Blessed are you who are poor (A sermon from Luke 6:17-26)
Let’s all come clean and not pretend that we like what Jesus says in this passage. I don’t know of anyone who actually considers poverty a good thing. If God’s blessing is on the poor and God’s woe upon the rich, then most of us would rather have God’s woe than God’s blessing right? We are after all in worship, so let’s a least be honest with God and ourselves.
I certainly don’t believe God wants anyone to live in poverty – to be economically deprived and materially impoverished. Do you think that is what God wants for God’s creation, for God’s daughters and sons? Do you think God wants us to be in want – to barely have enough to survive, let alone thrive? I don’t believe that for one minute. So what for heaven’s sake is Jesus saying here?
First off, if we take our scriptures with any seriousness at all we have to acknowledge how much God cares for the poor. How does one get to be poor? Well, in ancient Israel a couple of years of really bad harvests could do it. One might have to sell off one’s land to purchase food to survive. Similarly, an enemy could destroy the crops and the land making the land unproductive. Today, it can happen if one loses one’s job or for whatever reason one’s career is no longer viable. Then, as today, powerful people for their own advantage and wealth may have figured out how to confiscate the land and possessions of those barely making it, creating a deeper indebtedness and bondage to those in power. And of course, one may have simply been born into a family or community cycle of poverty and exploitation by people in power that provides neither the incentive nor the knowledge of how to break free. None of us would call this a “blessing” and yet Jesus is audacious enough to pronounce, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
Under Israel’s covenant with God those who were not poor were required by law to make provision for the poor so their needs would be met. This was not voluntary. Care for the poor was legislated in their covenant with God, which was binding on every Israelite. We read for example in Deut. 15: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns . . . do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. . . . I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land” [by the way, this included the alien, the immigrant, the stranger, the non-Jew]. This was commanded. It wasn’t optional or voluntary.
All through the prophets and the psalms we have God’s prophets and faithful servants proclaiming God’s judgment on those who oppress or take advantage of the poor. For example Isaiah says, “The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? Says the Lord God of hosts” (3:14-15). Followers of Christ should be asking: Do we have policies in place, do we have a tax system that crushes the poor? According to God’s prophets and servants God is the champion of the poor. The Psalmist says, “God raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes” (113:7-8a). God takes the side of the poor. And if we want to do God’s will then we will be the champion of the poor as well. So, it was legislated in Israel’s covenant with God that those who had enough would provide for those who didn’t. This was not left for chance. It was not left for charity. It was mandated in the law. Those who had adequate resources would provide for those who didn’t, so that everyone had enough. That was at the heart of Israel’s covenant and part of what it meant to love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus, of course, would have known all of this from his scriptures and traditions. And yet, it’s one thing to recognize one’s obligation to protect and provide for the poor, and to trust that God is the champion of the poor, but it’s still quite another thing to say, “Blessed are you who are poor.” Even a society rooted in a theology of God’s provision and compassion for the poor is still not quite prepared for the shocking pronouncement of Jesus, “Blessed are you who are poor.” Since God is the champion of the poor, it is understandable why Jesus gives preferential treatment to the poor. It is understandable why Jesus stands with and speaks for the poor. But still why would Jesus say, “Blessed are you who are poor?”
Now, if you have listened to any of my sermons over the years or spent any time at all in the Gospels reading those texts that I have preached from over the years, then you are well aware that Jesus was constantly challenging the status quo and reversing conventional wisdom, and he often did this in rather shocking and provocative ways. The conventional wisdom of Jesus’ day was not much different than the conventional wisdom of today. Many of Jesus’ fellow Jews thought then, what many Christians think today, namely, that it’s the well-to-do who are blessed. And yet Jesus seems very eager to shatter that notion. Jesus not only says, “Blessed are you who are poor,” he goes on to say, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” So it’s not just, “Blessed are the poor” – which is shocking enough. But it’s also, “Woe to you who are rich.” Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” And he also says, “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” Jesus says, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” But then he says, “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and exclude you, and revile you, and defame you, because you participate in my cause.” But he also says, “Woe to you when all speak well of you like they did to the false prophets.”
What is Jesus doing? Jesus is turning our conventional wisdom upside down and he is directly confronting our religious ego. “You well-to-do think you are blessed by God. Well, you better dig a little deeper in your thinking. You think the poor are at a disadvantage, that maybe they are even being punished by God, well, you got it all wrong,” says Jesus, “the kingdom of God belongs to the poor.”
Author Philip Yancey tells about a friend of his who was on a bus riding to work and overheard a conversation between the young woman sitting next to him and her neighbor across the aisle. The woman was reading Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, which for many weeks was on The New York Times Best-Seller list. A friend had given it to her—said it changed her life. The man across the aisle asked her what it was about. She said she wasn’t sure, she hadn’t got very far yet. Then she began flipping through the book naming some of the titles, “Discipline, Love, Grace . . .” The man stopped her, “What’s grace?” he asked. She said, “I don’t know. I haven’t got to grace yet.”
