20 Jesus raised his eyes to his disciples and said: “Happy are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours. 21 Happy are you who hunger now, because you will be satisfied. Happy are you who weep now, because you will laugh. 22 Happy are you when people hate you, reject you, insult you, and condemn your name as evil because of the Human One. 23 Rejoice when that happens! Leap for joy because you have a great reward in heaven. Their ancestors did the same things to the prophets. 24 But how terrible for you who are rich, because you have already received your comfort. 25 How terrible for you who have plenty now, because you will be hungry. How terrible for you who laugh now, because you will mourn and weep. 26 How terrible for you when all speak well of you. Their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets. (Common English Bible)
“The Sermon on the Mount’s Little Sibling: Luke’s Sermon on the Plain,” Week Two
Tomorrow, when the banks open at 9:00 am like they always do, you walk inside and the bank manager pulls you aside and says that $2 million has been deposited into your account, no strings attached, and no questions as to the money’s legality. Would you feel rich? Be honest with yourself.
I mean, that’s basically like winning not quite the jackpot, but still winning the lottery: finding a serious scratch-off card, or making an unexpected killing at the craps table, or maybe you spilled a hot cup of coffee on yourself and the Starbucks legal department was feeling inexplicably generous in drawing up the terms of your settlement. However way you slice it, all of us here would have just stumbled into a lot more money than we are used to working with and living on.
Now, ask yourself that same question: you have $2 million, and does that make you feel rich, only this time, you started with $7.5 billion, with a ‘b.’ Still feel rich now? Or do you feel like you have been made poor?
Do you see how starting conditions can mean everything in terms of how we frame a particular set of circumstances?
I didn’t just pull those two numbers--$2 million and $7.5 billion—out of thin air, either. Chuck Feeney, whose name makes him sound like a neighbor on, say, the Simpsons, made his $7.5 billion fortune through his ownership of those ubiquitous duty-free stores you see at every airport nowadays. And now, at the age of 81, he has given literally 99.997% of it away to various causes: $226 million to the public university system of Ireland, $20 million to surgically correcting cleft palates of children in the Third World, and, closer to home, $290 million for a new medical campus for the University of California—San Francisco.
Feeney is a rich man who has made himself, comparatively or relatively albeit not absolutely, poor. And he has done so while avoiding the pomp and circumstance and attention that usually comes with philanthropy on that sort of scale: after all, how many of you knew his name before just now? And yet he is a person living out the version of the Beatitudes that Luke quotes Jesus as preaching here: a beatitudes version that hones in not only on blessing those who need blessings, but in reversing the fortunes of those who are already have said fortunes. Which we probably don’t like or want to hear, because we secretly would like to be rich ourselves—none of us would mind having $2 million to our names. But we should want to hear this message, and we ignore it at our own peril.
This is another new sermon series for the fall, and this series will take us all the way into November. And there really is a simple reason behind how this sermon series got cooked up in the first place (beyond, you know, the inspiration and movement of the Holy Spirit, me throwing darts at the wall, the consulting of sheep entrails, that sort of thing). Luke 6 contains some of the most blunt, point-blank ethical teachings of Jesus in any Gospel, but those teachings, nicknamed the Sermon on the Plain (can you guess why?), tend to be overshadowed by the magnum opus of Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, which both parallels and dwarfs the Sermon on the Plain. So, we’re spending these six weeks giving some much-needed attention to a sermon that often gets short shrift, even though it contains some of the most famous one-off ethical pronouncements Jesus offers, including “love your enemies,” “if someone steals your coat, give them your shirt as well,” and “judge not, and you will not be judged.” My aim is to present all of these teachings to you in their context of an entire series of teachings, and last week, we set the scene, the backdrop for where this teaching happens: an otherwise thoroughly nondescript plain (hence the sermon’s title) where Jesus performed healing miracles on an untold number of people before He even began teaching. This week, though, the teaching begins in earnest, and this first lesson is what we might call in the parlance a doozy.
And it’s a doozy because, well, it presents a serious edge to the Jesus whom we have built up in our heads and already begun idealizing—the Jesus who gives, and gives, and gives of Himself to everyone, and not the Jesus who actually corrects and rebukes and reprimands like any teacher worth their salt will occasionally do.
I know this passage goes against our idealization of Jesus because at least half of the several commentaries I consulted in the writing of this message (and you guys thought I just make this stuff up on the fly!) said something along the lines of, “God’s reign will ensure that the poor are lifted up, that the hungry are filled, and that the sad will laugh, but the whole rich having received their reward and those laughing will be crying later? Those are simply statements of fact about reality, and have nothing to do with divine intention.”
