Did you know that they make glasses that cause the wearer’s vision to be turned upside-down? When you look through the glasses, up is down, left is right and right is left. The idea behind the lesson is to help us understand how our eyes take in what they see and then flip it upside-down inside our eyes and then the brain flips it back right side up. I got the chance once to try a pair of these on. It was very disturbing. Apparently if you wear the glasses long enough, your brain will adjust and flip your vision right side up again. However, this can take 2-3 days, and I wanted nothing more than to take the glasses off immediately. I felt completely disoriented and couldn’t even walk.
I tell you this story, because I think that our Gospel reading for today is supposed to function for the hearer or reader like those glasses functioned for me when I put them on. Jesus’ Sermon on the plain is meant to turn our worldview on its head if we have ears to hear. And if we can stick with this new vision long enough, this passage is meant to change forever how we view the world.
“Blessed are you who are poor, blessed are you who are hungry now, blessed are you who weep now, blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full now, woe to you who are laughing now, woe to you when all speak well of you.”
What on earth? Why is Jesus warning us about riches, and laughter and popularity? Who wouldn’t want these things? I know I do. Wouldn’t I be crazy not to seek these things? These are the ultimate goals of life, aren’t they? Aren’t we supposed to seek security and comfort? Aren’t we supposed to accumulate wealth and success? This isn’t how the world is supposed to look.
But maybe it is. Most of us living in the United States do not consider ourselves rich because we are always comparing ourselves to those above us, but most of the rest of the world sees us as very rich. If we can decide what we will have for dinner, have some method of transportation, and have a change of underwear, we are rich. Most of the world does not have these things. And, while Christians in other parts of the world experience great persecution for following Christ, we know nothing of persecution for religion’s sake in this country. People may ignore our religion, but rarely do we suffer for Jesus. The only one of the four “blessings” that most Americans ever experience is weeping. For nothing protects any of us from this blessing, not money, not food, not material possessions. So, what does this passage mean for us?
It might help to go a little deeper into what “blessing” and “woe” mean in this context to answer this question. We tend to see blessings as good things being given to us. We are blessed with food to eat. We are blessed with a warm home to live in. We are blessed with good health. Or we spiritualize the word blessed to mean “saved.” But this isn’t the meaning of makarios, the Greek word translated in this passage as “blessed.” Instead makarios means unity with God, being in right relationship with God, satisfied, unburdened, at peace, being dignified or respected, living with a keen awareness of the presence of God.
The Greek word translated as “woe” is ouai. Ouai does not mean “curse” or “damned.” It is a word of lament or warning. We could say, “Be careful you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Be careful you who are laughing now for you will mourn and weep. Be careful you who are spoken well of for that is what your ancestors did to the false prophets.” In other words, having food, material possessions, wealth, happiness, popularity and success are not a path to damnation, but be careful that you don’t make them your God. None of these things will fill you up with what truly matters. Those who have will have great difficulty not becoming trapped or ensnared by them. Being filled up with stuff can lull us into the belief that these things are what life is all about. It is difficult to see God in our midst when our lives are filled up with material things.
Perhaps a story will clarify things for you. In the church in Connecticut where I served as rector for 10 years, the program for our children and youth culminated in a pilgrimage to either a foreign country or a part of the United States unfamiliar to the teenagers. The idea of a pilgrimage was to help our older teens step out of their everyday lives for a period of time so that they could become more aware of God’s presence in their lives and in the world around them. It was always a life changing experience for the teenagers and adults who participated.
One year the group went to Belize. While this was not a mission trip, the group was staying in a dormitory in a village. This was not a vacation. They shopped with, went to church with and got to know everyday people from Belize. These middle to upper middle class American teenagers lived with some very poor people for 10 days. When they returned, I had a very wonderful and enlightening conversation with one of the teenagers from the trip.
I asked the young man if anything had surprised him during his pilgrimage. He said this to me,
Belize is a really beautiful place. I loved the wildlife and the nature that was all around us, but that isn’t what I will always remember. What I will remember is that the people we lived with had nothing. I didn’t know people could be that poor. The children had rags for clothes and no shoes. They often had only one or two meals a day. Their houses had dirt floors and no electricity. The kids had no toys to play with. And yet they all were happier than anyone I have ever met. Their faith in God was stronger than anyone I know here in the US. I thought I had to have brand name clothes, the latest iPhone, and be really popular to be happy, but I was wrong. You can have nothing and be happy, maybe even happier than those of us who have everything.
Maybe this is what Jesus is talking about. Those who are poor and hungry and sad and despised by others are empty. They are able to receive. God cannot fill us up until we are able to empty ourselves. Maybe in God’s kingdom we need to not only be able to give but also need to be able to receive.
Have you ever wondered why Christianity is spreading so rapidly in the poorer parts of the world and why it is struggling so much in the parts of the world where it had been so strong for 2000 years? Some argue it is because the type of Christianity being taught in these poor countries, more conservative and more biblically literal, is being blessed by God because it is “true Christianity” whereas in the west we have drifted from this “truth.” I don’t think this is why.
I think that Christianity is spreading rapidly in areas were people have little or no material wealth because they understand better than anyone their dependence upon God. When you have nothing, you cannot deceive yourself into believing that you can make it on your own without God’s or other people’s help. I don’t think it is education and science that have caused belief in God to diminish in the west. I think it is material wealth that has accomplished this. We have accumulated lots of things and failed to leave room for God. And our culture tells us that we are blessed if we don’t need anything from anybody, including God. If you have everything you could want or need, then you’ve really got it made. We have come to believe that we can make it on our own.
But Jesus knows better. Jesus knows that we have got things upside down. We are blessed when we understand our deep need and dependence on God. When we live in dependence on God, then we find true blessing. When we live in dependence on God, we will begin to see ourselves as brothers and sisters of the poor and the hungry, the weeping and the persecuted. We will no longer be able to sit in the midst of our wealth and comfort blind to the plight of those who do not have enough.
The beatitudes in Luke’s gospel are not a command to make poverty and suffering our goal, but they are an attempt to help us see the world as God sees the world. And when our vision becomes clear we will no longer be able to hoard but will be compelled to share what we have been given with those who are without. We will be unable to laugh in the face of suffering but will work to alleviate that suffering. Following Christ will be more important to us than popularity or worldly success.
In whom do you trust? On what do you bet your life? If our trust is in ourselves, in our money and possessions, in our education and our wits, in our good looks and popularity, we are on shaky ground. Woe to us. We will be like that bush with shallow roots that cannot survive a drought. But when our trust is in God, we are like a tree planted by a stream, with deep roots that drink in God’s living water, and we will not be moved. When our trust is in God, the world will be turned right side up and we will find ourselves sharing all we have and all we are with those in need around us.
“Blessed are those whose trust is in the Lord. Whose trust is in the Lord.” (Jeremiah 17) Amen.