17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Blessings and Woes
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[d] on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
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.
This week’s text is pretty challenging for us. If we were reading for pleasure we would probably skip over these texts. They are hard for us because we can put ourselves in the middle of them and know that we are not necessarily the good guys and gals. Yet, when we read scripture we know that we have to take our lumps once in a while. We need to confront the not so pretty side of our morality when we celebrate the good also. We see that the psalmist, the prophet Jeremiah and Jesus all have some warnings for us. Jesus uses the words that have been translated as “woe.” A look in the dictionary and we find that the word “woe” means great sorrow and distress. Some synonyms for the word are wretchedness, sadness, unhappiness, heartache, heartbreak, despondency, desolation, despair, dejection, depression, gloom, and melancholy.
These words are important for us because the authors had to have many of these feelings when they penned these words. All three of them had seen some pretty rough things going on and tried to warn their beloved people that maybe they had gone just a little too far. They had begun to place their trust in mortals and not in God. They were becoming too self-centered and self-absorbed too help each other. We might be inching towards that slippery slope ourselves today.
The psalmist and Jeremiah are concerned with the people’s lack of care for one another. In Psalm 1 the righteous and the sinner are being compared to each other. The sinner is like the chaff from the field that is dry and is easily blown away or consumed by fire. The righteous on the other hand are strong and sturdy like the tree planted by the water and it bears good things like fruit and pretty leaves that can withstand the wind. In this psalm the following of the law of the Lord is what makes one righteous. The psalmist even goes so far as to say the wicked will perish and the righteous will be saved.
The prophet Jeremiah warns the people with the impending enemies sitting outside the city gates not to trust in mere mortals but to trust in God. The rulers of the day had sold the people a bad bill of goods. They promised them that if they paid higher taxes then their allies would help protect them, their safety could be bought. That was a lie, they invested in friends who were not good. When push came to shove they were sold out and the mighty Persian army descended upon them and carried families away as captives. The mortals did not have everyone’s best interest at heart. They looked out for number one and their closest friends. If they were not a part of the right group, the elite, they were cast aside.
When Jesus comes to the scene we find a great many disciples are following him. In the gospel of Luke the chosen 12 are called Apostles which means teachers. They have been elevated to a higher position than just those who follow and the crowd is made up followers that Luke calls disciples. This text in Luke is known as the sermon on the plain which is similar to the sermon on the mount. There are fewer beatitudes and in this version the “woe’s” are added. But before we get to the specifics blessings and woes we need to spend a little time on what brought Jesus to these words.
People had gathered from all over the region Tyre and Sidon, Jerusalem and all of Judea. The people were hurting. They had diseases and infirmities, they had been filled with demons, and they were some of the poorest of poor people. When we watch TV today, we see many, many adds from drug companies that want us to buy their medicine so that we can get better. Diseases from high blood pressure, heart conditions, cancer treatments, bad stomachs, joint pain and arthritis, the list goes on and on. People are hurting today, just as much as they did in Jesus’ time.
There were lots of people pressing in on Jesus, just trying to touch him because they believed that if they could just touch him or if he would notice them then there was a really good chance that they could be healed. In my mind I imagine the crowd like those gathered around someone famous or the pope. Pressing in to just get a simple glimpse and maybe get a selfie. The security of the 12 could just could not keep the people away and Jesus was being pushed and hounded just trying to stay on his feet.
Jesus finds a clearing and after being bombarded by people he sits down and looks up and begins to teach them. Remember the synonyms for woe: wretchedness, sadness, unhappiness, heartache, heartbreak, despondency, desolation, despair, dejection, depression, gloom, melancholy; that is how Jesus is feeling after the scene he just experienced. Therefore, his teaching is totally upside down, the people who are being blessed are the lowest of the lows. The poor, hungry, weeping, and despised are the ones who will be blessed. These people have been the doormats of society forever, and now Jesus is saying they will be blessed by God and receive the rewards of heaven. Those who have caused the feelings of woe, they are the rich, the satisfied, the happy and the popular, they are the ones who are the false prophets. They do not receive the reward of heaven.
When we look closely at our lives we have many seasons in which we are not poor, we are satisfied, happy and we seek to have friends and be popular. Our society, which is made up of mortals, even rewards these behaviors. We look at the downtrodden and many times we see them as deserving of their own station in life because they have not worked hard enough. If those people would only get a job, get off welfare, stop having babies, clean up a little, drive a decent car, just reach down and pull themselves up by their own boot straps life would be easier on them. If life was easier on them then we would not have to take care of them and we would be richer ourselves.
Because the reality is we are in this world to be rich right. The more we have, the happier we will be, the more popular we will be, we will be satisfied and can continue to look down or noses or even the other way at the poor. That was the attitude in Jesus’ day and we squirm in our seats because we know that is also the reality today as well. When we see people who are living in wretched conditions we change the channel. When we see people in other countries that live on garbage heaps, we wonder why they don’t get out of there and make their lives better. Yet what are we doing to help them? We hear the cry we just can’t let them all in it would destroy our world as we know it. There has to be safety plans and check points. Those who are poor can not all come. How would we feed them all? They are bringing too many diseases and too many drugs, they are gang members and will create violence in the streets, there will be mass shootings, and none of them are recognized as being popular.
Jesus would say, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.” There are many woes to us, yet some will be truly blessed. Let us seek to be agents of comfort when we have the ability to do so. Amen.