By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 6:17-26
Let’s just be honest. None of us wants to feel bad when we leave church… or anywhere else for that matter. When I was in Indianapolis, I visited with a woman who had relocated from a different state and had attended our church a few times. During our visit, she wanted to make clear to me what she was looking for in a church. It was, she explained, primarily about the sermon. She wanted it to energize her so she could leave feeling good and ready for her week. I asked more questions to better define this “good.” Was it a particular preaching approach to scripture? Was it good use of media? Was it a program insert allowing worshipers to take notes to guide them in the coming week? Was it preaching about current events or daily life skills? Well, I confess, I left a little discouraged. It wasn’t any of those things. In fact, it wasn’t any one thing she could identify. She just knew it when she felt it… felt good, that is.
If you were in church a couple Sundays ago, you might recall my talking about Jesus’ inaugural sermon in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. When Jesus preached there, no one left the service feeling good. In fact, they all became angry; so angry they ran Jesus out of town and even tried to kill him. In truth, more often than not, Jesus’ preaching left good religious folks not feeling good. It wasn’t that Jesus never said anything encouraging or comforting. But when he did, it was nearly always directed at the religious outsiders.
This morning’s scripture comes from what many refer to ask Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in the gospel of Luke. In Matthew, Jesus has a Sermon on the Mount; it’s pretty lengthy. But in Luke, Jesus’ “sermon” is much shorter. Both, however, employ a form of speech called Beatitudes or blessings. Blessings are a good thing; they’ve been around a long time.
Blessings are, technically, words that solicit, distribute, or celebrate the favor or grace of God. Furthermore, when we celebrate God’s grace, it is a form of worship. Put in simpler terms, it’s kind of like we’re thanking God and congratulating the person simultaneously. The Greek word most frequently translated as “blessed” is closely connected to the Greek word for praise. So blessing involves praising God. Blessing is something we do out loud to identify and name the presence of God’s grace or favor in someone’s life. All of which sounds really good. So why is it that the none of the things Jesus identifies as blessed in this morning’s gospel sound very good; I mean poverty, hunger, sorrow, people maligning you? If that is the “good news” of the gospel, little wonder churches are in decline in America.
But… don’t despair. There is good news in the gospel, even good news in Luke’s gospel, even good news in these beatitudes. And, if you stick with me while we unpack some things, I think – together – we can unearth some good – in fact very good – news for our congregation this morning.
First of all, Luke’s gospel is known for something called the “reversal of fortunes.” We first encounter it in Mary’s Magnificat, her song praising God, which she proclaims when she visits with her relative Elizabeth. Mary celebrates that God has scattered the proud, humbled the powerful and sent the rich away empty-handed; but that God has shown mercy to those who honor him, elevated the status of the lowly and filled up the hungry. In other words, Mary celebrates this reversal of fortunes. Things get flipped upside down so that the ones on the bottom are moved to the top and the ones on the top get moved to the bottom.
Now, Luke’s gospel is frequently critical of the wealthy. He tells numerous parables condemning the rich.[i] When a wealthy young man seeking eternal life rejects Jesus advice to give away his wealth, Jesus tells those around him that’s it’s easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than to get a rich person into heaven. And yet, just a few verses later, Jesus encounters a rich tax collector named Zacchaeus who becomes a hero within the gospel story when he repents and repays with interest those who he has cheated. Jesus doesn’t criticize Zacchaeus; in fact, he praises him. In addition, part two of Luke’s gospel – the book of Acts – includes stories of wealthy benefactors who used their resources to help the early Church. They provided worship and fellowship space in their large homes and funded the missionary work of the apostles.
So, we cannot simply say – despite this morning’s beatitudes and woes – that money and success are condemned and poverty and loss are praised. It’s just not that simple. And – truth be told – the theology of Luke’s gospel begins long before the gospel; it goes back to the Old Testament.
In Old Testament times, wealth was often viewed as an indicator of God’s favor or blessing. But even that evaluation is a little misleading because wealth wasn’t viewed from an individual perspective. People thought of themselves in relation to tribes or nations, not as individuals and when the king – for example – was prospering, it was viewed as a sign that God was pleased with the direction the nation was heading. So, in the Old Testament, we find scriptures like this one from the Psalms: “Happy are those who honor the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments… Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever.”[ii] But later in the Old Testament, we view the precursor to Luke’s theology in some writings of the prophets when they condemn those who are rich because – and this is the important part – they amass their wealth unjustly, getting rich at the expense of the poor and the vulnerable. They rig the scales in the marketplace to cheat people and sell out the poor by bribing judges.[iii]
So, as with any other topic, we discover that, in order to really understand what scripture says about wealth and poverty, we need to read beyond isolated verses; we need to put it all together. And when we do that, we discover that God is always seeking justice for those who are poor, weak or vulnerable and that God desires – frankly expects – those with the resources to help them to do so. So this issue of money becomes at the core – like everything else in scripture – about relationships. Do we use our resources to build compassionate community?
So, back to this Sermon on the Plain... Preacher Gay Byron notes that some of the most important words in this morning’s scripture are most often neglected. They are the words that precede these blessings and woes. In verse 20 we read: “Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said…” Though Jesus is standing among a throng of people, the writer of Luke’s gospel wants us to know that these words are directed, most specifically, to the disciples of Jesus, to those who have made the decision to offer their lives to Jesus. In other words, this is not a social manifesto for the masses. These are words directed to the Church. And it should not at all be overlooked that – as Jesus is saying them – he is looking at the disciples. The Greek says, literally, that Jesus lifted his eyes and the act of seeing, of casting one’s eyes on someone in the ancient world, was of incredible importance. As I’ve mentioned before, ancient people had a very distinct way of understanding vision. They didn’t know that light enters the eye through the pupil to reach the retina and triggers signals in the brain to create image or sight. They believed that the light which was the source of vision was internal within the heart. That’s why blindness was such a stigma in the ancient world. It was believed that those with a dark eye had a dark or evil heart; even more specifically an envious heart that took from others. So people with an “evil eye” were feared; it was feared that they – simply through the casting of their darkened eye – could take the life from livestock or a young child. Conversely, people associated goodness and generosity with an enlightened eye which originated in the heart. So the eye was the organ – so to speak – of blessing and destruction. The eye was performative in a sense. So, it is incredibly important that Jesus not only says these words; he casts his eye on his disciples as he says them meaning that the power of his heart performs a function as he speaks.
Friends, the disciples of Jesus are not only intended, but empowered, to bring blessing to the poor, the hungry, the dejected and the rejected. And that is good news… but I have even better news: that is in fact exactly what I see happening at Trinity. Increasingly in recent years, we have become a church that embraces those whom our broader culture might not embrace; those whom our broader culture might avoid or judge. If we look around at ourselves we see that we are not a monolithic congregation; we don’t all belong to the same educational, economic, or social categories… and frankly, many churches are homogenous in those very ways. But we are not. Now, that does it mean we don’t have more work to do. We’ll have work to do from now until Christ returns. But I want to say this morning what a blessing it is to me to pastor all of you and to witness the ways our church family doesn’t judge, but welcomes, those who struggle with finances or addiction or mental health or their relationships or anything else. We are making the beatitudes of Jesus are reality. We are evidence of God’s kingdom come. Jesus is still casting his eye upon us and shedding his light and goodness to continue to empower us to be his disciples. Blessed are you…
[i] See for example Luke 12:13 (the parable of the Rich Fool), Luke 16:19-31 (the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus)
[ii] Psalm 112:1, 3
[iii] Micah 6:11; 7:3 and Amos 2:6-7; 4:1
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