Readings:Psalm 1, Jeremiah 17:5-10,1 Corinthians 15:12-20, Luke 6:17-26
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 17 2019
Inside out and upside down. What on earth was Jesus talking about in today’s lesson. Blessed are the poor? Happy are the hungry? Fortunate are the tearful? I have yet to meet those happy, contented poor people. I never heard anybody say, “Isn’t this great, I’m starving!” I have never seen a person sobbing their heart out with a smile of joy on their face. Have you?
It makes me uneasy the way Jesus speaks about rich folk who enjoy a good time and are well respected in the eyes of almost everybody. “Woe to you!” says Jesus and implies that whatever you have now, you better enjoy it while you can, because when tomorrow comes you’re going to have to pay for it. Big Time. Woe to you rich.
These statements makes me uneasy because I live in a very rich country. On a worldwide scale the U.S. is a very rich place. And Jesus says, “Woe to you rich.” This nation is way, way, way up there in terms of Gross National product, income, life expectancy, health care, educational opportunity, and military might. In terms of what this world calls rich, if you live in the United States, you are rich.
This is not Swaziland, where the average life expectancy is just 31 years, where the majority of all deaths in the country are caused by HIV/Aid's, leaving behind an incalculable number of orphans, some carrying the virus themselves.
It’s not the Congo, where the GDP, (Gross Domestic Product) one of the primary indicators used to gauge the health of a country's economy, is $409 a year... (compared to $62,000 in the US).
It's not Afganhistan where, despite all of the measures undertaken, insurgency clashes and Taliban attacks continue to persist. Civilian lives, many of them women and children, continue to be claimed through bombings, crossfires, assassinations, and improvised explosive devices. For sure as a nation the U.S .has it's problems, but not on that sort of level.
Blessed are the Poor? Happy are the hungry? Fortunate are the tearful?
Everything is inside out and upside down and back to front.Jesus described His intentions, His desire to turn everything “inside out and upside down” at the beginning of His ministry. He proclaims in His first sermon in Nazareth; “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Because He anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor: He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind.”
Do you remember what happened shortly afterwards? Some people tried to throw Him off a cliff! Understandable when you think He’s been predicting the downfall of the rich and powerful. He wasn’t “Mr Popular” with them!
Reading the gospels, you could suggest that Jesus only got what was coming to Him when they crucified Him. I mean what did He expect? Insulting the religious authorities, trampling on their traditions, speaking words they would interpret as blasphemous and suggesting even that most sacred of all institutions, the temple, would come tumbling down? Proclaiming himself a King in the process of building a Kingdom?
To the eyes of the rich and powerful, how could He not appear as a threat? “Woe to you rich!” is not a comforting statement. As they saw the devotion and power He had among the outcasts and the dispossessed and the poor, how could they not be fearful for their positions in society? To them Jesus was not Good News, but Bad News.
If they didn’t take action, their whole world
could be turned upside down and inside out.
But to the poor? He was a hero. Think of the situation of the poor in the crowd to whom Jesus was talking. They did not live in a democracy. They did not choose for the Romans to come and conquer their land. They had no vote. They were in this little troublesome corner of a vast empire, governed by incompetent puppet rulers desperate to impress the powerful people back in Rome.
They were poor, not only materially but also in terms of rights and expectations and almost every other area of life. They were the downtrodden. They were the imprisoned ones. Life was not smiling down good fortune upon them. Those who had once been described as God’s children, felt like God’s orphans
Consider also the corrupt state of religion. Jesus calls the Pharisees “Whitewashed tombstones.” He describes the temple as “A den of thieves.” He accuses the teachers of the Law and the intellectual Sadducee of not knowing the Scriptures.
Put yourself in the position of the poor. You go to hear Jesus speaking. He heals your cousin from something he’d been suffering from for years but could never afford to go to the doctors about. You see in the crowd that crazy guy everyone had written off as bad news, now looking calm and in his right mind. You hear all these stories about God looking for the lost, rejoicing over those who would come to Him in childlike faith.
