Blessings and Woes
One of the more troubling themes of Jesus’ teaching, one of the aspects of the gospel that we have a bit of a tendency to shy away from, perhaps, is this strand of thought, found most clearly and consistently in Luke’s gospel, but certainly present in the other records of Jesus’ life, that speaks of the arrival of the Kingdom of God as an overturning of the social order, an inversion of way the world is.
The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly
Whoever would be great must be the servant
Blessed are the poor and woe to the rich.
They’re not words we immediately resonate with, not words which sit easily and comfortably on the pew beside us. Perhaps we find ourselves more comfortable with Tevye’s words in Fiddler on the roof: “of course I know it’s no disgrace to be poor, but it’s no great honour either”.
Or maybe with the way that Matthew records this teaching of Jesus, perhaps from a different occasion – Matthew, of course, speaks of this words in the context of the sermon on the mount, whereas Luke places this teaching “on the plain” – the mountain for Jews and the plain for Gentiles each having their own important symbolism, and it seems more likely that both Gospel writers were bringing together a collection of Jesus’ teaching into a single ‘sermon’ -but that’s a topic for another day –
Matthew of course gives the words a spiritual twist “blessed are the poor in Spirit”, “blessed are those who hunger for righteousness”. Perhaps we might instinctively find ourselves more in tune with that language. But dig a little into Matthew and it turns out that in his account Jesus is actually doing exactly the same: for a Jewish audience, for whom matters of religious status and honour or shame were the most important currency of life, Jesus inverts the system – blessed are the poor in spirit, not those recognised as priests and rabbis, blessed are the meek, not those with status, and so on.
Matthew’s words invert the religious and social order; Luke’s invert the financial order; both name blessing for those who mourn and those who weep.
In each case the words of Jesus speak a blessing to those who are at the bottom of the system, those who lack power and privilege, whether that be – in Matthew’s case – the privilege of religious position, or in Luke’s case, the privilege financial security.
There is no getting away from the fact that Jesus’ teaching spoke blessing to those at the bottom of the system, and, often, woes to those at the top.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus.
The widow’s mite.
The last shall be first.
No wonder such a high proportion of the early Church was drawn from the outsiders of society – slaves, women, the poor, the sick, the rejected. Not only was the Church the only place that they might find acceptance and practical support, but the teaching of Jesus declared that, whatever it might look like, whatever the world might say, God’s blessing was theirs.
So what about us? How do we read these words, how do we hear the message within them?
I think one of my golden rules, as it were, for reading – well, for reading any part of the scriptures – is to try to always place yourself in more than one location in the picture, in the teaching, in the story.
And in this case, that simply means this: to acknowledge that both the blessings and the woes of Jesus’ words, in different part, apply to us.
There is no question but that we are the rich, and the full. We might not be, or feel, mega-wealthy, but simply by virtue of living in Australia, let alone living on the North Shore, we are amongst the wealthiest people in the world. Few of us often, if ever, have to worry about where we will sleep the night, whether there will be food to eat tomorrow or next week, whether we can replace our clothes when they wear out, whether we can get medical treatment when we need it. For that matter, and again, for the most part, we do not lack in access to luxuries – few of us have to check our bank account before drinking a coffee at the café up the street, or picking up a new book because it looks interesting, or buying a gift for a friend who needs a pick-me-up.
We are, statistically and objectively, amongst the most privileged people who have ever walked the earth.
But at the same time, none of us are immune from the realities of life that touch everyone, whoever they are, and so when Jesus says “blessed are you who weep” we know that that is also us.
That each one of us has those struggles and pains and regrets in their life that are simply the lot of humanity – grief for those we have loved and lost, regrets for opportunities missed, pain on behalf of the struggles of others, our children or grandchildren, our friends and neighbours.
Unless we have somehow inured ourselves to the pain of life, we are all, in some proportion and at different times of our lives, we are all “those who weep now”.
And as people of faith we also know that there are times when we find ourselves amongst the reviled and defamed; that being associated with people of faith is not universally acclaimed in the modern world (though that said, let us be wary of claiming, as some within the Church are wont to do, that that our faith is under attack when all that is happening is that the privilege of having the Christian faith treated as the norm, the default, is questioned)
So if we find ourselves on both sides of Jesus’ words, where are we to go with that? What is the invitation in Jesus’ preaching, for us, in modern day Roseville?
In those times when we find ourselves on the receiving end, when we are the ones who weep, we hear in these words Jesus’ promise, his words of reassurance – when we weep, God’s blessing is there. That we will laugh, the night will end, the morning arrive. This is the promise that we rest upon when we pray for our sisters and brothers in their time of need; we pray for the promised blessing of God.
Not knowing what “blessed are” even really means, we lean in faith on those words, not as some exact specific promise – for that is so rarely the way God works – but on the vibe of the thing. When you are the one who weeps, God’s blessing is for you.
But what of when we are the rich, the well fed, the powerful, the privileged? What about when it is the ‘woe to you’s’ that apply to us?
I’d like to think that in those words, too, we hear an invitation.
An invitation to allow our place of power, of respect, of authority, of wealth, of privilege to be challenged.
An invitation to hear the stories of those who don’t have the place that we have, but that Jesus’ names as blessed – the stories of the poor, the marginalised, the excluded.
An invitation to hear their words as a challenge; not as a threat to our position, our security, our wealth – though it may be that – but as an opportunity to move from a place of privilege to a place of justice.
The stories of those abused in our Church institutions may challenge our wealth as an organisation, as we face the cost of redress.
The stories of our indigenous brothers and sisters may challenge our sense of Australia as an anglo-centric nation.
The stories of those who have sought asylum in Australia only to be subjected to inhumane treatment through our detention policies may challenge our sense of who we are as a country.
The stories of poverty and need across the Asia-Pacific might challenge our sense of what it means to be the wealthiest nation in the region.
The stories of those displaced by rising sea levels or devastated by increasingly common and severe extreme weather events might challenge our complacent dependence on fossil fuels.
Because the words of Jesus – “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” – might challenge all this and more.
But the challenge is not a threat, it is an invitation. To welcome these stories as part of our embrace of justice.
Over the course of Lent, the traditional time for such things, we’ll be hearing some of these stories, in particular stories from our sisters and brothers in Timor Leste. I pray that we will hear in their words and in Jesus’ this invitation to embrace the justice of God even at the cost of some of our privilege.
For that, perhaps, is God’s blessing for the rich.