Poor Boris Johnson, I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for him, not very sorry you understand, but a bit. We could argue that he has brought all his current woes on himself and that he deserves what he gets (assuming that what he gets is what you or I think he deserves). But really, how much worse or better is he than any other politician? How much worse or better is he than you or me? His current reversal of fortune, because that is what it is, means that Boris will either survive or go off into the political wilderness for a while; there to be ready to bounce back again because he more than likely will.
Reversals of fortune are something we have seen many times before, they are a well-used plot device in any number of books, films and TV sagas. Someone who has lived a charmed life is suddenly living a cursed one. Think about that old Eddie Murphy film Trading Places and you get the idea. But as Boris well knows reversals of fortune happen in real life too and they always have. And this is pretty much what Jesus is describing in today’s gospel. In fact this is what he often describes; so much so that the good news of Jesus Christ can be seen as an ongoing story of the reversal of fortune for many. Recall how many times Jesus turns the accepted order of things on its head: Good news is brought not to the rich but to the poor and powerless; hope and healing are given to the helpless; salvation is offered to society’s outcasts and the Messiah sits down and eats with those others would despise.
It really does appear that our Christian life and faith are well and truly based on reversals of fortune. And at the heart of this are the four beatitudes and the four woes we heard about in our gospel reading. Those who are poor, hungry or weeping. Those who are hated, excluded and slandered can look forward to a dramatic improvement in their lot. Their desperate situation will be overturned, and they will be blessed. And a beatitude is really just that, a blessing.
But as for those who are laughing now well, they are not going to be laughing for much longer! This really is a reversal of fortune. It is certainly not simply a plot device rather, it is a promised reality which, you might just be thinking sounds pretty wonderful. A promised reality of good times all round, or perhaps not quite all round. Try thinking about the lives we live, lives which happily for most of us are reasonably comfortable and perhaps that promised reality begins to sound rather more like a threat.
So, what are we really intended to make of it? Is Jesus going to make poor people rich and rich people poor and, if so, what happens next? Do the newly rich then become poor again and the newly poor rich? Thus, starting the whole cycle all over again. Because, on first hearing, all this does sound as if the only escape is to find some mythical middle ground where we have just enough and can keep our heads down. Or are we to believe that Jesus wants us not only to be on the breadline but to accept it cheerfully. Are we to believe that our lives are better lived burdened and broken by loss and sorrow? Is there no place for joy or laughter? Are we never to enjoy ourselves again? Are we to forgo all the little things that give us pleasure, even those that cost nothing?
What the truth might be
On first reading, and probably on the 20th, little of what Jesus says makes much sense to most of us; or perhaps more honestly, we don’t really want it to make sense as we are too nervous about what the truth might be. However, we do need to know what Jesus is telling us or perhaps that should be what Jesus is asking us.
Well, I think the first thing he is asking us is to look at our lives and look at them carefully so that we can see just where the blessings and woes in our lives are. Because we will have them, both blessings and woes and in all likelihood, we will imagine the balance of those blessings and woes going up and down. Which tends to make us see them as rewards and punishments which they are most definitely not. Neither are they part of some complicated game that we never quite get the hang of. You see the key thing to remember is that the Beatitudes are showing us how to live after we have received God’s grace. They are not a way to earn that grace because we could never earn it. Grace is God’s gift to all of us, deserving or not.
Quality not quantity
So, stop worrying about imagined rewards and punishments and accept that Jesus is not that interested in how much money we have in the bank. He is not analysing our finances or even recording how many times we laugh each day. What he is interested in is how we are not what we are. He does not equate poverty, hunger or grief with virtue. He is not saying that if you are well off or even just comfortable that you are heading for the pit. And he isn’t talking about what or how much we have or don’t have. He is looking at quality not quantity
So, are we all breathing a little sigh of relief now? Good but there is a “but” and it is quite a big one. You see I know from my own life, and I suspect that you do too that when I am sorrowful or, in my case possibly just full of self-pity, then I am more open and receptive to change. Then I am looking for something new a different way of being myself, a different way of being in the world. But when I am rich, when I am full, when I am laughing be it due to material, emotional or spiritual wealth well, then I just want things to carry on as they are. I want the same and quite probably more of it. Then it’s all about quantity not quality. Then it’s all about what we are and not how we are.
There is a way through
This is really when we start creating those woes. Because it is us, you and me, who make all that woe for ourselves. Ultimately, it is we who reverse our own fortunes be it for good or ill for blessing or woe we reverse our own fortunes and will probably do it many times.
Confusing and bewildering though this may all be, and it is, within these woes and blessings, in every twist and turn of those fortunes there is hope and there is a way through. Because these are one of the ways in which God calls and guides us into the life we need; a life of truth, meaning and goodness. So, we have to learn to trust and live with the demands of the reversals of fortune which faith in God brings to our lives. Here we discover life in the midst of death. Here we see darkness made light. And here we find understanding. Amen
‘Reversal of fortune’ was proclaimed by Elizabeth Binns at St John with St Mark Bury on Sunday 13th February 2022. It was based on Luke 6:17-26. Beryl Cook’s picture of Madonna and Child is Elizabeth’s favourite picture and is shown here with grateful thanks. Copyright © John Cook 2021. www.ourberylcook.com.