In other words, Biblical scholars—the folks with the Ph.D.’s in this stuff—are idealizing Jesus and what He is saying, because even they cannot countenance a God who does not want the rich to be rich. It goes against everything we have been taught about how the American dream works, but guess what? Jesus wasn’t American. And He wasn’t middle class. He was, in His human form anyways, a dirt-poor homeless Jewish carpenter-turned-teacher. Some days, He probably didn’t have two shekels to rub together, not that He needed them, because, hey, loaves and fishes on demand.
But the whole rich-having-received-their-reward thing? That’s not inevitable, that’s not simply a fact of existence. Wealthy folks are incredibly skilled at multiplying their rewards in our economy, that’s how many of them became wealthy to begin with. Which means that someone like Chuck Feeney who was rich and becomes poor of his own volition is remarkable because he is very much the exception and not the rule. And we ought to know this, because it is the exceptions whom we tend to hold up and admire, not the proverbial rules.
But precisely because Feeney is the exception and not the rule, we require divine intervention. Because the exceptions cannot do it on their own.
I’ll repeat that: those who are the exceptions, whose generosity is so extreme, so sacrificial, so beyond the norm that we may otherwise well be right to put our confidence in them, they are not going to be enough to ensure that the poor will truly have the same opportunities as the rich.
And the divine intervention that we need to remedy this, well, it tends to come in two forms: one is the massive upheaval that happens every so often throughout history. Like what happened when God sent us Jesus. But that was a one-off, and so unless we are banking on the Second Coming happening in our lifetimes (and you shouldn’t be banking on that—even Jesus says in Mark that He doesn’t know when He’ll return, only God knows), it means that God’s intervention has to happen through each of us. God then acts through us to build His kingdom. It’s how Oswald Chambers put it: it’s not so much that God changes things, but that God changes me and I change things.
Which means we need to get over our selfish queasiness towards passages like these in a big damn hurry, because it is what is inhibiting us from opening ourselves up fully to God’s sheer willingness and desire to work through us, to call us and commission us as vessels for His great works.
And really, what I’m talking about here is true for so much of the Bible: we like it, we may say we like it, we may say we enjoy reading it and learning from it and studying it, but we sure do suck at putting it into practice. Love thy neighbor? Treat others the way you want to be treated? No thanks, it’s easier for me to take my anger out on the person in front of me.
Well, it’s the same thing here. Woe to those who are rich? Woe to those who laugh now? Woe to those who are well-spoken of? But *I* want to be rich, I want to be well-spoken of, I like laughing, that’s why I have the entire series of Scrubs on DVD. Why does Jesus hate my Scrubs DVDs?!
Because they’re detestable to Jesus when they—or anything else, for that matter, but my belief is that wealth is one of the surest things to do this—blind you to the needs and plights of others. If all you care about is a fictitious hospital where Zach Braff acts awkward and gets laughs (and, eventually, Sarah Chalke) for it, well, that’s a pretty sorry world to be living in, because your world doesn’t exist.
God’s world, however, does, and always has, and always will, and that is the one that we are charged with keeping, and the one that we have, so far, anyways, done a pretty bad job of keeping, precisely because we are so good at wrapping ourselves up in our cocoons of riches and laughter. Meanwhile, resources are becoming rarer and more stratified: the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, water is becoming more scarce even as nearby as California, and that’s to say nothing of the hundreds of millions of people who already go without clean water as a matter of everyday life.
Yet my commentators—and likely yours as well, if you have study Bibles or Bible commentaries at home—say that the rich losing out on greater rewards is a state of fact and not the result of any divine will or work. But there is a law—a law governed by fact and reality—that I have to imagine comes into play here…and it isn’t just a law, or our law, it’s nature’s law. Newton’s third law—you all know it, right? An action of force upon an object is met with an equal and opposite reaction.
At some point, when we act with purpose towards the attaining of more material wealth and temporary joy, that purpose will be met in reaction with an equal and opposite force. Reversal of circumstance is inevitable, but far more than it simply being a fact of nature, it is a law, and that is the law which Jesus begins to teach with. God’s justice isn’t just a matter of lifting up those who need lifting up, it also entails a reversal of circumstance for those who are already too high on the proverbial hog. Isn’t that what He says elsewhere? The last shall be first AND the first shall be last?
Perhaps that is why we sometimes squirm when we really begin to consider the consequences of a reign of God as Jesus describes it: because there is still a part of us that doesn’t like it, that wants it to be different, to not challenge us but to affirm what we already think. But God is not in that business. God never was in that business to begin with. Because if He was, He would never have bothered with sending Jesus to turn what we think completely upside-down rather than affirm it. And that agenda is on full display here.
As well it should. Because we absolutely need to hear it. Because it is the only way we can ultimately be wholly changed by Christ.
May it be so. Amen.
Rev. Eric Atcheson