“Saints and the Golden Rule”
Isaiah 40:6-11 and Luke 6:20-31
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
6 A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass;
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers; the flower fades,
[[when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers; the flower fades,]]
but the word of our God will stand forever.
9 Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him
and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms
and carry them in his bosom
and gently lead the mother sheep.
(Isaiah 40:6-11 NRSV)
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 on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven, for that is how their ancestors treated 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 how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
27 “But I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you;28 bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you.29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.30 Give to everyone who asks of you, and if anyone takes away what is yours, do not ask for it back again.31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:20-31 NRSV)
When we hear of the Beatitudes, many of us probably think first of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s version of Jesus’ most famous sermon. High and lifted up, Jesus begins with spiritualized blessings. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are the merciful…” and so on. As the three-chapter sermon continues, Jesus does get very earthy and practical, but he begins with those inner conditions and postures of blessedness that make everything that follows possible.
By contrast, Luke’s version of the Beatitudes happens on “a level place,” with everyone on equal footing. And Luke’s conditions of blessedness are stark and discomforting. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are those who weep. Blessed are you when people hate…exclude…and revile you. The implication is that things are going to get better for those folks.
Then, stirring the pot even further, Jesus turns the tables and pronounces Woes on everyone who is, right now, “rich…full…[and] laughing.” You’ve had your fun. Prepare to suffer.
In Luke, the Good News doesn’t sound all that good, does it? At least not for everyone. And wasn’t even Jesus accused of indulgent eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners? It seems to me that when Jesus showed a lack of patience, it was with consumption that was so mindless and selfish that those who enjoyed some version of the good life did so without regard for the harm it caused to others and to the earth.
The trouble is that it’s embarrassingly easy to get so caught up in enjoying ourselves that we begin to exploit whoever and whatever isn’t me or us. And when that reaches the point of causing us to mistake selfish enjoyment for divine blessing, we ignore God’s call to become blessings to others, especially to those in need. That, it seems to me, is what Jesus and Luke are talking about.
Now, while there’s an awful lot more to unpack between verses 20 and 30, verse 31 sums it all up in the very simple and memorable statement we call the golden rule. Do to others as you would have them do to you. All of the world’s major religions teach some version of this proverb. And if there’s a reason that these spiritual traditions continue to survive, one reason may be that, along the way, enough adherents to those traditions have taken the golden rule seriously. Even when many other followers and leaders within a golden-rule tradition wander into unfaithfulness, when they capitulate to the violence-embracing woes of fundamentalism, nationalism, militarism, and so on, the spirit and vigor of true blessedness continue to hold things together. Humility, mutuality, compassion, and love-driven justice can be trusted when bullets and bank accounts fail us.
If that sounds like foolishness, it probably is. “But,” as Paul tells the Corinthians, “27God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. 28 And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing.” (1Cor. 1:27-28 CEB)
Through the prophets, Jesus, Paul, and others, God holds us to an entirely different standard of wisdom, strength, and worth. And during those times when we, too, hold ourselves to that higher standard, we discover how God’s grace keeps outlasting everything that human selfishness and fear keep trying to revere and protect. Indeed, nations, empires, and celebrities come and go, “but,” as Isaiah says, “the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8 NRSV)
In the long run, it’s the little things that last. It’s the daily gestures of love, kindness, respect, faithfulness, and good humor that make the world better. It’s not armies and affluence that make nations great and livable. It’s the people’s blessedness. It’s their commitment to the pathway of holiness Jesus teaches and which he demonstrates in his living.
When I prepare for a memorial service, I like to sit down with the family of the person who has died and just listen. I want to hear the stories that are most important to them because that’s how they will remember their loved one. And those stories always include cherished memories of laughter, kindnesses, and gratitude.
Having said that, I’m always aware that reality also includes more than enough heartache. Sometimes I even know of specific ways that the person we remember caused pain for the people that loved them. It always seems to me, though, that while all of us hurt the people we love, the things we do to build up and encourage, the things we do to “bless” tend to redeem the things we do to cause “woe.”
Twenty-six years of pastoral ministry has taught me that people are remembered most fondly and most enduringly for the gestures that brought true and lasting blessedness to others—the humility we had the wisdom to embody, the compassion we had the strength to offer, the joy we had the freedom to share, the redeeming justice we had the courage to do. All of that blessedness is the fruit of the simple, Christlike act of doing to others as we would have them do to us. And nothing we can achieve, and nothing we can own can hold a candle to that kind of faithfulness.
As we remember, give thanks to God, and light candles for the saints whom we have lost, let’s remember the ways in which they modeled Christlike love to us, the ways in which they, on their best days, treated us as we would want to be treated—and as we, on our best days, want to treat others.