A few years ago a clergy friend from Rochester, New York, had a medical crisis in the Atlanta airport. She was rushed to the hospital, where she stayed for a week until she stabilized and was able to return home.
When my friend related the experience, she commented on the deep faith of those who cared for her in the hospital, particularly the LPNs. “Every day,” she said, “those people would tell me to ‘Have a blessed day!’ And they meant it!”
As someone who grew up in the deep south, I’ve heard ‘Have a blessed day’ all my life. The strong and tender piety that births such statements is familiar to me. For my friend, though– a native Scot and long-time resident of the northeast–the unabashed expressions of faith were new. In those circumstances, sick, far from home, she welcomed the blessings of those who were caring for her.
Blessing. What does it mean to be blessed?
In today’s Gospel lesson, we encounter Luke’s version of the beatitudes. You might have picked up on that in the reading. You also might have found the reading to be slightly off. Isn’t it supposed to be “Blessed are the poor in spirit?” and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness?” And where in the heck did all those “woes” come from?
If you had any of those questions, you’re in good company. The more popular version of the beatitudes comes from the Gospel of Matthew. That’s the version today’s anthem is based on. In Matthew–which likely drew from the source that Luke used–we see evidence of an editor….an editor who, no doubt, found the original version of the beatitudes uncomfortable. “Blessed are the poor”….that’s an idea it’s hard to wrap your head around. “Woe to you who are rich…” Yeah. That’s downright awkward if you’re rich.
Matthew spiritualizes the Beatitudes. And that’s fine. Nothing wrong with that. Matthew wrote in a way that would appeal to the Jewish community he was addressing. Matthew places Jesus on a mountain to preach—an allusion to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The Sermon on the Mount’s 107 verses are clearly divided into five sections–a parallel to the five books of the Torah. Written for Jews, Matthew’s writer introduces Jesus as a new Moses. Writing to religious people, the author uses religious language–hence, the spiritualizing of the beatitudes.
Luke writes to Gentiles. Allusions to Sinai and the Torah would have been lost on them.
And so, in Luke, Jesus comes down to a “level place” and preaches a sermon that clocks in at a mere 32 verses. Not only is the sermon preached on a plain, but in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ sermon also is plain, as in plain-spoken. Luke pulls no punches; he softens nothing.
Luke’s Jesus calls the poor blessed–not the poor in spirit…and the hungry–not those who hunger for righteousness… And to make his point even plainer, Luke’s Jesus pairs the blessings with woes–woe to the rich and those who are full, those who laugh and who are well spoken of.
So, what is the blessing of poverty and hunger? What’s the woe of wealth and good standing in society? Because, when you think about it, we have a lot more in common with the woeful of whom Jesus speaks than the blessed. We certainly serve the poor and hungry, but we aren’t ourselves poor or hungry. And compared to the vast majority of the world, we have great wealth and good standing in society.
What’s so woeful about our existence? What do the poor have that we don’t?
Another clergy friend once pastored a church in Baltimore’s inner city. It was a rough neighborhood. One time a young man was shot and killed on the sidewalk outside the church. When I visited the church a decade ago, my friend said something in a sermon that has stuck with me. She said to her poor congregants, “Things are harder for people in the suburbs than they are for us. In the suburbs, people don’t know they need each other to survive. Here in our neighborhood, we know we need each other.” Several congregants around me nodded their heads and said “Mmm hmm.”
I suspect that’s the place Luke’s Jesus was coming from. One commentator sums it up this way: “To be blessed of God is to have nothing but God.” The one who has little has little power to meet their own needs, especially in our currency-driven social structure. Those of us who have means have a lot of power to determine what happens to us. The danger–the woe–of having lots of material resources is that we can gloss over our own neediness, we can cover it up, we can hide from it. If we ignore our neediness for too long, it’s easy to forget it’s there. We come to think that we are all powerful, that our fate lies only in our own hands.
The friend who used to pastor in Baltimore’s inner city now pastors a fairly wealthy church in DC. As she talks to me about it, her job now seems much more arduous. In DC, she pastors people who are farther removed from their neediness, their need for connection to others and to God. I pray harder for this friend now than I did when she pastored the other church.
So, is Luke’s Jesus condemning wealth, per se? Is Luke’s Jesus praising poverty? Maybe. But I wonder if Luke’s Jesus is just calling things as he sees them. The poor have easier access to God because they have little else. The wealthy have a harder time accessing the divine because they don’t need a god in their lives. They really can do things for themselves.
So, is there hope for us woeful people? Is there no path to blessing for us?
Jean Vanier co-founded L’Arche, intentional communities for people with profound developmental and physical disabilities and those who care for them. Many who come to serve at L’Arche are transformed by the experience; others are not. Of the difference, Vanier writes: “People may come to our communities because they want to serve the poor; they will only stay once they have discovered they themselves are the poor.” (From Brokenness to Community, p.20)
Those who come to serve in L’Arche communities discover their poverty in relationship with the residents. Vanier writes: “Those who come close to people in need do so first of all in a generous desire to help them and bring them relief; they often feel like saviors and put themselves on a pedestal. But once in contact with them, once touching them, establishing a loving and trusting relationship with them, the mystery unveils itself. At the heart of the insecurity of people in distress there is a presence of Jesus. And so they—the helpers—may discover the sacrament of the poor and enter the mystery of compassion.
“People who are poor seem to break down the barriers of powerfulness, of wealth, of ability and of pride; they pierce the armor the human heart builds to protect itself; they reveal Jesus Christ. They reveal to those who have come to ‘help’ them their own poverty and vulnerability. These people also show their ‘helpers’ their capacity for love, the forces of love in their hearts. A poor person has a mysterious power: in his weakness he is able to open hardened hearts and reveal the sources of living water within them. It is the tiny hand of the fearless child which can slip through the bars of the prison of egoism. A child is the one who can open the lock and set free. God hides God-self in the child.” ― Jean Vanier, Community And Growth
How do we woeful ones find our way to blessing? We begin by recognizing our own poverty; we begin by recognizing our need of others. We open our deepest selves to the poor, the hungry, the excluded. We open our minds and hearts to receive blessings from any place, from any person, from any circumstance from which it might come.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2019