by Rev. Rebecca Migliore
February 13, 2022
This is the Sunday of “Blessings and Woes.”
If we were in the gospel of Matthew, it would be the Beatitudes, describing the blessedness of those who have “certain qualities of experiences peculiar to belonging to the Kingdom/Reign of Heaven.” (Britannica definition of Beatitude).
It we were in the gospel of Matthew, we would have nine blessings, for those: poor in spirit, mourn, meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, persecuted for righteousness’ sake, reviled falsely on my account.
If we were in the gospel of Matthew, it would be the Sermon on the Mount (with Jesus high up, looking down on the disciples and those gathered—like the image of Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai with the 10 commandments).
But we are not in the gospel of Matthew; we are in the gospel of Luke. And so, there are not just blessings but woes. There are not nine, but four of each. And Jesus is not high up, looking down—Jesus “stood on a level plain” and even “looked up at his disciples” as he began to speak (thus this passage is called the Sermon on the Plain.)
Luke seems to be going out of his way to portray Jesus as a rabbi, a teacher as well as a healer. When we listened to the passage about Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue, he stands up to read the passage from the prophet Isaiah, and then sits down to comment, as rabbis did. Just before our reading for today, Jesus has been on the mountain to pray, and he has just chosen twelve of his disciples to be apostles. So, Luke could easily have made Jesus talk from a high place, like Moses, as Jesus does in the gospel of Matthew. But Luke makes a different choice. Jesus comes down to the people’s level—he stands on a level place—where people can touch him, and crowd around him as he heals people of their diseases.
*It is jarring to hear Luke say, “Then he looked up at his disciples…” Were his disciples standing above him? That seems weird. No, but it makes sense, if the disciples are standing, and he sat down, like he did in the synagogue, like rabbis did when they were teaching. So Jesus, comes down from the mountaintop, stands on a level plain, heals, when he is done with his active work, when he is ready to teach, he sits, looking up at all those standing around him.
And he starts to teach…
Blessed are you who are poor.
God will bless those who are hungry now.
Happy are those who weep now.
You’re blessed when people hate you, exclude you, revile you, defame you, on account of the Son of Man.
This is as jarring as if you went to the doctor because you had a broken leg, and the doctor said “Here’s my diagnosis. You are SOOO lucky to have a broken leg! Congratulations.” We would be understandably confused. I want us to hold onto that confusion for a minute. In Luke, Jesus highlights 4 things that must have been very common in those listening to him—poverty, hunger, grief, and being looked down on, excluded, because of their beliefs (as well as because of who they were). If you wanted to have a self-pity party—these would be a good reason why.
And if you were a religious person in Jesus’ time, you would have been well aware that the prevalent wisdom was that if you were in God’s favor, if you were blessed of God, you would NOT be poor, hungry, in mourning, or reviled! And here Jesus was turning the “golden ticket” to get into the Reign of God on its head. The second part of each of these blessings gives us a glimpse as to why.
For yours is the kingdom of God.
For you will be filled.
For you will laugh.
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.
Jesus seems to be saying that these “blessings” put you in the best chance to receive God’s promises. Yours is the kingdom, you will be filled, you will laugh, you will rejoice. This was truly good news for many in that crowd, that day. And for many of us, at times in our lives. Jesus is advocating strongly that we get out of the mindset that if things are going well, it is because we have done right and God is blessing that. No, here Jesus is saying, if things are not going well, hear that you are actually blessed—for God sees your distress; God will come to your aid; God will turn things around. And to show that this wasn’t something he was making up on the fly, Jesus reminded them, “for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets." In other words, you are in good company.
And to make the point even starker—Jesus in Luke finishes with his “blessings” and gets to his “woes.” Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. You’re in trouble now if you are filled, for you will be hungry. How terrible for you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. It’s trouble ahead if all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
If we let go of the correlation between our circumstances and God’s approval or disapproval then… when things are going badly it is not a punishment from God, AND when things are going well, it is not God’s approval. That is hard to erase from our minds and lives. If we get a terrible disease, or something bad happens to us, isn’t there a sneaking suspicion that we did something wrong—that we have displeased God in some way? And how often, in the back recesses of our minds, do we see good things in our lives as God’s approval of us? Jesus says, Stop That.
In Jesus’ mind, if we look at those who were the most connected to God—the prophets, the ones who spoke for God in days past, the ones who had to go to the people with challenging critiques, and harsh words, and promises of better times—if we look at the prophets, they were not always rich or full or laughing or spoken well of.
In fact, Jesus says, they were often, poor and hungry and grieving and reviled. But that did not mean they were not blessed of God.
