Words to Provoke Feelings
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, RCL
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26
Jesus has this habit of turning our thoughts, ways of life, and our ideals upside down. He takes our human ways of survival, our human ways of heritage and history, and tells us that these ways are not the way of God. This is not the way for us to follow him most fully.
There was a time in history where a segment of the Hebrew people believed that wealth, prestige, happiness and what we generally consider living the good life, was a sign of God’s blessing upon us and our family. If good things were happening in your life it is because you were doing something that pleased God. If you were stricken with illness or adversity, you or a member of your household was a sinful person, had a broken relationship with God. If you were living in poverty, it was believed that God was punishing you because you were sinful, not following the ways of the Law. This philosophy was exactly why Job’s friends turn against him. They said he must have sinned to bring such calamity upon himself. All these bad things would go away if he would only repent. Repenting, as you know, is a turning from sin and to dedicate oneself to the amendment of one’s life.
This thought process, of God’s punishment effecting our health and wealth, is still around even in some Christian circles. In Christianity, this is known as the prosperity gospel. It basically says, that “financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one's material wealth.” Even if we do not ascribe to the prosperity gospel, many in our country have similar personal felling. Some think that poverty is caused by personal issues such as laziness or moral corruption. But research tells us otherwise. Education, race, and other cultural factors are among the leading causes of poverty.
Today Jesus came down the mountain with his disciples of which 12 he just named as apostles. He stands on level ground speaking to the gathered crowd and offers them these words which we call the beatitudes. The people who heard him must have been completely shaken up. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. These words would seem foreign, not part of their culture. Of course, the prophets may have demonstrated these feelings but these words are clearly not the perspective of the people.
For some of these people, they have never felt blessed before. They usually were told that their situation is God’s punishment. For these people, these words are words of comfort. Jesus is telling them that lowly, looked down upon people are not separated from God or his blessings. These words offer new life; a life in which they now understand that they are included as God’s blessed children.
I can only imagine that some of the other people listening to Jesus are having a hard time understanding this teaching; a teaching that they have never heard before. They must be confused that these people, the poor and lowly, are blessed. And if the poor and lowly are blessed what does this mean for us, who are not poor? Jesus doesn’t leave them hanging. He explains, woe to you who are full, who are happy in their life, who have people that speak highly of them. And of course, this is not what they wanted to hear.
Today Jesus inverts the distinctions of class, wealth, and poverty. No longer is God’s favor associated with the “better” parts of society. These words Jesus spoke, made every person reconsider how they, their friends, families, and neighbors were being blessed by God. And if we are to believe in Christ and his words, I imagine that we are in the same position.
Do we feel blessed by the words “Blessed are you who are poor” or do we feel convicted by “woe to you who are rich.” “Blessed are you who are hungry now” or “Woe to you who are full.” Do people look down upon you or do people speak well of you? These words are shocking to anyone who truly listens to them and this is the way Christ often speaks. The people who are comfortable are made to feel uncomfortable and the people who are uncomfortable are given comfort.
This passage, like so many of Christ’s teachings, can be read on two levels. One reading shows us that those who are miserable in this life will be happy in the next and vice versa. This message is clearly laid out later in the Gospel where Lazarus begs at the house of a rich man. The rich man ignores the plight of Lazarus. When both men die, we find that Lazarus now stands in heaven with angels and Abraham. The rich man, on the other hand, is in agony on the other side of an impassable chasm. This interpretation shows that how we live our lives here on earth will lead to how our lives will be lived after death.
This parable of Lazarus leads directly into the second layer of interpretation. These beatitudes are not black and white. After all, poor people laugh. And if the poor can laugh what does it mean, “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep?”
In this interpretation, not all wealthy people are condemned. Not all people who laugh or have three meals a day are condemned either. What we are to look at is the condition of our lives. How did we get to the place where we are now? How do we treat our neighbors; especially the ones who live on the fringes of society? The rich man didn’t actively harm Lazarus. He simply ignored him. Though it is his passivity, his neglect, in which doing nothing causes harm. Or as Albert Einstein says, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”
The way we live our lives may greatly influence the response or reaction we feel from the beatitudes. I suppose there are three responses. These words can make us feel free with new life. They may make us uncomfortable or even feel convicted. Or lastly, we may not feel anything from them. The words do not elicit any response.
If these words bring you comfort, then keep up the good work. If these words bring concern or conviction, then you likely know ways to make amends or repent to change your ways. Those who do not feel moved by these words may need to re-examine their lives. After all, Christ purposefully said these words to provoke some feelings within us.
No matter where we find ourselves we have hope that through Christ we can continually turn toward our Lord. That we can become more Christ like with increased empathy and love toward the plight of our neighbors; helping others where we can and not ignoring them or putting up stumbling blocks. The best way we can help our neighbor is by building relationships and building relationships start with conversations. Is through these conversations that we truly know our neighbors, ourselves, and the Lord.
Merriam-Webster definition 1 of repent
Prosperity theology, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosperity_theology
Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin – Madison, https://www.irp.wisc.edu/newsevents/workshops/teachingpoverty101/participants/Presentations/Haveman-CausesofPoverty1.pdf
This is the most cited quote, but probably the more accurate quote is “the world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.” From Einstein's 1953 tribute to Pablo Casals