#Blessed Lk 6:17-26
The hashtag #blessed (and its relatives #tooblessedtobestressed and #livingtheblessedlife) troubles me. I don’t mean I don’t want people to acknowledge their blessings or to share them with others. I mean it concerns me when people start thinking that when life is going well for them, that’s a sign of God’s favor, a blessing. Because what happens when the situation changes, as situations generally do? If someone gets a great job, or a new beau, or a delightful new home and posts the good news on social media with the word #blessed, what will they use when that job gets hard, or that relationship goes south, or the house burns down? #Cursed? #Damned?
Maybe. And no doubt it will feel that way. The fact that we are Christian doesn’t mean we are exempt from hurting, grieving, experiencing difficulties, or even just having a string of really awful luck. The rain falls on the good and on the wicked, and nothing can protect us from that reality. But God isn’t extending and removing love for us during these ups and downs. No matter what preachers of the prosperity Gospel might teach, the Bible clearly demonstrates that all people fluctuate between having wonderful experiences and terrible ones, and God’s love is constant throughout that movement.
Whenever people suggest that hard times are a sign of God’s disapproval, I point out that Jesus died in agonizing pain on a cross, betrayed by religious leaders, abandoned by his friends, convicted by a kangaroo court. Though Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” as he died, it doesn’t mean God actually did abandon him. It just means it felt like that, even to Jesus. When we go through similar struggles, we can be certain that catastrophe is not a sign of God’s displeasure with us, any more than winning a trophy or a game is a sign of God’s approval of us, touchdown dances notwithstanding.
What Jesus is talking about when he speaks of blessing in these Beatitudes (so different from the ones we hear Jesus preaching in Matthew’s version of the sermon) is not God showing favor to people who merit it and disfavor to those who somehow haven’t measured up. When Jesus says “Blessed are…” he’s saying that these people are honored in God’s culture, which operates in a way that doesn’t line up with our own.
For example, Jesus starts by saying, “Blessed are the poor”—not a group that is usually considered exclusive. And while Luke’s version is explicitly about people struggling economically, he doesn’t exclude the crowd Matthew calls “the poor in Spirit.” He is just expanding the blessing to include a wider swathe of people, all experiencing various kinds of poverty. Luke is really interested in economic inequity which we learned way back when he shared Mary’s Magnificat back in Chapter 1, so it’s no accident that this blessing (and the accompanying “Woe to you who are rich”) focuses on people lacking tangible wealth. Our culture celebrates the elite who have money and power and beauty and prestige as VIP’s, but they are not held in higher regard by God. It is NOT the rich, but the poor, the ones at bottom of the heap, that God calls blessed.
You might wonder, “Why divide the rich and poor at all? Why doesn’t Jesus just say, “Bless everyone” and be done with it? Isn’t elevating the poor over the rich just playing the same game our society does but in reverse order? Does it make God just as petty as we are to suggest that if one group is lifted up, the other must be cast down? Some people have posed the idea that God doesn’t value the rich, and used it to justify attempting to violently overthrow the wealthy classes in various contexts.
But God is God, and not subject to our limited views of humanity. God doesn’t stoop to our bloody, violent games. God’s kingdom upends all the hierarchies and divisions we manufacture and comes up with a whole new way of being community.
Think of the time Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes to feed a hungry crowd. Jesus didn’t feed only the poor and send the rich home without any lunch. No, Jesus had no interest in elevating one group and punishing another; he wanted to make sure that everyone had enough—enough food, enough shelter, enough friends, enough prestige, enough dignity, enough everything. Jesus elevates the poor because Jesus wants all people to experience blessing, and that just happens to be the group that is most often excluded.
Maybe that’s why Jesus says “woe” to the world’s rich. Perhaps he’s underscoring how hard it will be for the ones who already benefit in our society’s structure to watch it be dismantled. The “haves” are more likely than the “have-nots” to resist giving up some of their possessions and privilege. It might even feel woeful to lose a world order that allows them to feel worthy and important. The risk of losing that false sense of significance may cause some who are rich by our cultural standards to resist God’s priority system. People with privileges and advantages do not easily give them up.
But if we resist God’s kingdom of abundance for all, it will not be because God hasn’t invited the rich to the equality party; it will simply be that we stumbled over our pride and said “no” to the invitation. The poor, on the other hand, are more likely see God’s gift of “enough-ness for all” as the blessing it is and embrace it.
Of course, wealth and poverty are situations we ourselves create in a world order that operates on credit and debt. God’s reign doesn’t involve anyone benefiting from someone else’s debt. In fact, the release of debts, the forgiveness of sin—you know, Jubilee, as we sang this morning—is part of what Jesus means when he says the poor are blessed. The suggestion that God’s kingdom feels like a debt that has been erased even shows up in the prayer Jesus taught, especially as the Presbyterians pray it: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
When a debt is forgiven, it just goes away; the contract is released, cancelled. What would it be like if we didn’t owe anyone anything? And what would it be like if we didn’t want to get “payback” or revenge when we were hurt? How would the world be different if the score was always even and everyone was content with that?
Maybe it’s time to stop keeping a running tab of who has what and who owes what, who appears to be blessed and who appears to be cursed. Let’s throw out the score sheet entirely and start over with a totally different game. It will not be easy to shift. It may look like those of us who are rich and privileged are losing, because we have to share some of what we have—earned or not—with those who have less. But Jesus intends for all to be lifted up, all fed, all free from anxiety, and that can only come from trusting in God and not the other trappings we think keep us secure.
The Good News is that Jesus isn’t asking us to do anything by ourselves. Instead, it is Jesus himself who comes down from the mountain into the midst of humanity, to a plain, as Luke describes it (as opposed to Matthew’s setting of this sermon on a mountain). Jesus is on a level place among a crowd of rich and poor alike, among those laughing and crying, with those who are knowledgable and ignorant, and on that level plain Jesus shares God’s overflowing grace with us all. We are transformed by Jesus’ power and presence, rather than required to earn his blessing.
Jesus models for us how to live a life of Beatitude. When he’s is aligned with the suffering, he promotes hope, promise, and dignity. When he’s with those who are comfortable, he nudges them towards humility, community, and bearing one another’s burdens.
Can we do that for each other? Can we remind one another that we are always #blessed, no matter our circumstances? Can we remember that the job of those who’ve been blessed with a clean slate, an erased debt, is to erase the debt and elevate the status of others? We have been blessed to be a blessing. Can we spread the joy of this privilege and freedom to others?
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 2-17-19” name of the sermon.