February 13, 2022
Let’s hear again the last two verses from our reading from Jeremiah because I think this will really help us as a guiding ethic in our reading today from Luke. “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.” And now… listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you from the gospel according to Luke.
These are not easy words for us to hear from scripture… and we’re going to have to go through the looking glass a bit today to break up our assumptions about what these verses are saying about blessings and woes. On the surface… these are not easy words from which to preach. Especially to us… here… now gathered in this room… and by extension those who are able to watch us online. These are not easy words… because let’s be honest with ourselves… we fully sit on the “woe” side… in the woe column of these teachings from Jesus. We are rich. We are full. Laughing? Well, it’s been a trying few years of pandemic and moral disappointment. That one may have slid some to the other side of the equation… but I still feel like we sit more on the laughing side than the weeping side… still more on the woe side than the blessed side of these verses.
Look at all these woes… and ask yourself… which of these do we not aspire to? This is the side of the equation we work so hard to be on. We want to escape the conditions Jesus is calling blessed… poverty, hunger, weeping, people hating us… excluding us… reviling us. We don’t aspire for those things… and yet… and yet… it is those conditions that Jesus puts in the blessed column. So what are we to do? What’s it going to take to grab onto these blessings? What’s the plan? What’s the religious strategy? Because that’s the way we think isn’t it? If I’m in the woe column what’s it going to take to get me over into the blessed column? And doesn’t that thinking take us to some weird places?
These blessings and woes… the way they mirror one another… they are not so easy for us to deal with or dismiss… because… because… well, let’s look at the hunger one for example. Try to reason our way through this. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. If that’s all Jesus says, that would be fine… just fine, right? The hungry will be fed. That’s good news. We may even be the ones who feed them… who relieve their hunger. That’s even better news. Isn’t that the lesson we learn from James… “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” So, it is right that the hungry should be fed… it is just that we ought to work to make sure the hungry are made full. But wait… if we work to fill them with good, nutritional food then aren’t we then moving them into the woe column? Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. How can we win this game of blessings and woes… especially if relieving the condition of one… like hunger… puts people into the woe column? That’s not right, is it? Talk about your Catch-22.
I have to wonder about the people in this story who come to Jesus… let’s not forget them in those introductory verses… this great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. Yes, they come to hear Jesus… but that’s not all. They come to be healed of their diseases… diseases, which likely put them there in the blessed column… diseases that caused their poverty… poverty that kept them hungry… hunger and disease that caused them to weep and despair. They don’t come to Jesus… try their best to touch him with outstretched arm… just so that they can remain as they are. They reach out to Jesus to be healed… to be made whole. And the power that comes out of Jesus does just that. So what then? What happens next? What happens when they are able to leave the plain and return home and move out of those conditions that made them blessed in the first place? What kind of new woe now awaits them that Jesus’ power has healed them?
Think about that. Blessings and woes. Two columns of different conditions. Winners and losers… that’s the very American spin on it. Winners and losers. But it makes no sense to us… not if you think about it… it makes no sense the win column of blessed conditions… unless… unless it is to leave that column and that condition behind… to leave the blessed column for what lies in the woe column. And weirdly that movement is in there in the scripture itself… there in the message to the blessed. The hungry will be filled. So… is it their being hungry that makes them blessed… or is it that they will be filled that makes them blessed? If it is the latter then that means their being blessed will move them over into a state of woe. That makes no sense. But on the other hand, the condition of being full will change over time and digestion… and eventually you will become blessed again… I suppose… because now you hunger? Places will be reversed. Is that what this is all about? Maybe the woe is that being full is only temporary and that hunger will return, but that hunger should make you blessed again. Woe to you whose situation will worsen. Blessed are you whose situation will improve. But then what? I can’t figure out the formula here. I’m having a hard time reasoning this out… how the whole thing works. Who wants to be in the woe column? Well… all of us really… if this is what we have to choose from. No one wants to be blessed in these ways that Jesus describes.
