Blessings & Woes 2.17.19

Luke 6: 17-25

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. 18They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. 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 on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice on 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.
 
Kate Bowler is an assistant professor of the history of North American Christianity at the Duke University Divinity School. She did her Ph. D. dissertation on the history of what is commonly called the “prosperity gospel”.

For those of you who do not know that term, Bowler defines it this way in her New York Times op-ed piece, Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me.

Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth [within the course of their human life] to those with the right kind of faith.  Bowler points out that when Prosperity Gospel people do prosper, they call themselves “blessed”. They are blessed because they have the right kind of faith and so will receive from God whatever they ask for. It’s kind of like that Janis Joplin’s song Mercedes Benz: Oh lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town? I’m counting on you, lord, please don’t let me down. Prove that you love me and buy the next round, Oh lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town? If Janis’ prayer would have resulted ins a mysterious envelope with enough cash for an evening out, it was because she had enough faith to be blessed. If not … well … woe to Janet. She is rejected by God.
After Bowler got her Ph. D., she got the job of her dreams (assistant professor at Duke) and then she and her husband had a long-awaited child. The Prosperity Gospel folks would have counted her among the “blessed”. Bowler would have agreed. Two years later Bowler found out she had stage 4 colon cancer. Incurable. Her prosperity gospel acquaintances responded to her illness with something like this: You need to get your faith right so you will be blessed. Then you can ask God for a miracle and get healed! Here is the problem, though. In an interview with Terry Gross on the NPR show “Fresh Air”, Bowler put it this way: [I]t was hard for me as the recipient of all of these spiritual diagnoses to not feel a little bit blamed. If Bowlers prayers for healing were not answered, she would have lost the test of faith. Bowler prayed, But she still has cancer. Does that mean she is not blessed? Woe to her … because she is rejected by God.
Now don’t get me wrong. This “Prosperity Gospel” thinking is really not a new concept. The traditional view for many in Jesus’ day was that you could identify the folks who were blessed by God by their wealth, privileged status, and health. Those who whose lives were filled with struggle and misfortune were obviously rejected by God. But Jesus flips it. Who are the blessed in Luke? The poor. The hungry. The ones who weep. The ones who are hated. Unlike Matthew’s Beatitudes, Luke’s Beatitudes are not spiritual. They are material. And that makes them harder to understand. Particularly when we see new Bible translations that substitute the word “happy” for “blessed”. But I don’t buy that meaning here. It just does not fit the context.
When I had almost no money, I was not happy about it. When I was hungry, I was … well … hangry, not happy. When I was weeping, it was not a happy moment. When people reviled me, it did not make me happy. Can I still be blessed despite my misfortune? Let’s look at the word. The word “blessed” comes from the Greek word “makarios”. Like many words, it has several different meanings depending on the context. One of them is “happy”. But in Luke, a better understanding of the meaning of makarios is a person’s status before God. It is not an emotion. It is God’s favor. It is God’s presence. It is the Kingdom of God. In other words, I can be blessed, yet not be happy with my earthly circumstances. I might be poor. I might be hungry. I might be sad. I might be hated. But God is present with me and invites me into God’s kingdom. Not because I deserve it. But because God favors those oppressed by the troubles of the world.
But then there are those “woes”! Woe to the rich. Woe to the full. Woe to the laughing. Woe to those held in high regard. What does “woe” mean? The Greek word for “woe” is “ouai”. It is an expression of alarm. Oh, no! Something bad is going to happen! And my prosperity can’t stop it! So, the poor, hungry, sad and reviled are blessed. The rich, full, happy and beloved are not. This is the exact opposite of what Jesus disciples believed. It’s frankly pretty much the opposite of what most people believe today. This is certainly not consistent the “prosperity gospel” that would equate poverty, hunger, sadness and revulsion as rejection by God, while equating wealth, fullness, happiness and respect as proof of God’s blessing. So, what is Jesus trying to say, here? And more importantly, where do we fit? Are we blessed, or are we alarmed?
To try and understand, we need to imagine the scene of our text. Let’s put ourselves there with Jesus. Jesus comes to a large crowd of disciples, Jews, and gentiles who want to hear what Jesus has to say and be healed of whatever ails them. We are with them. We are a desperate group. We are crowding around Jesus. We are pushing forward so they can touch him. Jesus wades among us and heals us, all the time preaching that the Kingdom of God (which is Jesus) has come near. While Jesus is doing all this, he turns to us. Blessed are the poor, hungry, sad and hated, he says. Who is he talking about? I have this mental image of Jesus sweeping his arm in a sort of panoramic gesture at the people who are surrounding us. The ones who came to hear what Jesus had to say and to ask him for help. This includes us. Why are we coming to Jesus? Because we are the poor, hungry, sad and hated who have no place else to turn. Jesus is our last hope. And what has Jesus been doing for us? Teaching. Healing. Blessing. Inviting us into the Kingdom of God. Then Jesus goes on. Woe to the rich, the full, the happy, the beloved, he says. Who is Jesus talking about here? I have this mental image of him looking around and sort of shrugging his shoulders. They are not here! Those folks are satisfied with their “prosperity”. They see no need for Jesus. They are so preoccupied with their stuff that they don’t respond to Jesus invitation into the Kingdom. They are like the rich man who is told to rid himself of his possessions so he can follow Jesus but walks away sad because he had so many possessions. And so, as things stand at that moment, they are helpless to fend off the coming storms of life.
Bowler, from her interview on “Fresh Air” describes what that might feel like: I couldn’t find anything on Earth as depressing as [a prosperity gospel funeral] because … people, [were], scraping and clawing for the meaning of someone’s death as they’re trying to grieve. And it was almost impossible for them to say that it wasn’t somehow the person’s spiritual failings that had led to this untimely death. Woe to them, Jesus says, because that is all they have to look forward to. So, back to the question at hand. Which group do we belong in? Well, it’s complicated. Like the weather, it changes. Are we poor? Have we been poor? Are we hungry? Have we been hungry? Are we weeping? Have we been weeping? Are we hated? Have we been hated? When we experienced these things, did we acknowledge our dependence on God? Then we are blessed because we seek relief in the Kingdom. Or did we curse God for our circumstances and become angry at and envious of those who have it better? Then we should be alarmed because we seek relief in our stuff, which withers away. Then there is this. Are we rich? Have we been rich? Are we full? Have we been full? Are we happy? Have we been happy? Are we well respected? Have we been well respected? When we experienced these things, did we hold on tight to what “we” acquired through on our own? Woe to us because these things do not last. Or did we go to God with gratitude? Did we acknowledge that all we have is a gift from God to be shared with those who are poor, hungry, sad and hated? If so, we are blessed, because we are living in the Kingdom. It all comes down to our relationship with God, and with each other. I think that looks like this.
 
