A REIGN OF REVERSALS
Luke 6: 17-26
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
February 17, 2019
How do we, who attempt to take seriously the teachings of Jesus, pretend to read these stark beatitudes with a straight face? This is the very heart of his teachings—what Luke calls the Sermon on the Plain and Matthew calls the Sermon on the Mount—and these beatitudes are clearly the opposite of what we believe in practice! These are not easy questions for anyone to answer, but let’s give it a try.
Just like today, people in the time of Jesus lived by the beatitude of their choice. Some people lived by the popular beatitude that said, “Happy are those who give up trying to change society, for you will soon die and it will be over.” Others said, “Happy are those who just keep quiet, grit your teeth and bear it; for all things come to those who wait.” Those who called themselves Zealots concluded that something had to be done. They lived by their own beatitude: “Happy are those who undermine the Roman government by any means, for they shall be greatly rewarded in time to come.” They were the hotheads with nothing to lose.
But, of course, there were always those who did have something to lose. The people of means had their own beatitudes: “Happy are those who do business with anyone; for Roman money spends as well as Jewish money.” They called themselves the Sadducees. Others, who called themselves Pharisees, took literally the beatitude in Psalm 1: Happy are those…who take delight in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. If they followed the law in every detail, God would bless them, they reasoned. So the Sadducees bargained with Rome; the Pharisees bargained with God.
What is your beatitude? I mean the beatitude you follow in real life? How would you finish the sentence that begins with, “Happy are those who….” “Happy are those who laugh at themselves, for they shall never cease to be amused.” We all have what we might call a fundamental beatitude of life.
In a culture filled with beatitudes of all kinds, Jesus knew the kinds of competing beatitudes of life under which they lived. He could see their pain and their longings and their frustrations, their confusion and their hunger for something real and lasting. What he offered to his disciples that day must have sounded as strange (even shocking) to them as it does to us!
What he offered that day was what might call a reign of reversals. He called it the Kingdom of God. It was a set of blessings and woes that amounted to a stunning reversal of the common values that we all hold dear.
However we come to terms with these sayings, there are some things about them that are certain. For one thing, the form of these blessings and woes are what linguists call “performative speech.” That is, the very saying of these words performs the act of blessing or cursing. Some speech is like that. For example, when a baby is brought before this congregation for a blessing, the pastor lays his hand on that child and recites the ancient Aaronic blessing that begins: The Lord bless you and keep you…. That is performative speech because when the words are said, the blessing happens! The child and the family are blessed!
Here Jesus is pronouncing blessings and woes, and it happens! We all long to be blessed. Children long to be blessed by their parents, their church, their society. The power of blessing in a person’s life cannot be overstated. We might say the same thing about the power of cursing. One reason your mother told you not to curse was that she knew deep down, perhaps unconsciously, that cursing carries power! Here in our text Jesus pronounces a series of curses beginning with the words Woe to you….
Now we say that we take the Bible seriously. Let’s take these blessings and woes seriously. Let’s line them up side by side and see what we have! On the blessing side we have four groups: the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the despised. They are the blessed, says Jesus.
On the cursing side we have four woes that are the inverse of the four blessings. Woe to the rich, to those who are full now, to those who are laughing, and to those about whom everyone speaks well. These four blessings and four woes are not calm philosophical statements. They are lightning flashes followed by the thunder of surprise and shock. It is the reversal of everything we hold dear! You almost want to ask Jesus: “Are you serious?”
And his answer, of course, is of course I’m serious! But look deeper with me. The key is found in his first woe: Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. He uses here a business term, a term used on a receipt that means “paid in full.” What he is saying is this: if you set your heart and soul on getting rich, you may get rich, but that is all you will get. But if you set your heart and soul on being utterly loyal to God and true to Christ, you may run into all kinds of trouble, but your payment is profound and will last for eternity. He is certainly NOT saying that being poor and hungry and grief-stricken and hated are virtues in themselves! The poor can be virtuous, but they can also be scoundrels; the rich can be good, but they can also be jerks.
I can’t help but notice particularly the last “woe.” Woe to you when all speak well of you. Being popular, having a good reputation is desirable, but when all speak well of you, when there is not a single word of criticism or disagreement, it is very likely a sign of the flattery many of the rich and powerful crave. We can’t help but feel pity for anyone, no matter how powerful or prestigious, who is without a true friend who will stand up and disagree.
These blessings and woes are stark reminders that God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. We dare not leave this text without asking, “What does it mean for us?” For those who honestly want to follow the way of Christ, it means that we will listen closely to those who are setting our national agenda and ask, “Who among our leaders is siding with the priorities of Jesus?”
As for the local church, we will ask: are we partnering with all those, rich or poor, who reach out to help the poor, the hungry, and the grieving, to stand up and give them a chance for health and happiness?
And as for ourselves, we will recommit to follow the way of Christ, whose way is never easy or popular, but whose way is truly blessed.