Surely Jesus is doing more here than a simple flipping of the conditions. The rich will be poor and the poor will be rich. The cycle goes on and on without any real change taking place… without anything ultimately becoming different. Winners. Losers. Losers. Winners. Back and forth over and over. The names change but the world stays the same. That’s too small a vision for the kingdom of God. Something’s not right here in this thinking. Clearly this doesn’t work. How do you keep track of who is blessed and who is woeful?
That’s why I really wish our reading in Luke’s gospel didn’t stop at verse 26… because the next sentence… the next verse… verse 27 starts with the word “But”. A very important and powerful word. I think with this reading we get caught in the set-up as Jesus is on his way to the point… we get caught in the set-up and in the set-up alone we then try to discern the teaching of Jesus. If our limited discernment is to ennoble one set of conditions and curse another set of conditions… then we fall into the trap of the set-up. Like we should I suppose… because the teaching itself hasn’t happened yet. It’s like being told only half a joke. We don’t get to hear the punchline… but we instead spend twenty minutes pondering… meditating… overthinking and looking for the lesson here in the set up. If we come to a conclusion that pits the people of one set of conditions… “blessings”… against the people of the other set of conditions… “woes”… then we’ve fallen into the trap of the set-up… simply because we stopped reading too soon. Would Jesus create division… pitting winners against losers? Is that the gospel message?
In these verses from Luke there is the set-up… a set-up based on conditions… conditions that can and do change. Surface conditions in a sense. What is poor and rich? A difference in the possession of material goods… which is subject to change. What is hungry and filled? A difference in the material in your stomach… which is constantly being digested… always subject to change. What is weeping and laughing? An emotional state… not always caused by an outside event. How many of you have laughed at a funeral and been blessed? Emotions change and often unpredictably. And Saints, how many times in your lifetime have you been taught that the opinion of others is not what ultimately matters.
Look at this again. Step through the looking glass.
Jesus starts teaching this great multitude of people who… in the story itself… have just experienced a change in condition… they who were diseased have been healed… troubling spirits have been cast out and people set free… the broken have been made whole… but then Jesus turns everything on its head by mixing up the blessings and the woes as we would normally define such things… putting people into categories… creating conflict and division. Blessed are you who suffer from disease or are troubled by evil spirits, for you will know wholeness. Woe to you who are whole and free from disease and tormenting spirits, for you have received your consolation. Where do the newly healed and whole fall in that? Has Jesus now taken away their blessing and given them woes because of the miracle of healing? Is that right?
Now remember… it’s all a set-up. And it’s a good set-up because it makes you think about normal revolutions where one group of people replaces another group of people. But Jesus is more revolutionary than that.
Because what matters is… what matters is… is… what was that quote from Jeremiah again… what was that ethic that was vital for us to remember? “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.” And Saints… not to leave you wondering any longer… here is the next verse from Luke that gives release from this set-up… “But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doing. Same idea. Different words. I the Lord test… and then Jesus gives the answer to the test… reveals what the fruit of their doings ought to look like… love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Blessings and woes is a trap that snags the heart’s deviousness… its perverseness in a no win situation. Blessings and woes is not the teaching… what follows in verse 27 and beyond is the teaching.
If the power that comes out from Jesus heals you and makes you whole… your wholeness ought not to lead to the fruit of breaking apart others. Your wholeness ought not pit you into some new life or death struggle over shifting conditions that ultimately don’t matter. What matters is that in your wholeness, the kingdom of God now lives in you and through you comes into the world where instead of replacing one group for another group… where instead one group being rewarded and the other group having their reward taken away… the whole paradigm is changed. What is the value of the material in the kingdom of God? What is the relationship between human beings like in the kingdom of God? If grace and the law of love are our center of being in God… what then is the natural fruit of our doings? That’s where things connect with God. The kingdom of God and the fruit of doings don’t rely on outward conditions… don’t come only to the rich or to the poor… don’t fit into the categories of blessed and woe. The kingdom of God can reside in all no matter the condition… and condition will no longer be excuse for poor fruit. The deviousness of the heart makes those distinctions. The perverseness of the heart leads away from God’s values towards the values that grow from our love of the material… our love of being winners and not counted among the losers… and not from our being loved through God’s grace… grace that falls upon both the blessed and the woeful… wiping away such understandings we hold about one another… and ourselves. Amen.