“Blessed are you who are poor…. But, woe to you who are rich…”
Today’s Gospel throws us into the wrestling ring whether we like it or not. Know I tried not to take us there by focusing upon one of the other readings, only the sermon won’t arrive. It’s because Luke’s Gospel won’t let me and instead grabbed me by the ankle and threw me, dare I say, threw us, into the wrestling ring much like the angel did to Jacob in the 32nd chapter of Genesis.
The Gospel according to Luke does this. Know that I love this Gospel above the other three. I love how Luke tells us about women and their incredible faithfulness – about the angel coming to the teenage Mary and her magnificent song, about old Elizabeth with her child John jumping in her womb and Jesus’ compassion for widows. I love how Luke includes women Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Suzanna in Jesus’ band of disciples and how they are the first at the empty tomb on Easter morning. I love Luke for Jesus’ parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and the Persistent Widow. But how I wished he’d given us Matthew’s version of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, with its nine beatitudes or blessings which with one exception, uses the impersonal “those” instead of the very direct “you.” Because in Luke beatitudes, Jesus comes down off the mountain onto the level playing field and gets in our face by forcing us to wrestle, not just with blessings, but with woes.
The blessings and woes come with two temptations. The first is to get snarky with Jesus. To defend ourselves and to say that everything we are and everything we have we deserve because of our hard work. That is our consolation and we can feel proud. In our pride, we justified looking down upon the poor and blaming them for their circumstances. How dare they be given the kingdom of God when they haven’t earned it and therefore don’t deserve it! The same is true for those who are hungry, who mismanage their lives so instead of providing for themselves they need to depend upon others. Getting snarky with Jesus about third blessing and woe, about those who weep is a little more difficult. Unless when one asks the question, “What did they die from?” and the response is they smoked, drank, or failed to exercise. Because somehow if we just eat right, live right and always wear our seat-belt, we might live forever. And the fourth blessing about being hated and ridiculed, well one should know that being holier than thou by bringing up God in polite company is annoying, even obnoxious. Better to keep the God language in Church where it belongs. How dare Jesus turn the world upside down!
When I was in college, in 1975, I spent the Spring term as a sociology intern at Emanuel Lutheran Church in South Philly, located in the middle of the Southwark housing project. I thought I would change the world, but got changed instead. About halfway through the term, my Dad invited me to go out to dinner with one of his business friends, the CEO of Brunswick Bowling. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember his rather blunt questions. Why was I doing what I did? What good could come of it? Weren’t these people living the life they deserved? I didn’t know facts or figures, so I told stories about the people I’d met – a grandmother named Vivian who was my guide in the neighborhood, a single mom named Marian and her two adorable children, a teen-ager, Charles, who longed to go college, a young boy, Philip, who loved being an acolyte and how each in their own way not only changed me but loved me. Jesus turned my world upside down.
The second temptation with the blessings and woes is to get philosophical. At our Bible Study on Wednesday evening as we wrestled with this text, someone remembered a question her professor asked in college: What four words will bring you up when you are down and down when you are up? When no one responded, the professor replied, “This too shall pass.” Poor or rich or in between, this too shall pass. Hungry or full, this too shall pass. Weeping or laughing, this too shall pass. Ridiculed or respected, this too shall pass. Blessed or filled with woe, this too shall pass. Such thinking is called stoicism and while it goes back to ancient Greece it is still alive and well. It teaches that the path to happiness is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or the fear of pain, but by using one’s mind to understand the world, to do one’s part in nature’s plan and to work together and treat others fairly and justly.[i]
The problem with stoicism is this too shall pass. For no matter how hard we strive for self-control in the face of pleasure or pain, no matter how deep our thought in seeking to understand the world or careful our ethics in relationship with others, we fall short. We see a sunset that takes our breath away and while we can, or at least my scientist husband can, explain the physics of the sun’s rays turning lavender and scarlet with flicks of gold, the only appropriate response is “Oh, God, look at that.” And in our ever-evolving ethics as we seek to right the wrongs that have come before us, let us remember what Jesus did when the angry and righteous crowd who brought a woman who had committed adultery to him for judgement, how he bent down and wrote in the sand, we don’t know what, but maybe to show how sands forever shift through time and place and said, “let the one without sin throw the first stone” and then forgives her, telling her not to sin again.
Our wrestling moves fall short – getting
snarky with Jesus, having an attitude, fails because just when we think we have
him pinned down, the flips us over and we are on our backs. Because the truth is self-justification
always breaks-down. It turns blessings into curses. It’s never enough for we continuously need to
be richer, fuller, happier, more highly respected than anyone else. We are forever in competition, sizing up the
opposition, which includes everyone else because unless we are more than them,
we are less. It’s no accident that the
night of Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel (or was it with God?) came
right before the day he was reunited with his twin brother Esau, the one he
wrestled with in his mother’s womb and competed with his whole life. Ah, the joys of sibling rivalry…. But now, even though he is flat on his back,
Jacob has another move. Right before
daybreak, Jacob gets a second wind, turns one way and then another, and just
when he’s figured out how to get control, to prevail, the angel or God,
dislocates his hip. Yet, Jacob
persists. He won’t let go, won’t give in. He hangs on and seeks a blessing. He asks for something beyond himself,
something he doesn’t have and can’t control, something more than an attitude or
a philosophy, something he can only receive as a blessing. As the day dawns Jacob is given a new name, Israel,
meaning God rules, rules him, rules the whole blessed world.
God rules the poor and the rich, the hungry and the full, the weeping
and the laughing, the ridiculed and the respected. That’s true whether or not we acknowledged
it. We can spend our whole lives
wrestling or we can let go, acknowledge that Jesus has turned the world
upside-down and receive his blessing. In
the verses that follow today’s Gospel Jesus tells us how. I like Eugene Peterson’s translation in The
Message: “To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the
worst. When someone gives you a hard
time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person. If someone slaps you in the face, stand there
and take it. If someone grabs your
shirt, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use
the occasion to practice the servant life.
No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live