~ Luke 6:17-26/Psalm 1 ~
One of the attractive characteristics of the psalms is the rich metaphorical language. We’ve just encountered some beautiful metaphors in Psalm 1, with word and song. Blessed or happy are those who pay attention to God’s will. Those people will prosper like trees whose roots grow deep into the soil near refreshing, nurturing steams. They bear much fruit and they don’t wither in the hot sun. A rich metaphor of blessing.
But did you notice that the psalm is not all just goodness and light. There is the down side – those wicked who do not heed God’s law. They will not prosper but will be blown away like chaff. They will be rejected, they’ll have no standing. They will perish.
Blessings and woes. The psalm embraces both. Which brings us to our gospel reading today, for it too deals with ‘blessings and woes’ in a very direct manner. Jesus has much to say. So, let us listen for God’s word to us in the reading of Luke 6:17-26.
[Reading: Luke 6.17-26]
What I have to say to you today might surprise you. I’m not going to preach on what might be assumed – on feeling guilty about being rich and exhortations about helping the poor, at least not directly. Rather, I’m going to talk again about being a disciple of Jesus. For I have come to realize that these statements Jesus makes in his “Sermon on the Plain,” are not addressed to the poor in general, but to his disciples specifically. They are statements about what it means to follow Jesus.
Our text from Luke begins with these words: “He came down with them and stood on a level place” (hence, the name ‘Sermon on the Plain’). The “them” are his disciples. In the verses just prior he has named the twelve disciples. A great crowd gathers around Jesus to experience the power of his presence, in word and deed. In the midst of all this Jesus looks up and speaks, not to the crowd, but to his newly chosen disciples: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Somehow the disciples are the poor. How is that?
In Jesus’ day there were basically two kinds of “poor” people. They were very distinct, socially speaking. The Greek language uses two different words to describe these two groups. The first group is what we might call the “working poor” or peasants. This group probably made up more than 90% of the population and, according to our economic standards, were really, really poor. They were barely able to eke out any kind of economic existence. They were poor. However, they had one very important commodity. They had honor.
I’ve talked about honor before. In Jesus’ day honor was incredibly important. We can’t overestimate how important honor was in that society. If you had honor, even if you were dirt poor, you were OK. It was not dishonorable to be a peasant, one of the working poor. If you were born into that class of people then that was your lot in life and there was a certain amount of honor to that. So, even though a peasant was oppressed and squeezed by the elite rich and could barely make it economically, at least he had honor (I use the masculine pronoun deliberately because only men were allowed to have honor – a whole other discussion).
On the other hand, the other group of poor people had a double whammy. They weren’t just poor; they also had no honor. These were the destitute, those whose misfortune, whether it be their own fault or not, had reduced them to the unfortunate role of begging. They were not able to work and, more importantly, they were without honor. Their misfortune had brought shame on them and their families. In that day, there was nothing more devastating then to lose one’s honor.
The consequences were far reaching. Everything a person did in that society had a direct effect on that person’s family. If a person brought honor on himself then he brought honor on his family. If a person brought shame or dishonor on himself then he brought shame and dishonor on his family. So, almost always a family would disown the family member who brought shame on them. They would, in essence, kick him out of the family. And since one’s economic well-being was based on the family’s economic enterprises, if he was cut off from the family he was cut off from the benefits of the family. So he became destitute. He had to become a beggar.
Now, remember last week? Peter, Andrew, James and John left their boats to follow Jesus. It says they left everything to follow Jesus. Which means they left the family business of being fishermen. That radical action inevitably resulted in being cut off from their families. In essence, in order to follow Jesus they had become the destitute poor.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what Jesus told his newly-appointed disciples. In the past, I understood these four “blessing” statements – Blessed are you who are poor, blessed are you who are hungry, blessed are you who weep, and blessed are you when people hate you – to refer to four different groups of people. But let’s consider the idea that these four blessings don’t describe four different groups but are, in fact, four different descriptions of the same group. And that group is this band of disciples who have, just recently, made the radical decision to leave everything and follow Jesus.
Jesus has anticipated their lot in life. He knows they will be ostracized from society, and more particularly, from their very own families, to follow him. He knows that according to society’s definition they are now without any honor, that they have been shamed terribly.
But he declares to them that, no, they are not without honor. Instead, because of their radical decision to follow him, he declares them to be most honored. Or, to use his word, blessed. So, you follower of me, you who are now a destitute and cutoff from your family, I declare that yours is the kingdom of God. So, you who are now hungry because you have no way to work for your sustenance, I declare that you will be filled. So, you who are now weeping for the shame you are experiencing, I declare that you will be laughing. So, you who are hated, and excluded, and reviled, and defamed by the society and your families on account of me, I declare that you will rejoice and leap for joy on account of me. You are blessed for following me, Jesus says.
But he doesn’t stop there. To those who think they are rich – woe to you. However, instead of thinking of ‘rich’ as having lots of money, think of ‘rich’ in terms of honor, the most valuable thing a man could possess. “Woe to you who are rich (in honor), for you have received your reward.” You are rich in honor, well, you’ve got your honor in the eyes of other men. But, in Jesus’ words, that kind of honor is a poor substitute for the honor that comes from God. Those of you who are fat and satisfied with what you have? That satisfaction will not last and you’ll be hungry. Those who are well spoken of, who are seen as honorable by this society? Well, people also spoke well of the false prophets of a bygone era and, well, they turned out to be dishonorable, didn’t they? In other words, being well-spoken of does not mean anything, really. It is just empty praise; clanging cymbals, if you will.
What we have here, then, is Jesus declaring the great reversal, as scholars often describe the message of Luke. Jesus turns the world upside down. In that upside-down world, being dishonored, being shamed, is the real honor. There is great honor in being without honor. There is acceptance and esteem for being poor and destitute – the great reversal.
Now, if I were one of those newly elected disciples, I might be thinking, “Are you kidding me?” It’s like when you are asked to serve on a committee or to consider serving on session or deacons. You know, the representative from the nominating committee sneaks up on you during fellowship hour and says, “Have I got a deal for you!” It’ll be easy, they say. You’ll hardly have to do anything at all. And you say, “Riiiight!” If you’ve been around for a while you know the reality is much different. Of course, you notice I’m saying this after the congregational meeting is already over and those who got elected are stuck.
But here are these newly elected disciples, if you will, and they have made the commitment to follow Jesus. And Jesus is assuring them that they have done a good thing. Indeed, they have done a great thing. There is great honor in what they have done.
Now, we don’t live in 1st century Palestine. We don’t live in an honor and shame culture (although we do still have vestiges of that culture around today). In our decision to follow Jesus we have not become destitute beggars, if you will. Even though it is still true today in some regions of the world, in our culture when we decide to follow Jesus we are not shamed and reviled and excluded. So, how do we apply these words of Jesus to us?
Well, we look to Jesus. Jesus is the pattern. He set the pattern in declaring, and then living, the great reversal. And those who follow him are somehow to do the same. I admit it’s a daunting pattern to follow. Are we called to literally become poor ourselves, leaving everything to follow Jesus? There was a time in my life when I almost believed that. But I don’t think so. Are we called to put our money in the paper cups we encounter around the city? Well, I don’t think so. Following Jesus does not mean, I believe, just responding to emotional appeals to give away our money. But I do believe the pattern set by Jesus should always be on our agenda. I believe it calls for us to be engaged in a sober analysis and assessment of what the issues in our city and state and nation are when it comes to providing justice to those who are without. It means realizing that we cannot do it alone, whether as individuals or as one church. But most importantly, it means that we engage, seriously and deliberately. In that, there is great honor. Amen.