For the past two years it seems that all the news has been bad news: international tensions, leaders constantly verbally attacking one another – especially during a pandemic when unity would seem to be a better way for countries to address the crisis – bitterness and anger, blame and vitriol being spewed in the media and social media, together with divisions in the western world. We can feel overwhelmed, swamped and beaten down by what appear to be unsolvable situations.
Over these weeks we are touching on various scenes in the Gospel of Luke. And as we do it’s important to keep in mind Luke’s claim that his narrative is an accurate record about Jesus: it had been delivered by eyewitnesses and ministers of the word… (Luke 1:2). Many respected ancient historians are agreed that Jesus not only lived but that the Gospel records are reliable.
Luke 6:17-19 tells us that huge crowds came to Jesus to hear him teach and to be healed. What follows is a sermon specifically addressed to his group of close followers as well as to a huge crowd. It begins: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (6:20).
These are searching words, challenging us to ask, ‘Whose blessing do I want most of all – the blessing of my family and friends, the world, or the blessing of God?
When Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor”, he is not only speaking of the materially destitute. At least four of his disciples there that day weren’t materially poor. Peter and his brother had a fishing business, as did James and John. Yes, Jesus does have compassion for the materially poor and the powerless, but he has in mind a wider meaning of the poor – people who are aware that life is meaningless without God.
In the 16th century, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, understood the spiritual poverty of our human hearts. Ashley Null has summarized Cranmer’s understanding of our human nature: ‘What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies’. In our natural state we have no true love for God and his ways. Blessed, Jesus says, are those who are aware of their spiritual need, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Such people are members of God’s kingdom now and can already taste the joys of experiencing God in their lives.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now for you will be filled”, Jesus continues (6:21). In saying the hungry will be filled, he is speaking of God’s plan to provide everything good in all its fullness for his people – spiritually and materially. The hungry now long for the day when God’s purposes and promises are fulfilled.
“Blessed are you who weep now” describes each of us who grieve over our own personal sin. These words also refer to those of us who weep because we grieve for a world where evil and its outcomes abound.
Dr. Luke records examples of these kinds of grief elsewhere: the woman who poured expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet at a dinner, wept because of her former lifestyle (7:38); Peter wept when he heard the rooster crow, expressing his grief over denying Jesus three times (22:62); and, not long before his crucifixion, Jesus wept over Jerusalem because its people were rejecting him (19:41).
But weeping is not the final outcome for those who grieve. Jesus promises a day that will fulfil the words of Psalm 30:5: Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning – supremely, the dawning of the day of Christ’s return.
The fourth blessing is the climax to the blessings. It is both a statement and an exhortation. Jesus is saying that his followers will experience suffering and persecution in various ways – hatred, exclusion, denunciation, the blackening of their name, because of their association with him, the Son of man (6:22). Indeed, in 2012 Dr. Angela Merkel, the then German Chancellor stated that Christians were the most persecuted group in the world. And nothing has changed.
But Jesus exhorts us, “Rejoice in that day. Leap for joy, for behold your reward is great in heaven” (6:23). ‘Be glad on that day,’ he says, ‘not because you have earned a reward in heaven but because the opposition you experience signifies your genuine commitment to me’.
He now continues with some very tough words: “Woe”, or “Alas”, he says. Woe conveys regret or sadness. It is the very opposite of blessing.
‘People who live for riches and prosperity, the power and pleasures that riches can bring,’ he says, ‘will only experience these benefits in this present world’ (6:24). ‘They will be your only consolation for you won’t have them in the life to come’.
Linked with the rich are those who are full now: people who live simply to satisfy the desires of the flesh will one day experience emptiness.
Woe to you who laugh now (6:25b). Jesus is not suggesting that his followers are miserable and never laugh or smile. Rather he is speaking against people who are filled with their own interests and delights, and who mock the things of God. Like the rich man in the parable he later told (12:15-21), they have no regard for God at all. They give no thought to the fact that all the good things that make for fun, laughter and success, ultimately come from God.
Woe to you when all speak well of you (6:26). Jesus now has tough words for people who live for the plaudits of the crowd. He is speaking of people who win popular adulation at the price of leaving God out of their lives (see 6:22). The self-serving path of popularity is the road to nowhere.
It is easy to look for solutions to our fears and anxieties in wealth, clothes, popularity, and the good life. Someone who valued his lifestyle on the Sydney Harbour foreshore, once told me I shouldn’t bother him about God: he had heaven now. To which I responded: ‘But for how long?’
The mix of present and future tenses associated with Jesus’ blessings reveal that all who turn to him can look forward to joy in the morning when he returns; already we can taste what this will mean.
A prayer. God our Father, you have promised to remain for ever with those who do what is just and right; help us to live in your presence. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
© John G. Mason
You may want to listen to Christ Our Hope in Life and Death from Keith & Kristyn Getty and Matt Papa.