Wednesday, March 14, 2007

“The Tables are Turning”

Luke 6:20-26[1]

I think it is nearly impossible for most of us to fully understand the dilemma Jesus created for people like you and me in his day. On the one hand, his proclamation of God’s grace, of God’s kingdom of life and peace, of mercy for sinners and “righteous” alike must have sounded like the best news they’d ever heard. It excited them and inspired them. Kind of like us.

But on the other hand, the fact that he allotted all that to the destitute, the undesirables, and the down-and-out raised serious questions for them. Hadn’t they been taught that God blesses those who are obedient and punishes those who aren’t? Like us they had probably spent a lifetime of trying to live up to God’s expectations. And here comes Jesus telling them that the reward—is going to be handed to those who never even expended one iota of effort to gain it! That confused them. They struggled to even hear what he was saying. Kind of like us.

That’s where Jesus’ “beatitudes” place us, even though most of us don’t realize it. We are so used to identifying with the “good guys” in the story that we cannot even hear the edge that Jesus’ words present people like you and me—people who have played by the rules and have worked hard to make something of themselves and have tried to live by Jesus’ teachings.

Make no mistake about it—Jesus completely undercuts the tired, worn-out notion that God blesses those who obey and punishes those who don’t. And make no mistake about the fact that Jesus clearly allots the blessings of God’s kingdom to those whom we would deem “unworthy.”[2]

Part of our problem, I think, is that we have heard “blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” so many times that we may be incapable of seeing the poverty that surrounds us. It ruins people’s lives. It destroys their souls. Kristi and I recently watched a program called “Waiting on the World to Change” on ABC’s 20/20, which follows children in Camden, NJ whose lives are being torn apart by poverty and its cohorts. [3] There’s Billy Joe, whose valiant effort to be the first in his family to graduate from High School is threatened by the fact that he has to work long hours after school. And there’s Moochie, who loves school, but whose family is being torn apart by her father’s alcoholism. And there’s Ivan, whose infectious optimism is constantly beaten down by the fact that he has no place he can call home.

Their stories are heartbreaking. But we don’t have to do to Camden, NJ to find stories just like theirs. We don’t even have to go to Houston. We are surrounded by stories just like theirs. And the Gospel calls us not only to empathize with the poor, but to share our very selves with them to alleviate their suffering. The Gospel calls us not only to share with the poor, but to identify with them and express our solidarity with them through social action. It calls us not only to identify with the poor, but to become “poor” ourselves by placing all that we are and all that we have at the service of the kingdom, which means at the service of those who suffer around us.[4] That is the awesome cost of discipleship!

One contemporary preacher puts it this way: “There are only two ways you can enter the kingdom and experience its joy. One is to be among the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted; those to whom God comes as healing, comfort, justice, and freedom. The other way is to be among God’s people who are going to the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted and bringing God’s healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.”[5]

The other part of our problem with Jesus’ beatitudes is that we have so identified ourselves with the “good guys” in the story that we can’t even hear him saying to us, “Woe to you who are rich now, woe to you who are full now, woe to you who laugh now.” I think we cannot hear his warning against being enamored with our lives and our money and our stuff because it drains the very life out of us.

I don’t think Jesus was warning us about some horrible fate in the end; I think he was talking about the fact that our prosperity, with all the comforts and luxuries and things it offers us, robs of us our very lives in exchange.[6] The reality is, for all our affluence, for all our technology, for all our independence and comfort, we as a society are more filled with despair than ever before. We have bought into the lie that our lives consist of what we have—whether it’s a bank account, or a career, or a reputation, or even a family. But for all that we have, we are deeply unsatisfied.

And here’s Jesus adding insult to injury—it’s bad enough that we feel empty with our lives; does he really have to come along and say “Woe to you!” Does he really have to threaten that we will be “left behind” when it comes to God’s kingdom just because we don’t suffer material poverty? But I think we also miss the fact that the promise of the Gospel that offers hope to the impoverished who despair of finding freedom from their poverty also offers hope to the prosperous who are also imprisoned in despair. The bottom line for all of us is that when God’s kingdom becomes fully real in our world, by the grace and mercy and love of God we will all be set free to live.

[1] A sermon preached 2/11/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] R. David Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet, 104; John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 266-82.

[4] Cf. Doris Donnelly, “The Needle’s Eye: Christians and their Money,” in The Christian Century (April 27, 1983), 400-402; accessed at; Mel Shoemaker, “Good News to the Poor in Luke’s Gospel,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 27 (1992); accessed at; J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 102-104.

[5] Stephen Shoemaker, GodStories, 217–18; cf. Isaiah 1:16-17; James 1:27-28.

[6]J. Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 75-77, 85-86, 88, 97.

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