, or standing up for what is right despite the threat of persecution, but am I really supposed to strive to be destitute, hungry, and outcast? And furthermore, is God going to punish me for having enough to eat? Is God really going to be about making sure the hungry get food but then punish me for already having it?
This is a deceptively tricky passage for preachers. But that’s where it gets fun, right? It’s these tricky bits, these bits where if we really dig down deep and walk around in them, yield some beautiful fruit. So goggles on, everyone, we’re going in!
It had been a long day. Hundreds of people from all over, both Jews and Gentiles, had gathered to be healed and to hear him teach. The height of the midday sun had come and gone, the shadows began to lengthen again, and feel just cool enough to bring a little relief.
Those who couldn’t find any shadow to sit in were likely feeling that nagging thirst of a dry mouth on a hot day, the vague slightly grimy stickiness on your face and arms and neck that comes with sweating in a dry dusty climate.
Some may have looked around warily for the presence of lepers, knowing that all sorts were coming to be healed, nervous still that they might…catch something in the meantime. Some may have been brought along reluctantly by a friend or a spouse, some might be there just to be proved right that nothing good can come out of a place like Nazareth, and this nobody sonofacarpenter with delusions of divinity was no exception. Some might be there because all of the systems of power in their lives, all of the institutions they had been taught to trust had failed them, and this was where rock bottom had brought them. Nothing to lose, might as well see what this Jesus guy can offer.
Many of the folks hearing this message out there on the plain that day were likely the poor, the hungry, and the outcast. They had nothing but God. They likely felt anything but blessed. #blessed. And then they hear this message, that they are somehow fortunate? The Gentiles in the audience likely grew up in traditions that taught that if you were poor, you were cursed or impure. And then they hear from Jesus that Jewish tradition looks upon the needy as those for whom it is mandated to provide care, those for whom God cares a great deal.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”
There’s definitely an emphasis on the reality of physical needs, and the blessings that joining this Kin-dom will bring about. In this movement, if you’re poor, hungry, or outcast, you will find aid, nourishment, and community. Which is good, because discipleship wasn’t likely going to bring you material prosperity or leave you very popular with society. Jesus reminds his listeners that while the false prophets were praised, the true prophets were reviled. Joining a movement that places no real importance on material wealth or popularity isn’t likely to bring you material wealth…or popularity.
Ok so then what about the wealthy? What about the middle or upper-middle class person who doesn’t go out to eat very often, but always has a full refrigerator, and stocks up at Costco on their kids’ favorite snacks?
To them Jesus says,
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."
Told you it was a tricky passage…So are we to believe that God punishes us for our comfort? That doesn’t really fit with our theology of abundant love and forgiveness. Plus, I really don’t think that having enough to eat is a moral shortcoming. It’s easy to take from this passage a message that we should somehow strive to be poor or hungry or reviled…but this story begins with Jesus healing everyone who was present and in need. Jesus wasn’t about suffering for suffering’s sake. Author Debbie Thomas reminds us that “Pain in and of itself is neither holy nor redemptive in the Christian story, and in fact, Jesus’ ministry is all about healing, abundance, liberation, and joy.”
That’s another reason why I don’t think that the beatitudes and woebetudes are prescriptive. They’re not about telling people how to be or how not to be, nor about judging people for their situation in life. Rather, they’re descriptive. Jesus is simply telling people the truth about …how it is.
The woes aren’t curses, they’re…consequences, given as warnings of potential pitfalls rather than as notice of impending punishment. Jesus is telling us that in God’s Kingdom, those who have nothing BUT God, are a step ahead in terms of knowing how desperately we need God. And it’s in clinging to God that the real fulfillment lies.
But if we are already so full that we think ‘I have everything that I need,’ confusing standard of living for quality of life, we’re missing the point, and we are only hurting our own souls by closing them off to the kind of God-hunger that truly fills us up. In my preparation for this sermon I found a reflection written by Debbie Thomas, contributing writer to an online web magazine called Journeys with Jesus. She hits the nail on the head and I soon realized I had highlighted nearly the entire page of her reflection, and so I give you her words directly:
“What am I- cozy and comfortable as I am in my healthy, happy, First World, middle class life- to do with this Gospel reading? How shall I reflect on it? Receive it? Sit with it? I might begin by admitting that Jesus is right. That is to say, I might come clean about the fact that most of the time, I am not desperate for God. I am not keenly aware of God’s active, daily intervention in my life. I am not on my knees with need, ache, sorrow, longing, gratitude, or love. After all, why would I be? I have plenty to eat. I live in a comfortable home. I have both health and health insurance. My children are safe. I have access to a vibrant social, intellectual, and recreational life. I’m not in dire need of, well, anything. In short, there isn’t much in my circumstances that leads me to a sense of urgency about ultimate things. I can go for days without talking to God. I can go days without thinking about God. It’s very, very easy- embarrassingly easy- for all things deep and divine to become afterthoughts in my life, because God just isn’t on my 24/7 radar. This isn’t because I’m callous. It’s because – as Jesus puts it so wisely in his searing sermon – I am already “full.” I have already “received my consolation”. I have easy access to laughter, so I don’t wonder what lessons honest tears might yield. I am primed by my cozy life to live in the shallows, unaware of the treasures that lie waiting in the depths. Most of the time, it just plain doesn’t occur to me that I would be lost- utterly and wholly lost, physically and spiritually – without the grace that sustains me.
I think what Jesus is saying in this Gospel is that I have something to learn about discipleship that my life circumstances will not teach me. Something to grasp about the beauty, glory, and freedom of the Christian life that I will never grasp until God becomes my everything, my all, my go-to, my starting place, and my ending place.”
Jesus reminds us of the inevitable sorrow that happens when we realize too late that we’ve been so focused on our standard of living that we’ve neglected our quality of life. That we’ve been so focused on our material “blessings” that we’ve overlooked our dire need for God in our lives.
The blessings don’t come from being #blessed. Blessed are those who are poor NOW. Who are outcast NOW. The blessings are already there. The blessings are that God is already there for us, is already there with us.
The world may tell us that we are just one purchase away from happiness, or maybe one more purchase after that, but blessed are those who seek out God now. Blessed are those who weep, for by relying on God to get through it, they will find true happiness, laughter, and delight. No purchase necessary.