You know what I think Jesus is doing here by challenging the status quo and the conventional wisdom of his day? I think he is trying to get his hearers to a place of grace. Only the grace of God can heal and redeem and transform our lives and relationships. Only the grace of God can transform society in a way that eliminates poverty.
Fred Craddock tells about the time he was in a distant city involved in a seminar. The seminar ended on Saturday, but their host had encouraged them if they could to stay over on Sunday, because the airline would give them a big break for staying over Saturday night. So Craddock stayed over. He found a little church to attend on Sunday just down from the little motel where they were staying. It was a small building, modestly built, not elaborate in any way, but warm and friendly. By the time the service began there were maybe a hundred or so people in there. At the appointed hour the choir came in, and following the choir the minister. The minister was a man, about 6’4,’’ quite heavy, but the most noticeable feature, says Fred, was his stumbling, lumbering gait. He was awkward, appeared to almost fall, with his long arms useless at his sides, like they were awaiting further instruction. His head was misshaped, his hair askew. He stumbled up three or four steps to get to the pulpit. When he faced the congregation, Fred could see the milky film over his eyes, one of his eyes going out, nothing coming in to the other. When he read, he held the book close to his nose. When he spoke, said Fred, the sinews of his neck worked with such vigor as he pushed out his words, it was as if he had learned to speak as an adult.
He read and preached from 1 Corinthians 13. His words were not prophetic nor poetic, but they were pastoral. They were so warm and so full of love, and Fred was captivated as he watched the congregation, because obviously they returned the love that the preacher radiated. Fred said that it reminded him of a scene out of the “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Fred wanted to get to know this man who was so unattractive and yet attractive at the same time. So he lingered at the door hoping to invite the minister out to lunch. He couldn’t go, but they visited for a few minutes after the service. The affection between pastor and people amazed Fred as he observed the good bye greetings at the door as the people shook the pastor’s hand. One woman who was maybe about 70 shook his hand and said, “I wish I knew your mother.” Fred could tell that this woman was as captivated as he was at the spiritual warmth and power that seemed to emanate from this man, so she said, “I wish I knew your mother.” The preacher said, “My mother’s name is Grace.”
Well, when everyone had left and Fred began to visit with him Fred said to him, “That was an unusual response you gave to that woman, ‘My mother’s name is Grace.’” “It is? he said. “When I was born I was put up for adoption at the Department of Family Services. But as you can see, nobody wanted to adopt me. So I went from foster home to foster home, and when I was about sixteen or seventeen, I saw some young people going into a church. I wanted to be with those young people, so I went in, and there I met grace – there I met the grace of God.”
Sometimes, brothers and sisters, life itself has a way of shaking up the status quo and calling into question the conventional wisdom of our times. Sometimes the unexpected experiences of our lives help us to meet the grace of God – the sudden death of a loved one, the loss of a job or a career, the diminishment of our physical health and mobility, a long struggle with a serious and life threatening illness, the break-up of a marriage or a long term relationship with a significant other. Sometimes the experiences of our lives can lead us to God’s grace. But then sometimes, it takes the shocking words of a prophet or a spiritual teacher to at least get us thinking about our need for God’s grace.
Blessed are those who are poor, who are hungry, who weep, who are rejected and excluded and reviled, because they know how much they need God’s grace and God’s presence in their lives. But woe to those of us who are rich, who are affluent, who are well-off, because we don’t know how poor we really are. We may have nothing to cry over. We laugh with our family and friends. We can buy what we need. We can preoccupy ourselves with a variety of interests. We have enough power and place and prominence to feel like we are important. We may have no idea how lucky we are. Maybe we even think we deserve what we have, or that we have earned all we have. If the truth were known maybe we even think we are somehow better than those who have less.
If we don’t have any life experiences to help shatter these illusions, to challenge and confront our ego, then we need a prophet like Jesus to come along and put his own life and reputation on the line by confronting the conventional wisdom of the day that has nurtured us in these lies and deceptions.
I will tell you this too. If any of us go out and try to minister and serve the most vulnerable and less fortunate, and if we do so self-righteously or condescendingly, then we are really the ones who are most in need of help. We are the ones who are lost. We are the ones who are blind. We are poor, but we don’t know it. Sisters and brothers, God’s blessing is for the poor, and if we don’t know we are poor, then we cannot know God’s blessing. How long will it take for more of us to realize that it doesn’t matter how affluent we are, how many achievements we have accomplished, or how many accolades have been heaped upon us. We are all just as poor as everyone else. We are all one people. We all stand on common ground. No one is better than anyone else. We are all the offspring of God, and we only have one mother, and her name is Grace.
Gracious God, we are all beggars in need of the bread of life – all in need of your hope inspiring, compassion generating, love producing, and life sustaining grace. Fill all of us poor people with the riches of your grace. Amen.