A sermon preached for Preston High Street UCA on 9/2/22 for Epiphany 7 Year C – Luke 6:17-26
Out of all the many odd, unsettling, even shocking, things Jesus had to say, it is possible that this is the oddest.
For some of his sayings we have to dig into the culture to understand why they were received so badly. For instance, why was declaring all foods as clean shocking? Why was talking about the destruction of the temple dicing with danger?
For some of the other sayings we immediately spiritualise the rough edges away. When he told the Jewish teacher Nicodemus that he had to be born again, Nicodemus started wondering about the practicality of getting back into his mother’s womb at her advanced age. But it doesn’t occur to us that he might have meant it literally. And what, precisely, does it mean to eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood?
And some are all to easy to understand, but very hard to do, like loving our neighbours as ourselves, and forgiving people seventy times seven times, and, hardest of all, loving our enemies.
But… blessed are the poor? The hungry? Those who weep? Blessed? Really? I’m sure I’m not alone in finding that a deeply implausible claim. Though I’ve never been properly one of the poor, but I’ve had my share of financial problems in my life, and I am strongly tempted to agree with Mae West’s famous dictum “Been rich. Been poor. Rich better.”
What on earth is he getting at here? And what possible help could it be to us today? Are the poor really blessed? The hungry? Those who weep? Really?
Ugh! – Analyzing the discrepancy
It’s very hard to hear this text without hearing the voice of Marx’s ghost in our ears saying “religion is the opiate of the masses.” That is, Christianity has a long history of being used to justify an oppressive social system with the poor kept in their place by promises of rewards in the hereafter – pie in the sky after you die.
And he’s not wrong is he? It is true that, like all religious systems, Christianity can become something oppressive, a stultifying force for reinforcing social order. You only have to consider that verse of All Creatures Great and Small which we don’t sing any more:
The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
God made them high or lowly
And ordered their estate
But it is absolutely not true that Jesus thought that the poor should be kept in their places, nor did he think that the poor did not have God’s favour.
For a start, Jesus was Jewish, and the Jewish tradition is full of prophets saying that God cared more about how the poor were treated than about all the sacrifices in the world. For instance, this little snippet from the prophet Micah:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Further, Jesus’ ministry was largely with, and for, the poor – healing their diseases, freeing them from evil spirits, teaching them, and generally living his life in solidarity to the poor. I could produce a hundred examples, but let me sum them up with how Jesus introduces his ministry in Luke’s version of the gospel:
‘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,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
So then, what is Jesus saying here? On the most straightforward reading, Jesus is saying to the poor that they will at some point become rich, the hungry filled, and those who mourn will laugh. Those who are rich, the full, those who laugh, on the other hand, will swap places with them.
On that reading, it is a prediction of a sudden change in the world, an upending of the social order. Many of those who are now last will be first, and those who are first will be last.
The problem with that, of course, is that it has not in fact happened. It didn’t happen for the “you” to whom Jesus was directly talking, and it hasn’t happened to the poor in our day.
One solution to this problem is the idea that Jesus is talking “apocalyptically” – talking about God’s future, what the Uniting Church Basis of Union calls “the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring.”
The thing about this sort of apocalyptic language – which is to say language which unveils what is really going on behind the seeming chaos of day-to-day events – is that it makes a call on us. Which is why it is addressed to the disciples, and why the fourth blessing is addressed to the disciples, who can expect a hostile reaction to their discipleship.
So is it God’s work, or ours? Is this something God is going to do at the end of time, or is it something that we have to be getting on with right now?
How about both?
One of the points of church – perhaps the main point of church – is to be the sort of community where the poor really are blessed. Not just by running programmes to practically help people, important as they are, but by being the sorts of community in which, as the apostle Paul put it, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
There are very few places in the world where people of all income levels, races, and with all sorts of challenges in their lives mix together as equals. If not in church, then when do the poor and the rich encounter one another in conditions of equality? If your professional business is with the poor, for instance as a social worker, then you are the one with the power, doling out government largesse to a client. And most professional jobs don’t expose you to the poor at all. I could have spent the whole of my career in software development and never met anyone who wasn’t a middle class professional – if it wasn’t for church.
