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On the Level


Series: Epiphany

Category: 2019 Sermons

Passage: Luke 6:17-26

Speaker: Nicole Trotter

There are scriptures that are fun to preach on. Then there’s today scripture. In order to better appreciate what’s being said today, which is, in a nutshell, “Blessed are the poor. Woe to the rich” I think it’s important to remember a few key elements of Luke’s Gospel.From his opening statement. 

(Luke 1:1-4): Drawing from Matthew and Mark-Luke writes-

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. 

Unlike Matthew, we know that Luke is writing to someone of high social standing - possibly a convert - someone who is being instructed in the way of Christ.

Luke is writing to him, and to all of us here today- Blessed are the poor, Woe to the rich. In a nutshell, hard to swallow. So difficult to swallow in fact that writers soften it up. Well, Matthew wrote poor in spirit, surely that’s what Luke means too. No. Luke’s carefully chosen word for poor, is more accurately translated as destitute. The ones we see in our minds eyes, the one I see, lives on a subway in NY, 1987, wearing a garbage bag, smelling so badly everyone clears the car, as he stands holding a sign on a napkin that says hungry. Or maybe your Image of destitute is one of babies so hungry they're bones protrude and their eyes bulge from malnourishment. Or maybe, if you want me to stop describing these images, then we’re on the right track.

The other thing to keep in mind when we hear Jesus use this word blessed…is to understand the evolution of the Greek word.

In ancient Greek times, makarios referred to the gods. The blessed ones were the gods.  

Later on the dead were added to that list because they were believed to the on the other side with the gods, elevated now to being a god.

The definition of the word then expanded to refer to the elite, the upper crust of society. To be blessed, you had to be very rich and powerful.

When this word, makarios was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it took on another meaning. It referred to the results of right living or righteousness. If you lived right, you were blessed. Being blessed meant you received earthly, material things: a good wife, many children, abundant crops, riches, honor, wisdom, beauty, good health, etc. A blessed person had more things and better things than an ordinary person.[1] 

That’s probably closest to how we define the word today, when we describe our good lives. Good jobs roofs over our heads, the ability to travel, see the world, children, we say we’ve been very blessed.

Not today, we haven’t. Not in context of Luke’s Gospel and not according to Jesus. Jesus is speaking to us. Woe to the rich. The word for "woe" (ouai) is a word that anticipates disasters, horrors, pain, anguish.

Jesus turns it all upside-down. The elite in God's kingdom, the blessed ones in God's kingdom, are those who are at the bottom of the heap of humanity. 

Luke’s gospel is known as the Social Justice Gospel for a reason. Luke goes to great lengths to drive this theme over and over again, beginning most notably with Mary’s song- 

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
   but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
   but has sent the rich away empty.

Or go further back. Remember a few weeks ago when we heard Jesus inaugural address, preaching Isaiah, this is at the core of his ministry and lives at the core of what Jesus extrapolates on today… 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,

This is where the heart of Luke’s Gospel, and the heart of Jesus ministry lies. Look to the darkest corners of San Rafael. If you want to see the heart of God, look into the eyes of those you don’t want to look at because it’s too much to take in. 

I struggled all week with this. There’s more here than go out and feed the poor so I can feel even better about my already privy edged life. But surely Jesus didn't intend for us to feel ashamed by what we have, or wallow in guilt, or romanticize poverty and avoid happiness. As writer Debie Thomas says, Pain in and of itself is neither holy nor redemptive in the Christian story, and in fact, Jesus’s ministry is all about healing, abundance, liberation, and joy.

Nowhere in his litany of blessings and woes does Jesus tell his listeners how to behave. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, the sermon “is not advice at all. It is not even judgment. It is simply the truth about the way things work, pronounced by someone who loves everyone.”[2] 

Those who are hungry now will be filed. Those who are full now will be hungry.

Debie Thomas asks what we should all be asking when she writes-

So, I ask the question again:  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 will never forget the words of a friend who said, I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve had it pretty easy, and have never needed a savior the way you describe needing Jesus.

And maybe that’s our lesson today. Until we begin to grasp that our brothers and sisters needs are our needs, we will never fully realize the kingdom that God requires us to participate in. Until we’ve understood that the needs of others have something to teach us about our own complacency, we will never grasp what it means to give. Until we grasp that our blessings live in complete dependence on a God who has turned upside down what we have gotten used to understanding as blessed, we will be slaves to our own understandings. 

Jesus’s turns upside down the kingdom, Frederick Buechner writes this: “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’ The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and be crucified.’ The world says, ‘Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own’ — and Jesus says, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’ In terms of the world's sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion." 

Thomas continues…..

This is not prosperity theology. This is not “blessing” as health, wealth, and happiness. This is a teaching so costly, so soul-rattling, so unpalatable, that most of us will do anything to domesticate or ignore it.

Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad, and expendable. Why? Because you have everything to look forward to. Because the Kingdom of God is yours. Because God is the God of those who have nothing but him.

Lord, help me to hear what this is saying. Help me not to squirm away. Help me somehow to sit with woe, and learn the meaning of blessing.[3]