20 Jesus raised his eyes to his disciples and said:
“Happy are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours.
21 Happy are you who hunger now, because you will be satisfied.
Happy are you who weep now, because you will laugh.
22 Happy are you when people hate you, reject you, insult you, and condemn your name as evil because of the Human One. 23 Rejoice when that happens! Leap for joy because you have a great reward in heaven. Their ancestors did the same things to the prophets.
24 But how terrible for you who are rich, because you have already received your comfort.
25 How terrible for you who have plenty now, because you will be hungry.
How terrible for you who laugh now, because you will mourn and weep.
26 How terrible for you when all speak well of you. Their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.
27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you. (CEB)
Blessings and Woes
I think it’s safe to say that most Christians have made certain assumptions about the Gospel: that its declaration and the things it demands are meant to help us live a normal, healthy happy life. Like eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise, the Gospel enables us to make the most of life and live it to the fullest; to take advantage of life’s opportunities and to cope with its downsides. It’s a way to feel good and be happy and joyful.
But then we start reading the Gospel of Luke where Jesus is constantly affirming a complete reversal of values and offering a rather upsetting list of blessings and woes. Jesus, it turns out, has quite a different perspective than our assumptions allow us on what it means to live under God’s reign. Jesus insists that life under the Gospel is full of risk and insecurity and he raises all kinds of questions about our normal, healthy life.
I have a feeling that, if we had the opportunity to hear Jesus preach a sermon, many of us wouldn’t like what Jesus had to say. We’d probably feel a bit uncomfortable with his message, and a little exposed by what Jesus presents as truth. And our post-modern minds would rationalize his message away by saying, “Well, that may be true for him, but it’s not true for me,” because we think that—like everything else in life—truth is also relative.
Or we might rationalize it another way by telling ourselves, “Well, of course he’s talking about those other people, not me. I’m the good person in the parable.” For instance, whenever we read the parable of the Good Samaritan, we all imagine ourselves as the Good Samaritan, when perhaps we really ought to imagine ourselves as the wounded person on the side of the road—bleeding, in agony, and left to die in a ditch—and then recognize Jesus as the Good Samaritan who would pay any price to see us healed.
Jesus’ sermon on the plain provides a similar problem for us. We don’t really like what it says, so we tend to ignore the truth and go with our rationalizations. Yet, this sermon paints a vivid portrait of what life is really like under the reign of God, and the part of the sermon assigned to the Lectionary for All Saints’ Day is subversive and threatening to all of our comfortable assumptions about life and the Gospel.
It begins with four Beatitudes that invite us to take delight in the fact that the plight of the poor, hungry, grieving, excluded people will be reversed in and through the reign of God. Who can help but rejoice in the change in circumstances for such unfortunate folks? That’s great news, and it really is about time somebody did something for these people.
Then the four Beatitudes are paralleled by four woes that are declared upon the rich, the full, the happy, and the well-thought-of. We who read this sermon who have not found ourselves included among the blessed—those poor, hungry, grieving, and excluded folk—are set to wondering about our place among the groups that Jesus bemoans—the rich, the full, the laughing, the well-liked. And we question, “What in the world is Jesus talking about?”
Now, there is clearly no exaltation of poverty or hunger or grief or victimization as if these things are virtues we should all be seeking. Jesus is not saying we all need to quit our jobs and go live like homeless beggars on the street. He’s not telling us that we can never laugh again. He’s not telling us that we need to make everyone mad at us so we aren’t very well liked. The Beatitudes are not exhortations to seek after poverty, hunger, grief, and rejection.
But they are promised blessings declared upon people whose present condition would hardly seem to be called “favored.” None of us drives by a homeless person and longingly sighs, saying, “I really wish I could be homeless.” But we probably have driven by a humongous house and longingly sighed, saying, “Wow! I wish I lived there.” The future tenses in the Beatitudes, “you will be filled,” “you will laugh,” point to the future: their ultimate circumstances when God’s reign is ushered in in all its fullness.
In turn, the woes are spoken on those whose current situation looks, by all accounts, to be fortunate, but whose ultimate circumstance in God’s kingdom is quite the contrary. There’s a reason why Jesus said, “It’s very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” And guess what. Compared to the rest of the world, we Americans are rich.