So perhaps the first level of reading is to see Jesus as being in continuity with the Old Testament prophets like Micah who taught that justice for the poor is close to God’s heart. The second level is too see it as being something for the church to be shaped around – to be communities of reconciliation.
But I wonder if there is another level here? Let’s start off by asking what it means to be “blessed”? The original Greek uses the word “Makarios” which usually gets translated as “happy”, but that doesn’t help much, because being poor doesn’t seem like a happy state of affairs any more than a blessed one.
I think that the reason the word is so hard to translate is that it means something more like “the best way to live.” Could poverty really in some way be the doorway to “the best way to live”? Could wealth somehow be something which keeps us away from “the best way to live”?
When I consider what makes poverty so bad, one of the aspects that strikes me is a lack of agency. If you can’t afford to buy a thing, then you have to do without it, no matter how much you want it. Or, even, no matter how much you need it.
This goes against our key cultural value of autonomy and self-definition. If I can’t do what I want, then I am not autonomous. To be unable to realize my own potential – to become the best version of myself, or to choose not to bother to do so – is a really important thing for Westerners. I choose my career, my spouse, my occupation, my church – I chose for myself how to live, and anyone, and anything, that prevents me choosing is part of the problem.
A good example of that is an ad which I saw dozens and dozens of times during the Australian Tennis Open last month. It featured footage of not very fit looking people exercising vigorously, with the narrator solemnly announcing that “you spend every waking hour becoming the best version of yourself…” and then trying to sell me a new mattress. To which I inwardly responded “Every single waking minute?”
Still, even if its ambition was higher than my reality, it points to that feature of our society that we fundamentally value autonomy and self-definition.
A major problem with that core value is that it is simply not true. We have no control over where we are born, our natural talents, our family wealth, nor of how we die. We are not, in fact, able to entirely define ourselves. Nor are we truly autonomous – we all live in a network of relationships of various sorts which feed us, keep the lights on, sell us mattresses, and all the other many, many things we need. And beyond those sorts of commercial relationships, if COVID has taught us anything it has taught us how much we need one another.
One of the two fundamental teachings of Christianity is that the truly worthwhile life requires us to love God, and to love our neighbour. But if we push God out of the centre of our lives, then we replace her with ourselves, and our petty idols.
William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, put it like this: the true aim of religion is to transfer the centre of interest from self to God.
I am on tricky ground here – I don’t want to be like a Western tourist in India saying “of course they are very spiritually rich”, but the final level of meaning I take from today’s passage is this: the reason Jesus said woe to the rich was because the richer we are, the more we are able to indulge in our fantasy that we are self-defining and autonomous. That is, the richer we are, the more we think we can do without God entirely. The ironic blessing of poverty is that it strips away any temptation to see ourselves as God. It has all sorts of other negative effects on life, especially when it is inflicted upon you.
Tonight we have thought about three levels of meaning to Jesus pronouncing blessings upon the poor, and woes upon the rich.
Firstly, Jesus was in the tradition of the Old Testament prophet and was steeped in the belief that God cares for the poor.
Secondly, there is a message for the church: how are we a sign and foretaste of the Kingdom of God where the poor find a place of dignity and respect?
And thirdly, the ironic blessing of poverty is that it shows us our need of God and of others, whereas to be rich is to be tempted to put ourselves in God’s place – and, just like Jesus’ story about the camel unable to fit through the eye of the needle, to exclude ourselves from God’s kingdom.
 Galatians 3:28
 It’s a well recognised problem – see for instance Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone – and he wrote decades ago. Or maybe Charles Murray’s Coming Apart
 I came across the idea of fourteen dimensions of poverty when I was researching this essay – and, surprisingly, money wasn’t one of them. Which makes sense when you encounter people vowed to poverty in a religious order who actually have a pretty good life. https://immp.crawford.anu.edu.au/content/dimensions-poverty
Image: JESUS MAFA. The Sermon on the Mount, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48284 [retrieved February 9, 2022]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).