Terribly Happy, Luke 6:17-26
First United Methodist Church, February 17, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer
This morning’s scripture begins with Jesus coming down from a mountain where he’s been in prayer all night. He’s recently called his disciples to join in ministry with him, and in the paragraph immediately preceding this morning’s text, his disciples are all named, and we’re told he calls them apostles.
Jesus has been preaching along the way, he’s been healing people—and that word has gotten out. Many are following him, wanting to be healed, wanting to hear what he has to say. In this crowd gathered around him today, there are some who are already committed to him. These include the named apostles, as well as other unnamed men and women, who are “all in.” They’re following him, supporting him, wanting to learn to live in the way he’s calling them to live. There are others there who are interested, who are trying to figure out who he is and what he’s saying. Today we might say they’re curious, or seekers, questioners… Some are there hoping to be healed. They come themselves or bring a loved one who has been sick or bothered by unclean spirits: it’s worth a chance, let’s go see! Maybe this man Jesus can help us! And finally, even now in these early days, there are those present who are not committed to Jesus in any way, who are perhaps even actively hostile toward him and his message. Some scholars have suggested that this may be what motivated some of the pointedness of the “woes” Jesus includes in his teaching.
Power is coming from Jesus scripture tells us, and everyone is trying to touch him. He heals those who have come to be healed—all of them. And then Jesus raises his eyes to his disciples and begins to teach them, in the presence of all the others. The word he has is meant for them, meant for those who have decided to follow him, while the others are there as witnesses. They hear what it means to be a follower. Jesus is speaking to the church, to us/to those whose desire is to follow him…who want to be like him. He speaks to us in this day, as he spoke to his disciples on that level place—we who live in the midst of others who want to follow him, or who may only know about him. Some who may have called out to him in their distress, who may describe him as a good person, surely, even one who has made a difference in the world, but who aren’t necessarily prepared to follow him or to make him a part of their lives. He speaks to us in the midst of the nay-sayers. The ones who will speak or work against him. It’s not a private word, but a word that is offered to his disciples.
As his followers today, we find his words challenging. As I began thinking about them this week, I thought of the similarities these verses have to the exchange between Isaiah and God we considered last week. In the text from Isaiah 6:1-8, remember how Isaiah was so moved by what he experienced in the temple that when God asked, “Who shall we send,” Isaiah immediately responded, “Here I am, Send me!” Stopping right there, it’s all good. Inspiring! But when we pick up from verse 9, when God lays out Isaiah’s job description, it’s like—Really? This sounds like it’s going to be really hard…might I reconsider?
Perhaps today, if we want to take the easy way out, we should just stop at the end of verse 23. Being blessed is always a good thing! Let’s just go with the “happy are’s…”as we read in the CEB, or the “blessed are’s…” of the RSV. We can deal with those! That’s not so bad. But as we keep reading, we come to the “How terrible for you’s,” , or the more familiar “Woe to you’s,” and those just don’t sound so good. Here, too, we might want to say, “Really, Jesus? Might we reconsider? We’re not sure what you’re trying to tell us, and we’re not sure we like what we do understand!”
The Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew go down a little easier. They’re what has been called a “spiritualized” version of the word from Luke, plus there aren’t any “woe to you’s” or “how terrible for you’s.” There’s a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down, because in Matthew Jesus tells us that we will one day be comforted even though we’re sad or lost or hurting today. Matthew offers this promise for a new day without the challenge of our having to re-orient or re-form our lives.
But, today, we’re not looking at Matthew. We’re taking the more difficult road. Let’s think about what Jesus is telling us and do a bit of self-examination.
Jesus lifts his eyes to his disciples and offers 4 “Happy are’s.” Jesus is an effective communicator. He knows that you have to get your listener’s attention when you have something important to say, and you’re not starting out in a good place with another person when you begin the conversation zapping them with your taser. So Jesus identifies 4 “Happy are’s” and then he follows those with 4 parallel “How terrible for you’s.” (It’s okay, for today’s purposes, “you’s” is a totally okay plural of “you”). I’m going to put the parallel happy’s and terrible’s together and we’ll talk about each of them as one unit.
Jesus begins, “Happy are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours.” What do you think? I’m not so sure I agree with this, although I’m willing to consider beyond my first definition of happy, and I wonder if the NRSV translation of “blessed” is better here than “happy.” The poor I’ve known haven’t found happiness in experiencing sickness or pain and not being able to afford having the surgery or medical care needed to take care of the sickness or relieve that pain. It doesn’t make a poor mother happy when her child is sick, when she needs to take another day off work which will cause problems in having enough to pay the rent…Then there’s the decision of whether the child needs to go to the doctor or not, and paying for that and what if medicine is needed… Transportation is an issue, her vehicle isn’t running, and there’s not much gas in it. Or she has to send her kids to school with clothes that she knows aren’t “cool”, and her son’s haircut is obviously what she can do and not what someone who actually knows how to cut hair can do, and she knows he’s being made fun of and he says it’s okay, mom, I’m fine but she knows it’s not. It’s really not.