In the times that I have preached on this passage, I have been acutely aware that most of us need to listen most especially to the Woe section. Because if we look at the world, even if we look at those around us, many of us are rich, and full, and laughing, and spoken well of.
Now the woe section doesn’t say, You are bad. It says, don’t expect to get more from God, because you already have your blessings. It might even say, because of these things that the world sees as blessings, you are farther away from God; you are farther away from the reign of God. Be careful, for these things can be traps—such were the lives of the false prophets—the ones who were not close to God, the ones who were not speaking God’s word to people, the ones who got it wrong.
It’s hard to hear those words. It’s hard to give up thinking that we can tell if we are in God’s good graces by how well our lives are going. But that is what Jesus is doing. He is trying to shock us out of our worldview. Blessed are the poor. (What? Say the poor and the rich.) Woe are the rich. (What? Say the rich and the poor.) Maybe now we are paying attention. Maybe now we are listening closely to what Jesus is saying. Maybe now we are ready to be taught.
This year I was musing about this text in this hyper-partisan world we are all living in, I wondered whether Jesus meant to have this sharp demarcation between being blessed and being in trouble. In the gospel of Matthew, there are very few of us who can say we are blessed by each of the nine Beatitudes (although they are guidelines for how we are to live our lives). In the gospel of Luke, I think it is all the more possible that these pairings:--poor/rich, hungry/full, weeping/laughing, rejected/accepted—are things that we each have an inkling of in our lives. There are times of weeping and laughing in everyone’s life.
In different degrees, we have known hunger and fullness; being poor and being rich; being rejected and being accepted. The human condition leaves us open to experiencing all of these things—and not necessarily by any fault of our own, (and Jesus suggests), not by God’s direction either.
Thomas L. Friedman in an oped in the NYTimes on Feb. 10th proclaimed “America 2022, where everyone has rights and no one has responsibilities.” Rights and responsibilities—Friedman is saying that we all like to claim our rights, but then we don’t want to do the hard work of having to put out, responsibilities. What if Jesus was making a similar argument in his sermon on the plain.
We all want to be blessed. We all want God’s blessing. But we have, over the millennia, somehow tried to define God’s blessing, tried to quantitate God’s blessing, tried to know who is blessed of God and who is not. And the Protestants have some culpability here—that’s what the Protestant work ethic was all about. You could tell if you were one of the chosen if you worked hard and were blessed with prosperity (it supposedly showed that God was smiling on you, a wink to say, “yes, you are in my good books”). Obviously, this type of thinking was also prevalent in Jesus’ day or he wouldn’t have been trying to turn blessedness upside-down!
In Jesus’ sermon, he wants to redefine blessedness as being open to God’s gifts. And he thinks that those who have little, those who are not in so much control, those who know that they need help, might lean on God more.
And it is also true that we do not want woes. We don’t want to be in trouble with God. And maybe that is why we try to run around what Jesus is saying if we are rich or full or laughing or accepted. But what if the “woes” are more like Friedman’s responsibilities? What if Jesus is trying to say, if you have more, more is required of you. If you are rich, what are you doing with your wealth? If you are full, do you have a little for those less fortunate? If you are laughing, do you remember those who are not in a happy place?
If you have standing in the community, do you even see those who stand on the periphery?
I think Jesus, by contrasting things that are somewhat subjective, or might even be fleeting—reminds us that where we fall in these pairings today does not define us as people, nor does it say anything about where we stand with God. There are circumstances in life. And God’s promise to us is not that everything will be rosy, God’s promise is that God will be with us, especially when we walk through the dark valleys, especially when we stray from the other 99, especially when it seems life is too hard to bear. That is when God’s presence can be such a blessing. Not that it takes away the pain—but it is a comfort and stay until we can move past the valley, or get found, or start ourselves on a better path.
And the other side of that equation is God promises to be with us when circumstances are great—maybe as a thorn in our side, constantly reminding us that we shouldn’t forget other people, gently nudging us to remember that things can change in an instant, beaconing us to stand not on worldly accolades, but to hold onto the call for justice, for mercy, for humility.
This morning, Jesus sat down, and looked up at us and asked us to make a diagnosis of our lives.
How is our relationship with God?
Do we try to gauge how we are doing by external ratings (rich/full/laughing/accepted)?
Do we acknowledge the times God has been there for us?
Are we fulfilling the charge, the responsibility, to bless others with all we have been given?
With God’s help, may we be blessed with a steadfast faith in God’s promises to us, and may we constantly be a blessing to others.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.