Proverbs 10:19 says “Where there are many words transgression is unavoidable.” While I was not yet a priest, I started preaching full time when I was in my 20’s. That is a lot of words over the years so I shudder to think of the number of my transgressions. One of my worst was when I first preached on the Beatitudes, those “blessed are” verses in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. The big mistake that I made was to approach the Beatitudes as if they were virtues to which we should aspire. It fit for some of them like “Blessed are the meek” and “Blessed are the peacemakers.” But I had to get pretty creative to explain as virtues, “Blessed are you that hunger now” and “Blessed are you that weep now.” What I failed to see at the time was the context of what Jesus was preaching and to whom He was preaching it. Jesus declared that the Kingdom of God had come and now He was explaining who it is that will walk in that kingdom. And as is so often the case, His explanation completely flies in the face of the common held beliefs of His day.
You might say that the beliefs of Jesus’ day were like an early version of the health and wealth gospel, which of course is a heresy and no gospel at all. Here was their reasoning. If you walk according to the covenant then God will bless you, and if you don’t then He won’t. What is a sign that God is blessing you? It is to be healthy and prosperous. Thus if you are poor then you are not receiving God’s blessings and therefore we may conclude that you are not keeping the covenant. And if you are sick? You remember the question that the disciples asked Jesus concerning the blind man. “Who sinned, him or his parents?”With this logic it was easy to believe that the poor and the sick would be the last ones to enter the kingdom, if they enter it at all. But then Jesus comes along and says that the last will be first and so He begins, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
But some might object that since poverty is such a soul crushing power, how is it that Jesus can call it a blessing? The short answer is that is not what He is saying. It is not poverty per se that is a blessing rather it is the utter reliance upon God that the poor often have, because they have nothing else, that is the blessing . In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey explains it this way. “ ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’… One commentary translates that ‘Blessed are the desperate.’ With nowhere to turn, the desperate just may turn to Jesus, the only one who can offer the deliverance they long for. Jesus really believed that a person who is poor in spirit, or hungry or thirsty for righteousness has a peculiar ‘advantage’ over the rest of us. Maybe, just maybe, the desperate person will cry out to God for help. If so that person is truly blessed.”
I have certainly witnessed this in my travels and I know that Billy Crain, who has been to Haiti, has seen it too. These Christians don’t have anything in their lives to dilute the joy of their salvation because salvation is all that they have. There is no fear that they will try to serve the two Masters of God and Mammon because they only have the one Master. Their faith and their joy is almost child like. It is both humbling and convicting to be around.
But the Beatitudes in Luke are only half of Jesus’ sermon. Jesus sets this sermon up in the tradition of the Prophets. It is presented as a set of contrasts that is intended to lead the listener to get off of the fence and to make a commitment. We see this kind of sermon in the Book of Deuteronomy when Moses points out two mountains and says that one stands for blessings and one for cursings and he calls the people to choose which it is going to be. We also see these kinds of contrasts in Jeremiah’s message to us today. “Cursed are those who trust in mortals” and“blessed are those who trust in the Lord.”We see it in the Psalm. “Happy are those who have not walked in the way of the wicked…they are like trees planted by streams of water…it is not so with the wicked, they are like chaff which the wind blows away”.
Thus Jesus uses this familiar sermon approach to lay it on the line. “Blessed are the poor…woe to you who are rich; blessed the hungry…woe to you who are full; blessed are those who weep…woe to you who laugh; blessed are you who are hated on account of the Son of Man…woe to you when all speak well of you.”
The thing that makes this lesson so difficult for us to hear is that if we are honest with ourselves in some if not many cases we fall into the woe category. Consider His first “Woe” “Woe to you who are rich”.
Now I certainly don’t see myself as rich but when I consider that over 1/3rdof the world’s population lives on less than $600 PER YEAR, perhaps I need to reevaluate. Think of that! $600 PER YEAR. Our poorest college students spend more than that on coffee. I’m not saying that we don’t have poor in our country but in many cases it is a first world poverty. Over the years there have been a number of times that I have met a person at a store to help them with food or medicine only to find them talking on their smart phone. Our first world problems need to be seen in proper perspective. “Woe to you who are rich”really does apply to most of us.
