Luke 6: 17-26 3rd Sunday before Lent – Thurne
(This was not an easy sermon to write, and one that I had to preach to myself before I brought it to you today.)
“And they all lived happily ever after.” We all like stories with a happy ending. We read them to our children and grandchildren. But, as grown-ups, we know that such stories are not true. Living happily ever after only happens in the realm of make believe.
Or, does it? In what is perhaps His most well- known teaching, “The Beatitudes,” Jesus presents the qualities that make for a happy or blessed life. This is Luke’s account known as the Sermon on the Plain. Luke reports that four times Jesus pronounces blessings on people with these four qualities and four times He pronounces woes on people with the opposite qualities. To be blessed is to have inner joy and happiness because God’s favour is upon you. To have woe is to have sorrow and pain because God is against you. To put it in it’s simplest terms Jesus is showing us how to be supremely happy or supremely miserable.
Jesus connects some strange things with happiness or the blessed, and this should bring us up with a jolt. Just think about what he said. Blessed or happy are the poor, the hungry, those who weep and happy are those who are hated on account of the Son of Man. In the society we find ourselves in we tend to make happiness dependent of external circumstances.
We go to ‘Happy Hour’ in the local pub, we say we would be happy if we could win the lottery, if we could get a better paid job, find the love of my life – the list is endless
Immediately we are faced with some problems trying to interpret what Jesus is saying? Is Jesus extolling poverty in a material sense or is he talking about spiritual poverty, in line with Matthew’s Beatitudes the “poor in spirit”? Is Jesus commending hunger above a healthy diet? Is He promoting weeping and sadness above laughter and joy? Is there some virtue in having people hate you? How should we understand Jesus’ words?
I think when Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor,” He is referring to those who have recognized that the greatest need in life is spiritual, not material.
When Jesus says, “Woe to you who are rich, He is referring to those who are living as if this world is all there is, living for selfish pleasures and comforts and they are relying on themselves to gain these things. In light of eternity, it’s a foolish way to live.
When Jesus blesses the hungry and pronounces woe on the well-fed, He is talking about those who are physically hungry. Those who know how to come to God in their need and learn to rely on Him for all their needs. Those who are physically well-fed are truly to be pitied if they ignore their spiritual starvation and need for God.
When Jesus blesses those who weep now, He is referring to those who suffer in this world because of their identification with Him. They are the ones that God will welcome into His heavenly kingdom.
When Jesus blesses those who are hated, ostracized, insulted, and spurned for His sake, they should rejoice because they will a have great reward in heaven.
I wonder what is going through your mind right now? It does sound very harsh, and if we are honest, not very ‘Jesus like’. I found myself thinking I would rather have Matthew’s Beatitudes thank you.
So why did Jesus paint with these broad strokes of black and white, with no shades of grey? He wants to draw the line in the sand and make us examine ourselves. To ask Which side am I on? Immediately this begs the questions “how about someone who isn’t poor or rich, the middle class? How about someone who isn’t starving, but they are not gluttonous either? What about the person who isn’t going around weeping, but certainly isn’t a comedian. People aren’t throwing rotten eggs at him, but he is not Mr. Popular. Surely there must room for people like that, people like me, people in the middle?” The teaching of Jesus says “No, you’re either decidedly for Me or you are decidedly against Me. There’s no middle ground.” He is urging us to get off the fence and decide: Are we living for this life and its temporary pleasures or are we living for Jesus and His eternal kingdom?
Before we all pack up and go home there is some good news, Jesus is talking here, not so much about the evil in material wealth, but of the dangers of our distorted attitudes towards it. When wealth and possessions take priority, we become blind to the fact of our total dependence on God and careless of the suffering of our brothers and sisters. It is a reality check and when our priorities are correctly ordered, the seemingly impossible becomes possible: We will be able to "Love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us These are the seemingly impossible requirements from Jesus – which is why teaching from the Beatitudes is difficult and somewhat rare in our Churches.
Many years ago, an anonymous letter was sent from a prisoner in a Soviet concentration camp. Many of the prisoners had been incarcerated because of their religious convictions, and the letter spoke of their experience of Easter in the camp. The conditions in which the men were kept were grim but, against all natural expectations, they found themselves united in the joy of Christ. There was no outward encouragement for this; on the contrary, the prison guards seemed to go out of their way to be even more difficult and obstructive than usual. The letter continues:
"Yet Easter was there: great, holy, spiritual, unforgettable. It was blessed by the presence of our risen God among us - blessed by the silent Siberian stars and our sorrows. How our hearts beat joyfully in communion with the great Resurrection! Death is conquered, fear no more, an eternal Easter is given to us! Full of this marvellous Easter, we send you from our prison camp the victorious and joyful tidings: Christ is risen!"
The prisoners in this illustration suffered involuntary poverty: they were unjustly deprived of their liberty, treated with gratuitous cruelty, separated from their loved ones, robbed of money and possessions, and had no guarantee that they would emerge from their incarceration alive. And yet the letter spoke of Easter being "blessed by the silent Siberian stars and our sorrows". Their deep faith enabled them to see beyond the dark appearance of things, and to experience the profound joy and mystery of the risen Christ in their midst. That joy could not be contained, and overflowed even to those outside the camp. They were able to bless where they were cursed, and love where they were hated.
Of course we do not find ourselves in those dire circumstances but we do have to resist the temptation to live in spiritually watertight compartments. That is coming for our weekly shot of the Gospel and letting the words stay in a box locked in our brain. We need to let the words of Jesus to drop 18 inches into our hearts and lives and allow ourselves to be confronted by the words of Jesus in all their black and white raw challenge.
The beatitudes in Luke focus first on the need for right action; Jesus calls us to re-examine our priorities and our attitude to the riches we have been given. We might not think we have riches but we only have to look at the terrible plight of the asylum seekers and refuges to realise how rich we are in health freedom and possessions. If we hold our possessions lightly before God with open hands and hearts they are in trust and available for God's purposes in the furthering of his kingdom on earth. This is hard teaching and it is a challenge. This is not a group decision, not a church response but our own reply to God.