Our reading this morning from Luke chapter 6 is headed “Blessings and Woes”. Jesus speaking to his disciples, telling them who will be blessed and who won’t. Very similar to the Beatitudes recorded in Matthew chapter 5 as a part of the Sermon on the Mount.
On the level
In Luke we have the Sermon on the Plain – or on the Level. We are told that Jesus came down and stood on a level place. On the level may be very apt because here you could say that Jesus was ‘leveling’ with his followers. Whether Jesus spoke these words on the mount or on the plain; whether he spoke them once or twice; it doesn’t matter – he spoke them! He was making it very clear that joining with him to proclaim, and work toward, the kingdom of God was not going to be an easy road – not a bed of roses. There were difficult choices to be made.
The Beatitudes in Matthew are essentially attached to what you might call inner, spiritual qualities – things like meekness, righteousness and mercy. In Luke they are attached to external, physical conditions of poverty and suffering. But one thing is clear. Both lists are a series of bombshells – statements which blow apart the standard worldly values. Standard values which have for millennia been accepted as the normal aspirations of human life.
Blessings and Woes
Let’s just think about ourselves. Barbara and I, and I suspect most, if not all, of us here this morning, live what we would consider to be normal, middle England lives. We have a house, car; are warm, well fed and watered; from time to time we enjoy a holiday; etc, etc. Barbara and I consider ourselves blessed.
Recently we have had an opportunity to speak with a homeless man sitting on the street, begging for his food. We have also had an opportunity to speak with a family who have had to flee from their comfortable life in Syria and become refugees in a foreign land, relying on state and charity support. These people we would consider to be in a state of Woe.
But Jesus says, no, you’ve got it all wrong. Jesus says the homeless man and the refugees are to be blessed. They are the poor, the ones who weep, the ones who are excluded, insulted and hated. Yet they are the ones who will be blessed. Not you who are rich, not you who are well fed, not you who laugh, not you who are spoken well of. Woe to you!
As so often happens, Jesus is turning the world view upside down.
What's going on?
Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep... really! You would think they are anything but blessed.
Woe to you who are rich, well fed, enjoying life... surely this is what everyone wants! It’s what everyone works for, aims for. What the world encourages. Dreams are made of this.
So what is going on here? Why is Jesus being so challenging? Is he being deliberately provocative – just to get attention? Has he lost it? How can we accept this teaching? Many disciples did find Jesus’ teaching hard – John 6:60 “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
Let’s think back to the gospel reading of a couple of weeks ago. Jesus stood up in his local synagogue and told them that he had been anointed to preach good news; to bring healing; to release the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. Jesus was here to bring people back to God – people who had lost their way – people who were too busy following manmade rules and lost sight of God’s rules. In this list of blessings and woes Jesus is reminding his followers who would welcome the good news and who would find it to be a challenge.
The good news is that God’s kingdom is at hand for all who would live by God’s rules, by God’s values – the commandments especially to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength – and to treat your neighbour as yourself. Jesus’ teaching didn’t change those basic rules – he showed us what living by those rules, those values, really meant.
Because Jesus was reminding his followers that when you do follow my teaching, when you do come back to God’s values, this is what it’s about, this is what you’re letting yourselves in for. And there may well be hard times –times when you hunger, times when you weep, times when you will be insulted and hated because you follow my teaching. You will need to have faith and trust in God. But you will get your reward. In God’s kingdom there is the firm hope and promise of good times ahead.
But Jesus says woe to you who already have everything. You who are rich, well fed, etc. You who already have committed yourselves to the world’s values and put God’s values to one side. Now you really will have a hard time bringing yourselves to make the change. You are having good times now and may be don’t see the need to look forward to better things – what can be better than what you have? As Paul says in Romans 8 v 24 “who hopes for what he already has?”
I am reminded of the Harry Enfield character who continually boasted that ‘he was considerably richer than you’ to everyone around him. A character who really showed how locked into worldly values one can get. A character who, I think, reflects an attitude so common in today’s world. Jesus said it will be harder for the rich man to enter God’s kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of the needle – not impossible but harder. When the young rich man came to Jesus asking what more should I do, I’m following the commandments? Jesus told him to go and sell what you have and give to the poor. The young man couldn’t do it – he was too tied to the world’s values – too locked in.
So, Jesus does lay down a challenge. Come and follow me he says but come with your eyes open to the fact that my way is to live by God’s values not by the worldly standards. I am the key you need to unlock yourself from the world’s values.
Take up the challenge
So, what about us? What do we do? What can we do and what must we do? Do we receive God’s blessing or woe? Is our happiness, our lifestyle, our life choices driven solely by the world’s values - measurement related to possessions and wealth. Or have we taken up the challenge that Jesus puts before us – to live a life fit for God’s kingdom?
To help us answer, let’s remind ourselves of the words from Jeremiah that we had read to us earlier. It’s a good starting point as we think about what we value most – the world’s way, or God’s.
Jeremiah 17: 5-10.
So, let us pray for each other that our ways are the ways of the Lord, and that we will be like the tree planted by the water; that we accept Jesus as the key to unlock us and set us free. Let us be strong in faith and action for God’s kingdom. Amen.