Jeremiah 17:5-10 † Psalm 1 † 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 † Luke 6:17-26
As I was studying our texts for today, I found myself rooting around for a way to understand blessing as it is portrayed in Luke from Jesus: Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry now. Blessed are you who weep now. God is on your side.
But the more I tried to unpack this idea, the more I tried to understand how really this translates into blessing, the more stuck I got. How is it a blessing to be hungry now even if you’ll get something later? How is it blessing to weep now, simply for the promise of a laugh later? Sure, there are some ways to get at this, but they are problematic, too often approaching some twisted endorsement for suffering or persecution. And how is the promise of the Kingdom a blessing now for a poor one who has nothing and is in danger?
If I’m honest, I have to admit I don’t know the answer. I really don’t know how to understand this idea of blessing. I don’t understand how it is a blessing to be poor and to go without and to live on the edges of society. I don’t see it. I wish I did, but I don’t. Perhaps you do.
Given that, I’ve realized I’m not in a position to unpack this first part of the passage in Luke that is blunt and gritty and material and so much in contrast to the ethereal “blessed are the poor in spirit” that Jesus proclaims in Matthew.[i]
At least part of the problem, if not all, of course, is that I’m not poor. How should I expect to understand something I haven’t experienced—especially something as hard as this? And the fact is, most, if not all of us, by objective standards are not poor. If we measure ourselves and our wealth and well-being through the arc of history, this is abundantly clear. We have access to food and the basic resources needed for survival in far greater quantity and more reliably than previous generations and even more so than our pre-modern ancestors. And even if we measure ourselves in comparison to the world population as it is today, it is difficult to argue we are poor by any standard.
This is the helpful insight of Hans Rosling and his book Factfulness that we’ve noted here a few times. Noting World Bank statistics which peg extreme poverty as living on less than $2 a day, Rosling charts a drop from 85% of the world population below that level in 1800 to 9% today, highlighting that in the last 20 years alone extreme poverty has been reduced by half.
Further, Rosling resists our binary, either-or ways of thinking, when it comes to poverty, arguing there are not rich and poor, but gradations of poverty and gradations of wealth. And he places you and I, any of us who exist on an income level of more than $32 a day as being among the wealthiest 15% or so of the human family—that is among the wealthiest 1 billion of us on this planet of 7 billion bodies and souls.
So I realized, if I can’t claim to understand these blessings because I am not poor, that leaves me only one other option—to look at the other part that Jesus directs to my socio-economic cohort. If we can’t understand the first part, perhaps we’ll find something worth taking away in the second:
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “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.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.[ii]
Ok, well that’s not particularly comforting, is it? It’s a pretty stark take—blessings and curses, almost as if there’s an intense battle going on here—class warfare of a sort that will create winners and losers.
Indeed, it is fair for us to acknowledge there is something of this going on. In his book Tenacious Solidarity, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann acknowledges as much:
Class warfare, as a component of the struggle for justice in both the Bible and in contemporary society, always features two combatants, the powerful and the vulnerable, the haves and the have-nots.
Brueggemann goes on to observe that it is not a fair fight because the haves have it stacked in their favor.
The conflict is characteristically unequal because the interest of the vulnerable have-nots is most often not made explicit, not well organized or mobilized, and not regarded as a legitimate force. But without that explicit voicing, organization, and mobilization, there can be no effective struggle for justice. By contrast, the interest “from above” is characteristically well articulated, well organized, readily mobilized, and easily regarded as legitimate.[iii]
In other words, there is much stacked against the poor and vulnerable in this story of class warfare that is as old as the story of humanity. A case in point: class warfare is only ever called class warfare when it is the poor asking for a fair shake. A fairer tax system, adequate health care for everyone, fair wages—class warfare is what happens when money threatens to flow from those with much to those with less, but is rarely named as such when wealth is extracted from those with little to further enrich those who already have more than they need.
Extremes in rich and poor are certainly no good for the poor. But our story also understands it is no good for the rich either, or for anybody for that matter. A shorthand for this in the bible is idolatry—as in you cannot serve both God and money. Jeremiah hints at this in our text today—announcing the danger of those who put their trust in anything other than God, and suggesting, the heart is a devious thing when it comes to this.[iv]
And that’s where this story gets back to those of us who are by all measurements rich.
Said another way: we become like what we worship; we become like the objects of our faith. So, if we put our trust in things without eyes to see, without minds to comprehend, without knowledge or discernment—if we put our trust in idols whether they are golden calves or golden parachutes—we will become like these things.[v]
Brueggemann says it this way: “Along with god-making comes the manufacture of a pretend world in which the powers of discernment and discretion have evaporated.”[vi] We lose our capacity to see things for what they are. And so, Jesus says woe to you who are rich. It’s not that God is spiteful. God just knows what makes us well and what doesn’t.
Jesus signals the curse of putting our trust in that which is not trustworthy. These priorities will not serve us in the end. These comforts cannot comfort. They have no agency. They cannot bless. They will not deliver on their promises. They will only misshape us, depriving us of good judgment, inclining us toward ruin.
People become commodities. Compassion and empathy are sidelined. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the family of asylum seekers at our door are seen as a rampaging caravan of murderers and terrorists. Those families suffer, but so will we. Neither our economy nor our own lives will be better as a result. Those who have more than they need can’t get enough and so the divide between rich and poor only grows.
Facts and data are effectively shouted down by hysterics and fear. We are no longer able to distinguish between fake news and the truth that sets us free.
To say it another way, all these idols can do is create a fearful class of people whose fragility only ensures they will do anything to hold onto their privilege and power and certitude, despite their misery.
“Woe to you who are rich…you have received your consolation.”
But the biblical alternative provides an alternative. The good news of the gospel is that there is a third participant in the dispute about justice: the God of the exodus, the God of the prophets, the mother hen God who gathers her chicks, the God who is known in this one who sits among the people and pronounces blessing, the Spirit God who is the web of life and the ground of being. This God has agency. This God can indeed bless. And the testimony of the Scripture is that this God is anything but neutral, anything but indifferent. This God has taken sides in the struggle for justice, but for the purpose of blessing the whole of creation—rich and poor alike, animal and plant, air and sea.
The outcome is that the orphan and the oppressed need no longer be terrorized by low wages and high interest rates and eviction notices and denial of health care. The outcome is that those who have too much find in generosity and justice the freedom from fear and endless striving, the truth of neighborliness that sets them free.
Brueggemann once more: “Good neighborliness, restored by the good creator, yields abundance. That abundance is in sharp contrast to the misery of scarcity produced by predation, in which the haves never have enough and the have-nots must do without.”[vii]
And this, beloved, is our work. The work of the church. To put our trust in that which saves. To advocate for justice, to stand with the oppressed, to testify to the truth that sets us free. To embody this call to a way of life that blesses all and makes the way for peace.
[i] See Matthew 5:1-12.
[ii] Luke 6:24-26.
[iii] Brueggemann, Walter. Tenacious Solidarity. Fortress Press. Kindle Edition (Location 2121ff.).
[iv] Jeremiah 17:5-10.
[v] Brueggemann, Walter. Tenacious Solidarity. Fortress Press. Kindle Edition (Location 1569).
[vi] Ibid. (Location 1578).
[vii] Ibid. (Location 2439).
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