But lets clarify. It is not that wealth is evil in itself, just as poverty is not a blessing in itself. People often misquote Jesus here. He did not say that money is the root of all evil, rather he said that the LOVE of money is the root of all evil. Why is that? It is because the love of money leads us to other sins like coveting and theft and murder. It is because the love of money competes with loving God with all of our heart and soul and mind. It is because the love of money competes with loving our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus put it bluntly. We cannot have two masters, we must choose between God and Mammon.
What He is saying here is that we have to be very careful that our wealth does not insulate us from being desperate for God, desperate for His grace and mercy. So what do we do about it?
One important way that we keep our blessings from being a curse is to honor God with our wealth. It is what the Bible calls “first fruits.” When the children of Israel gathered the harvest, the first of it went to the Lord as an act of gratitude and worship and that is how they kept their priorities right. In that same vein many Christians, when they sit down to pay their bills, will write the first check as a tithe to the Lord. It is a way to say that God comes first rather than giving Him our leftovers. It is a way to say that our trust is in God and not in Mammon.
We also honor God with our wealth when we see others in need and care for them in Jesus’ Name. Jesus gave us a great illustration of this in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Lent is quickly approaching and that is a great time to take a closer look at our budgets to see if we can’t rearrange some expenses in order to be more generous to the poor. If we try to keep it all, if we try to have it all, we will not know blessedness.
Another way that stay out of the woe category is to live more simply. There is a famous Chinese actor named Chow Yun-Fat who you have likely seen in the movies. He was the star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Bulletproof Monk. He is worth $714 million but he rides public transit, eats food from street vendors and had a flip phone for 17 years, and he only got a new phone when the old phone died. He only spends $102 per month on himself and plans on leaving his fortune to charities. He said,“The hardest thing in life is not about how much money you earn, but how to keep a peaceful mindset and live the rest of your life in a simple and carefree manner.”Jesus teaches us that we gain this peaceful mindset by seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and trust God to add to us all else that we need.
We note that in this brief sermon of contrasts Jesus does not stop with the discussion of money. He also addresses our hearts and our relationships. “Blessed are you who weep now….woe to you when all speak well of you .”His goal of course is not for us to be miserable and lonely. Rather He is touching on some core values of life and challenging us about how we prioritize them.
If our chief goal is to be happy then we will most likely not be faithful to God because the pursuit of happiness will not allow us to take up our cross and follow Jesus. He certainly chose faithfulness over happiness. If our chief goal is to have everyone like us then we will be man pleasers and not God pleasers. Again Jesus did not compete in a popularity contest. Pleasing His Father rather than man resulted in His death.
In essence we see in the sermon that Jesus is being a realist. He is telling us that we can’t have it all, at least not yet. This life is not all there is and so we make a mess of it if we try to pack everything in for the brief time that we are here. Ultimate peace and love and joy are not found until we have entered the fullness of the Kingdom of God. If you don’t understand that then you can party all you want, and shop all you want, and have as many relationships as humanly possible and still won’t find the kind of fulfillment that you seek. What we truly seek is not here and so Jesus challenges us to see the bigger picture.
If we hoard our money in hopes that riches will make us happy then we miss the joy and blessedness of giving. If we try to please everybody and care more what people think about us than what God thinks about us then we miss the love of the only One who loves us with an everlasting love. If we try to define ourselves by our things or the people around us then we will never know the blessedness of discovering who God created you to be. In short, if we seek heaven on earth then this may be the only heaven that we will know.
Jesus is challenging our priorities. Since we can’t have it all now, but we can have it all later, then we should live wisely now with later in ther forefront of our minds. As I said earlier, the point of the contrast sermon is to move the listener off of the fence. Jesus calls us to make a choice between eternal blessedness over temporal happiness. Choose wisely. Choose to be blessed. Amen