Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
Every once in a while, in our scripture, we run into what I sort of flippantly refer to as “church words.” And what I mean by that is that there are words that we only hear at church, mostly because they’re really specific terms that have not made their way into our vernacular. Blessed, which appears in this Gospel text four times, has made its way out of being a church word, especially now in our social media language where we’re always hashtag blessed to be at brunch, right?
This set of verses is called “the beatitudes” which is definitely a church word. Have you ever heard anyone say that word besides in talking about the Gospel? I haven’t. Beatitudes are another word for blessings. It comes from the Latin word beati which is what these verses start with in the Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, written in the 4th century. It’s not a word we hear often anymore, except when we’re reading this text. You can probably infer, from context, that the other church word—woe—in these verses means the opposite of blessed.
You may not really know why I’m belaboring this point, but I find it helpful to dig into those weird church words so that nobody ever feels like there’s a language they’re supposed to have learned but somehow missed.
Okay, so, we’re in the Beatitudes. There’s another set of these in Matthew’s gospel, but they’re not exactly the same. A major difference is that Matthew’s Beatitudes are just blessings, no woes. This Lukan edition is also called the “blessings and woes” for reasons I hope are now clear. In Matthew’s version, it’s more general, and says “blessed are those who” without speaking directly to us, the readers. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
This story begins with Jesus gathering his twelve disciples, and his other followers, and a crowd of people from all over the place. Jesus is well-known, it seems, because these people have come with a purpose. The story goes that “they had come to him to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured” (Luke 6:18).
We don’t know where Jesus is, exactly, in this story, but if people came from “all Judea, Jerusalem, Tyre, and Sidon”, the distances they’ve covered to meet him are significant. I did a very cursory Google, and the distance between Jerusalem and Saida, Lebanon—known as Sidon in our story—is 125 miles, as the crow flies. Google Maps tells me that trip, on today’s roads, is a 100-hour walk.
Suffice it to say, this was not a casual encounter. These people set out on long journeys for the chance to hear the Word of God and touch this man whose power, they’ve heard, can heal them.
They’ve heard from a friend or a family member or just through the first century grape vine that this man, Jesus, is a healer. They’ve heard that he pronounces blessings, and tells stories, and speaks truth to power. They’ve got to go to him.
So they get to him, and there are a multitude of people there. There is not a set amount that equals a multitude, but it sounds like a lot. Like, Picnic Day or Coachella or wherever else you’ve been in the-most-people-you’ve-ever-seen-in-one-place. Everyone in the crowd tried to touch him, and the text says that power came out from him and he healed all of them. All of them! Everyone who made that journey received that which they had journeyed for. What an incredible blessing!
Having healed them, Jesus says, “blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you” (Luke 20b-22a).
As 21st-century readers of this story, we can’t know what happened, exactly, to all of these people that constituted “healing”—but what we can read and understand is that Jesus saw them all for who they were—the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the grieving, the marginalized, the ostracized, the minoritized—and he called them blessed. No one else was blessing these people. No one else was seeing these people for who they were—beloved children of God.
When we study the Bible together, we talk about context, right? About the context of the story and about our context and contexts. We talk about who wrote the story, and who it was written for, and who we are, and what lenses we read through. When we read scripture, we bring our whole selves along for the ride. We bring our experience with having read scripture before—if ever; we bring our life experience; our gender; our race; our social class; all our identities join forces to help us interpret scripture. Each of us is going to read these blessings and woes from a different place.
If you are—right here in this room in this moment—poor, or hungry, or grieving, or marginalized, these blessings are your blessings. If, at any point, you come back to this story and you are poor, or hungry, or grieving, or marginalized, these blessings are your blessings. Your life experience will change, and perhaps you will no longer be poor, or hungry, or grieving, or marginalized, someday.
We must, of course, take a look at those woes. Jesus says, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (Luke 24-26).
Do you see that the blessings and woes match up? Blessed are the poor, woe to the rich; blessed are the hungry, woe to the full; blessed are the grieving, woe to the laughing; blessed are the hated, woe to the falsely beloved. This, while a great rhetorical strategy, is also a very important theological claim. All of these people, poor and rich, hungry and full, are one society. We are all neighbors.
The link between the blessings and the woes would have been clear to these hearers, but I will belabor the point for our sake. Jesus says woe to you who are rich, who made your fortune by exploiting others. Woe to to you who are full now, whose wasteful excess could be feeding someone else. Woe to you who are laughing now, at the expense of your neighbor. Woe to you when all speak well of you, probably because you are powerful and it is in their interest to please you so that you do not cause them harm.
All of these blessings and woes outline that our relationships and our broader social systems are deeply interwoven. We are all in this together, which means we are responsible for not just our own selves but for ensuring that we are not harming one another.
In capitalist American society, there is no way to make a billion dollars without other people living in poverty. Profits do not rise that high if the wages of the workers are fair, if the labor conditions are safe, and if the lives of the workers matter more than the work. I saw an image on Facebook today, a sign from a street corner somewhere, unknown by the friend who shared it, that said “how many homeless families does it take to make a billionaire?”
When we talk about “the rich” in the context of these Beatitudes, we don’t mean people who have enough to live on and who do their best to be good to their neighbors who have less. We mean people whose wealth is more important to them than the wellbeing of their neighbors.
You are all different from me and from one another, so I cannot preach tonight about what the beatitudes should mean to you, specifically. Tell you what you should walk away from The Belfry tonight mulling over. When you hear these blessings and woes, you will know, in your heart, where you fit in here. We are not all poor, but we are not all rich. Even if we think about this in a global sense, I do not know what sits in your bank account, or who you’re sending money home to, or who is sending money to you. And I want none of you to hear these words and feel shame.
Remember, these people came to hear from Jesus and to be healed. You have come here tonight for a similar reason. You have come to hear the story of God, fit yourself into that story, have a blessing pronounced on you, and be restored to your whole self. That’s what God does, when we gather. That is what we do, when we gather. We remind one another that our lives are interconnected, and our blessings and our woes are an important part of that. We learn from each other and we hold each other accountable. We bless each other, and we (gently) tell each other hard truths. It’s not always easy, but it is always worth it. I hope that, in your being here, you feel richly blessed. Amen.