“A Blessed Gut-Punch”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. (NRSV)
When considering the Beatitudes, it seems to me that most of us think first of Matthew’s version—“Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and so on. Now, Matthew’s version is deeply instructive for us. And by extolling virtues like meekness, mercy, and peacemaking, it calls us to profoundly countercultural, transforming, and, therefore, Christ-like action. And I suppose that Matthew’s carefully spiritualized presentation can feel a bit more palatable for people who already feel, in some way, blessed.
That’s why, when Luke’s Jesus says, Blessed are those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted, and when he follows that by saying Woe to everyone who is rich, full, happy, safe, and well-liked we get a gospel wake-up call that hits like a gut-punch.
While no one can know which version may be closer to Jesus’ actual words, it is authentically Lukan to present blessedness in terms that are not just stark, but explicitly inclusive of people who feel left out, people who would accuse organized and formalized religious traditions of paying more attention to words about love and justice than they actually pay attention to people who need to be loved, people who need justice in the form of advocacy and activism as well as crisis assistance.
Another difference between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts is that in Matthew, after Jesus welcomes and tends to the people, he takes only his disciples up a mountain. And there, in private, above everyone else, he utters his memorable teaching.
In Luke, Jesus does all the same welcoming and healing, but he doesn’t take the disciples away to teach them. He stays right there, on that “level place,” with the people. So, as he tells his disciples that blessedness is found in the midst of poverty, hunger, grief, and persecution, they’re looking right into the faces of people who are so desperate that they’re grabbing at Jesus like refugees clambering for the last boat out of a war zone.
Put yourself in a brand-new disciple’s shoes. Jesus hasn’t yet called even you blessed, and that’s what he calls people who are suffering through what anyone else would consider a cursed existence.
It’s interesting. When Jesus faces the abject need of the neediest of the needy, he locates the source of their hope in their predicament itself: Blessed are you in your suffering.
You know, maybe we can look back and see how an unpleasant experience may have helped us to grow, to become more grateful, or to empathize with others who are suffering; but is Jesus actually saying that, to know what true blessedness feels like, one must welcome suffering?
The answer to that question would seem to be a qualified yes. And here’s the qualifier: The key to understanding the relationship between suffering and the blessedness Jesus talks about is to understand the parallel relationship he reveals when he connects more debilitating suffering with worldly privilege and comfort.
What most of us have been conditioned to call blessedness, Jesus calls woeful. And I hear him saying that the things that may make us feel content and comfortable often blind us to the fullness of our humanity, because they blind us to the humanity of people who suffer. He’s saying that reaching for, expecting, and feeling entitled to unexamined wealth, gratification, and human adoration is a recipe for creating hell on earth because an uncritical, self-indulgent life must be protected by ignoring, exploiting, and even condemning anyone “beneath” us. And no one, says Jesus, is beneath another.
The late Desmond Tutu wrote: “We are each a God-carrier, a tabernacle of the Holy Spirit, indwelt by God…
“To treat [anyone] as less than this is not just wrong…It is…blasphemous and sacrilegious…Consequently injustice, racism, exploitation, oppression are to be opposed not as a political task but as a response to a…spiritual imperative.”1
Every single week, in the Lord’s Prayer we say, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And whatever it means for any of us to do God’s will on earth, doesn’t it mean for all of us to do more than offer lip service to some ideal? Doing God’s will on earth means inhabiting and cooperating with God’s realm in which all human beings have their fundamental worth and dignity affirmed through having adequate food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, and to have a community share in their tears and their laughter. To participate in providing such fundamental human rights to all people is to do justice, and, thus, to do God’s will.
The term “justice” often gets reduced to law enforcement, to the old eye-for-an-eye practice of retributive justice. And that same word—justice—can cause discomfort when applied more broadly to loving others as prophetically as Jesus did. As the Church, though, as the body of Christ, doing biblical justice—restorativejustice—is who we are. It’s what we do. Doing justice in the name of Christ proclaims, as Tutu said, that all human beings are God-carriers.
Doing justice in the manner of Jesus means that we start with those who might appear to be the furthest from blessedness. And that’s difficult for western cultures because we have been taught to see ourselves as independent, self-made people who have what we have because we earned it. Now, I’m not arguing with the value of goal-oriented hard work. However, if, as Christians, our goals are primarily to secure self-centered gains and accolades, then we miss something important. We miss grace.
Our book group is reading The Book of Joy which chronicles a week of insightful and delightful conversations between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. One comment that has spoken powerfully to me was made by the Dalai Lama’s right-hand-man, Jinpa. Jinpa said that “modern society has prioritized independence to such an extent that we are left on our own to try to manage lives that are increasingly out of control.”2
Right now, out-of-control seems to be the norm for our planet and everything on it. Right now, blessedness can feel like nothing more than just getting through the day. And one temptation in out-of-control times is to focus only on ourselves and those closest to us. I think that out-of-control life is exactly what Jesus addresses in his call to love in the midst of suffering.
The saving love Jesus embodies is about so much more than each individual’s post-mortem destination. It’s about caring for one another and for the earth. It’s about recognizing that as long as injustice continues to affect any of us, none of us can truly experience the peace and wholeness of God’s blessedness.
When Jesus declares the humblest of humanity blessed in their suffering, he is inviting us into the joy of here-and-now salvation. He invites us into the darkest and most painful corners of our lives and the lives of those around us, because there, by necessity, we learn to depend, mutually, and ultimately, on his presence, his strength, and his grace.
Where do you feel, or where do you see others feeling broken, beleaguered, and afraid? In that place, we all stand on the same, level ground—in need of God’s Christ.
May you reach out for him. And may you experience the blessedness of his resurrecting love.
2The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. Avery, NY, 2016. p. 95.
2 thoughts on “A Blessed Gut-Punch (Sermon)”
Thank you for yet another thoughtful and loving message. This one has already (and will continue to) result in reflection and, with God’s help, action on my part.
Thank you so much Russell. It’s working on me, too. Blessings to you and Kathy!