I think what Jesus is saying to us is that those who prosper under the present structures of human life, who are self-satisfied and at ease with the way things are, who benefit and are honored by the system, are in fact to be pitied because they—meaning we—are the ones who are more likely to be in trouble. God’s reign does not include a divinely offered promise of health and happiness which entails a simple adjustment to the present state of the world order. Instead, the Gospel calls for a radically alternative manner of life that inevitably means swimming upstream in the cultural river. Christians are not called to go with the flow. And since we’re talking about Luke’s Gospel, I don’t mind using the analogy that Christians are supposed to be like the Rebel Alliance in our struggle against the Galactic Empire. Oh! Sorry. That’s a different Luke.
The saints that we hear about, and for us Protestant Christians it’s usually just the Biblical characters: Saint Peter, Saint Paul, Saint Mary, Saint Mary Magdalene, Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John. Then, there are some of my favorites: Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Macrina, Saint Benedict, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Thomas a Kempis, Saint Anselm of Canterbury, Saints Perpetua and Felicity, Saints Cyril and Methodius, Saint Maximus the Confessor, Saint John Wesley…yes, I definitely include Mr. Wesley.
These were Christian people who most definitely did not go with the flow. That’s why we still remember their names. Most Methodists today, if we actually sat down and read John Wesley, we would be shocked! We would cry out, “He’s nuts, we can’t live like that!” You see, John Wesley said crazy counter-cultural things like, “If you have two coats you are a thief, because you’ve stolen a coat from someone who doesn’t have one.” He also discovered that he could live off of something like 28 pounds a year, so no matter how much he earned in a year, he lived off of 28 pounds and gave the rest to the poor. That’s pretty crazy stuff. It’s radical.
The original readers of Luke’s Gospel who were living in the midst of the Roman Empire very often found themselves included in “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.” They knew exactly how much at odds with the Imperial system the reign of God put them and how violent the response of the imperial system could be. Many Christian women, men, and children met with extremely violent and cruel deaths, like Saints Perpetua and Felicity, because of their mere association with Jesus Christ, but they persevered in their faith even to death.
My family and I went to a park near Cincinnati once, and I came across a quote by an unknown author attached to an oak tree. It said, “Today’s mighty oak is just yesterday’s nut that held its ground.” And I thought, what a great interpretation of a life that has lived the Gospel. What a perfect description of a saint. The Gospel is countercultural, not culturally acquiescing.
Jesus goes on to preach some more radically countercultural stuff about how we should live and operate with those who are our avowed opponents. Instead of retaliation, the call is to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, and offer blessings and prayers for the opposition. That’s pretty darn countercultural.
Then the four examples of non-retaliation that follow all have to do with physical abuse (like a slap in the face) or material possessions (like the theft of one’s coat, begging, and the stealing of our goods). Recompense is not to be sought, and in two cases the victim is to offer even more (the other cheek, and one’s shirt). On one hand these examples serve to draw our attention to the point that in the reign of God it is love, rather than retaliation, that prevails. On the other hand, the very particularity of the examples makes it impossible to turn them into new laws. Instead, we are invited to reflect on the sweeping demands of love, especially in relation to hostile enemies.
All of this leads up to the Golden Rule and gives it context. It’s not a general proverb, but specific counsel for dealing with our enemies. Rather than responding to violence with violence, we are directed to treat our enemies as we would like to be treated. That’s tough for me to hear because I don’t even always treat the people I like the way I want to be treated.
For many of us, this sermon by Jesus reads like some indecipherable foreign language because for us the Gospel never creates the kind of opposition Jesus mentions here. We simply manipulate the Gospel so that it makes adjustments with the prevailing culture to enable us to remain rich, full, happy, and put on a pedestal. Any enemies we have are merely those with whom we have personality conflicts, or they’re the enemies of our nation. But Jesus’ sermon on the plain has the power to undermine any easy truce we have negotiated with our culture and to wake us to the sharp demands of life under God’s reign. It is a precarious and risk-filled existence, but an existence which Jesus calls “blessed.”
There is a new kind of life that is expected of the faithful. It is not the life of comfort and security that we think we get by following after the ways of our culture and our world. The saints we honor on All Saints’ Day are those who have passed this treasure of faith down to us throughout history because they embodied the Gospel in their lives. They have many stories, and we are mystically tied to them in this wonderful thing we call the communion of saints. As we recall the saints of ages past, we do so with gratitude for their endurance; and as we are reminded of their examples we are called to renew our commitment to follow their examples of living out and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in and to the world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!