Today's Gospel presents us with Luke's a somewhat harsh and uncompromising version of the beatitudes compared to the account in Matthew’s gospel : it is the materially poor who will inherit the kingdom: for the rich have already received their reward.
As citizens of the wealthy West we possibly find it hard to accept that Jesus may have meant exactly what he said.
So, what do the blessings and woes from the first part of this passage have to do with Jesus’ instructions for living like true saints of God in the verses that follow? At first reading it sounds like the very things that bring us woe are the same things that bring us blessings. Look at the first 3 verses. But there is a difference. Look carefully at what Jesus is saying in these Beatitudes and their matching woe-itudes. What do all the blessings have in common? Seeking God. What do all the woes have in common? Seeking ourselves. I think the message is actually pretty simple: We are blessed when we seek God, regardless of our earthly circumstances, and we find woe whenever we are self-satisfied instead of God-hungry.
I could stop here – but of course there is always more to find in these verses.
When Jesus blesses the poor and hungry, the sorrowful and the ridiculed, he isn’t saying that we should all aspire to poverty, hunger, sorrow, or being verbally abused. He is saying that God is present with us, even if these things happen to us and when it seems like the world has abandoned us. God loves us, even when everyone else hates us. As saints of God, then, we find blessing in seeking God, being hungry for God, and loving those whom God loves, regardless of who they are. When Jesus announces woe to those who are rich, who eat well, and who joy fame and admiration from people, he isn’t saying that wealth, good food, and popularity are bad things. He is saying that when we start to take material blessings for granted, or worse, think that we have somehow acquired these gifts by our own efforts alone, we abandon God, and our self-dependence will be our spiritual downfall.
But then we come to Vs. 27 – “But I say to you that listen” No matter which camp you put yourself into up to now, whether the blessed or woebegone, none of us can escape Jesus’ direct commands. We are all here, right now, hearing the Word of the Lord together. There’s no ducking this one: every one of us is being told to love our enemies, bless the people who curse us, and do good to the very people who hate us. If someone slaps us, we are to turn the other cheek.
We have to set this 2000 year old instruction into the 21st century. Jesus is not telling us to passively accept abuse. In biblical times striking someone on the right cheek meant a backhanded slap that was intended to establish superiority. If you think about it, it is very difficult for a right handed person to slap the right cheek of another other than with the back of the hand. When Jesus tells us to turn our left cheek to someone who insults us by assuming superiority over us, he is telling us to affirm our own value as a beloved child of God. In essence, turning the other cheek is like saying, “I refuse to accept your arrogant insult. I dare you to consider me your equal.”
Jesus is turning the tables on us, reminding us that God’s kingdom doesn’t play by earthly rules. The things we sometimes think are important: wealth, fame, power – these mean nothing in the Kingdom of God, where love, mercy, and compassion mean everything. Loving our enemies is not a ticket into sainthood. Jesus' command to love our enemies is born out of our sainthood. As we celebrate All Saints today we might immediately thing of the Saints passed, but what about the Saints present – that is you and me. We are part of the communion of saints. We are called to be saints – that is to belong to God, to witness to him and to help to bring in his kingdom here on earth.
This is the way we are to respond to being blessed:
When we are hungry for God, we want the things God wants. God wants every person on earth to know him and love him.
When we are seeking God, we feel the pain and sorrow God feels for people who are hurting. When we are focused on spiritual wealth, money loses its power over us. As we practice generosity, we lose the desire to accumulate more than we actually need, and we may even find that we need considerably less than we thought we did before. When we stand up to injustice with love and generosity, we affirm that every human being is loved by God.
Now here is the amazing thing:
We are saints because we were sinners – sinners who have been forgiven and loved into sainthood by the grace of God. It has nothing to do with what we do, and everything to do with who God is. God loves us. God made us for that very purpose, so He could love us and we could love him. He loves us enough to forgive us for being satisfied with ourselves, for eating plenty while others go hungry, for hoarding our wealth while others have nothing. Yes, he loves us enough to forgive us for everything we have ever done that separates us from Him. If we will only ask his forgiveness, he will forgive. God loves us enough to transform us from sinners into saints.
We join the great company of saints who have gone before us, and the great company of saints who will come after us – all of us forgiven, all of us loved to our very core. We come together around this table to remember that God’s love isn’t limited by our standards. In his Son, Christ Jesus, God is setting a new standard: love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Do to others as God has already done for you. Not so you can become a saint, but because you already are.