But, Happy are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours, Jesus says. Not exactly. Not at that level.
And now the reverse: “But how terrible for you who are rich, because you have already received your comfort.”
What do you think looking in from this direction? It is nice to have health insurance and though I may need to take advantage of a payment plan and pay a bill off over time, I can afford the medical care I need. I have a car that works, I buy more clothes than I need. I don’t think of myself as rich, but I know that I am when I compare what I have to what others around our world have. Maybe it’s easier if I think of someone who’s super-rich. Two people living in humongous houses, maybe one where it’s warm in the winter, another one in Colorado when skiing seems the thing to do…maybe a cat or two and a staff of servants and a jet or two for transportation. How about a yacht, too? The world is their oyster.
“How terrible are you who are rich because you have already received your comfort.”
What is Jesus saying?
Maybe when a person doesn’t have anything, they’re more inclined to listen for, hope for what God can and will ultimately provide? And when we have all that we need, perhaps it’s hard for us to consider what we might want that we can’t already provide for ourselves?
And yet having everything but God does seem pretty terrible. That would be a lonely place. A lost place.
Jesus continues: “Happy are you who hunger now, because you will be satisfied.” And then the reverse: “How terrible for you who have plenty now, because you will be hungry.”
Can a person really be happy when their tummy is growling and there’s nothing in the fridge or cupboards to fill it? We hope to see round babies, not skinny ones who don’t even cry for food anymore, because they know there isn’t anything coming.
Looking at the other side of what Jesus says, it is my understanding that there’s enough food in the world to feed everyone. I’ve read that poverty is the principle cause of hunger and that hunger also creates poverty. It’s a vicious circle that I don’t know how to “fix.” But I do know how I can be a part of the solution here, in our section of the world. Our Social concerns group reminds us each week of what we can do, how we can help, what can make a difference.
“Happy are you who weep now,” Jesus says, “because you will laugh.” And the reverse, “How terrible for you who laugh now, because you will mourn and weep.”
Sometimes tears are the most appropriate response, while laughter can be the most heartless. The ability to see, to empathize, to mourn, to experience heart ache and to have our hearts broken is a gift. Callous disregard for the troubles of another is an awful thing, and it does not reflect the heart of God.
The final blessing Jesus offers his disciples is this: “Happy are you when people hate you, reject you, insult you, and condemn your name as evil because of the Human One. Rejoice when that happens! Leap for joy because you have a great reward in heaven. Their ancestors did the same things to the prophets.” And the reverse: “How terrible for you when all speak well of you. Their ancestors did the same thing to the false prophets.”
Happy? Again, maybe blessed is a better word. But Jesus is warning his disciples as they begin life with him, as they follow him, that their world will be turned upside down. What the world values and expects and wants from them, won’t be what Jesus will ask of them. In following him, they’ll pay a price. They’re going to be different. People won’t understand. Yet, following him will have eternal significance beyond what they are able to imagine.
This text is rich in meaning beyond my ability to understand, but here are 3 things to consider:
First, on this day Jesus teaches from a level place, where folks have gathered for a variety of reasons, some surely for the sole purpose of being healed. That’s all they want from Jesus. Sometimes when you’re sick and hurting, it’s hard to think of what could be beyond that. And so Jesus heals them. He offers blessings to those who need to be blessed. He’s instructing his disciples, but he’s offering everyone who has gathered the opportunity to hear what he has to say.
At this level place, standing smack dab in the middle of this needy crowd, I’m reminded of God’s love for all people. I’m reminded that we are all created in God’s image, and God wants us to know how loved we are. His words and his healing are offerings of grace.
Second, as he teaches, Jesus lifts up the poor and the hungry and tells those of us who have enough that we’ve already received our comfort. Remember when Jesus went to his hometown of Nazareth and said, “I have come to preach good news to the poor.” The blessing isn’t in being poor, but God’s promise makes the poor blessed.
I think of what has been called God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Does God love the poor more than God loves those of us who aren’t so poor?
I think of the little girl who was used to seeing her mom give most of her time and energy to her younger brother who had special needs. The little girl one day gathered up the nerve to ask, “Mommy, do you love him more than me?”
Her mother gathered her precious little girl into her arms and said, “Oh, sweetheart, I love both of you more than life itself. But your brother needs me more than you need me, and he always will, so that’s what you see. But I love you so much, too, and I want you to know that.”
Jesus loves all of us more than his own life—and invites us to be a part of lifting up and caring for those who don’t have enough. Perhaps our blessing is found in stepping out of that comfort zone and sharing. In that vulnerable place, we, too, can be blessed (be happy!).
Third, as disciples of Jesus Christ, both then and now, we’re called to begin living the kingdom life here and now. It’s like looking through the perennial catalogues now while it’s still cold and snowy and making plans for our summer gardens. We know summer is coming, gardening time is ahead, so it’s time to prepare.
Jesus is coming, so our task is to prepare the way. To be a part of what God is doing; to be a part of building his kingdom on earth. As we do this, we’ll all be blessed.