I want to read you something from Bowler’s book “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved”. She has just had surgery to remove a large abdominal mass and has been told she might have only months to live.
I read [something] in the newspaper the other day that summarized the findings of the Near Death Experience Research Foundation, and, yes, there is such a thing. Thousands of people were interviewed about brushes with death in every kind of situation – being in a car accident, giving birth, attempting suicide, et cetera – and many described the same odd thing: love. I’m sure I would have ignored the article if it had not reminded me of something that happened to me, something that I felt uncomfortable telling anyone. It seemed too odd and too simplistic to say what I knew to be true – that when I was sure I was going to die, I didn’t feel angry, I felt loved. … I couldn’t say for certain that I would survive the year. But I felt like I had uncovered something secret about faith. … At a time I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes. I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worked bees, bringing notes and flowers and warm socks and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement. They came like priests and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus. Then this from her interview with Terry Gross: But one of the only certainties I actually truly latched onto was the sense that in the worst moments that there can be an unbidden God and that I don’t have to earn it. And I don’t even have to like worry that I won’t have it – but that maybe the hope is that when we come to the end of ourselves, that we’re not alone.
 
That is life in the Kingdom. Giving and receiving the love of God. That is what Jesus was saying to his disciples. To us. Give and receive the love of God. When we do that we are blessed.

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