A God who was not far off and remote but One whom you could call “Abba, Father.” You hear of a God who had an intense interest in the misfortunes and struggles of people who felt they were at the bottom of the pile. You are blessed. Glory to God you are blessed! Such a message would surely lift your heart. God can do wonders for you! God has a bias towards the poor!
But woe to you rich! By contrast God can do little for the self-satisfied, the self-seeking and the self-centered. Eugene Peterson’s translation “The Message” captures extremely well the flavor of the pronouncements of woe made by Jesus, speaking of them in terms of “trouble ahead.”
“It’s trouble ahead for those who think they have it made,
What you have is all you’ll ever get.
It’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself,
Your ‘self’ will not satisfy you for long.
It’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games,
There’s suffering to be met and you’re going to meet it.”
Just as there is nothing intrinsically wonderful about poverty or tears, there is nothing intrinsically evil in riches or laughter. The blessing the poor receive comes because they are in a situation of complete dependence upon God. In seeking God they find God.
The woe of riches is that they blind us to our need of God and create such a comfort zone around us that we forget that the hurting people out there are the ones God calls us to serve. We forget that privilege carries with it a corresponding responsibility. That to those to whom much is given, much is expected.
Jesus sets His face strongly against those who don’t take the time to care. Jesus is not with those who see others misfortunes as none of their business, those whom, like the priest and the teacher of the law in the parable of Good Samaritan, are so busy pursuing their personal agendas that they just walk on by when faced with the desperate needs of others. God is not on their side, for they are not on God’s side in raising up the fallen or healing the broken hearted.
Woe to you rich! To those who have everything they need, the gospel comes as a rebuke, that seeks to stir complacency and calls us to stop building our own little empires and get with God in the program of building the Kingdom.
Now you know and I know that if we rock the boat, then things won’t be so easy any more. Ask the poor! We suspect that if we speak out for Jesus we’ll make a nuisance of ourselves. We suspect that if we side ourselves with those that Jesus appears to, then some of their poverty, and their hunger and their tears might rub off on us.
That’s not what we want. Those are the things we are trying to shield ourselves from. We would like to have it all in this life and the next. So we need to remind ourselves that Jesus tells us, it’s not going to be that way. That if we think we have it all in this life, and are not prepared to pass that blessing along, then we are not acting as a child of God's Kingdom.
When Jesus elsewhere says that it was easier for camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, He wasn’t pulling His punches. When He told the rich young man to go and sell everything he had and give it to the poor, He meant for that man to go and do it. Jesus knew, in a way we fail to understand, the destructive power of having all we need.
He knew because He faced that temptation in the desert after His baptism. The Devil offered Him it all. All the world. “All yours Jesus, if you’ll just get with my plan and kick this ‘justice for the poor’ nonsense out the door.” Jesus said “Man cannot live by bread alone.”
He came to turn it all inside out and upside down. Actually that’s not quite right. He came to put everything the right way around and the right way up. It’s just that we’re so used to doing it our way that we don’t see things God’s way.
This passage of scripture we’ve been looking at, isn’t meant to be easy listening. Unless we are the poor, or the hungry, or those in mourning, it’s meant to make us feel uneasy. It is Jesus’ call to get our priorities in line with the priorities of God’s Kingdom. It’s meant to make us search our hearts and challenges us to consider what we really believe the gospel to be.
That’s a question we may never find a complete answer to this side of eternity. But we do have a simple rule to follow. It’s called love. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul” and “Love your neighbor as much as you love your self”.
May God help us not to compromise our commitment to serving others, because our comforts shield us from their cries. May we heed this warning of Jesus regarding the seductive power of materialism to sap our spiritual energy.
May we allow God’s Holy Spirit to turn our lives inside out and upside down so that we can be part of the process of making things the right way around and the right way up, the way of God’s Kingdom.
This passage is a reminder of our call to reach out to those less fortunate than ourselves… to embrace their suffering and hear their cries and to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem
May God help us so to do. And do so in Jesus name, in the power of His Holy Spirit and to the glory of God our Father. Amen.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.