Emmanuel Baptist Church , Rev. Kathy Donley
February 24, 2019
“Blessed are you who are poor”. It’s the first blessing Jesus pronounces in his sermon on the plain. It was a radical idea then and it is a radical idea now, but we have learned ways to immunize ourselves against the power of Scripture and so it may no longer hit us with the same force.
“Blessed are you who are poor”. We might expect to hear “blessed are you who are poor in spirit” which is how Matthew records this sermon. We sang that beautiful hymn Blest Are They which is based on Matthew’s version, so you might not have noticed that Luke has only four short beatitudes – Blessed are 1) the poor, 2) the hungry, 3) those who weep and 4) those who are reviled, which we might call the persecuted or the unpopular.
The name Beatitude comes from the Latin word for blessed. It can also be translated as happy or fortunate. If we read Luke again as “Fortunate are you who are poor and hungry” or “Happy are you who weep and suffer unpopularity”, then we might begin to sense how much Jesus is flipping conventional wisdom.
It is hard to imagine how that could be true. Gustavo Gutierrez is a 90-year-old Peruvian priest and theologian. His life’s work has been ministry with the poor and articulating a theology of liberation. He notes that when Jesus said “Blessed are the poor” he did not say “blessed is poverty.” Gutierrez understands poverty as the greatest form of violence. He says “God is a God of life. Poverty is death. Therefore, we are committed to the poor.”
It is hard to take these statements about blessing and happiness for the poor and hungry and weeping at face value. Often we fall back on Matthew and spiritualize them. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Matthew records. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Sometimes we romanticize poverty or distort the life experiences of poor people in order to imagine them as happy or fortunate.
I wonder if things would make more sense if we started with the woes instead. They are also short and direct. “Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are full, to you who laugh, to you who are popular.” It’s like Luke is describing the cool kids – you know, the ones who have it all -- brains, good looks, athletic ability, friends, popularity. I notice that the warning in some of these is in the future tense “you who are full – you will be hungry” “you who are laughing now – you will weep and mourn.” It’s like Jesus is saying that the cool kids won’t be cool forever. Their turn among the losers will come. But then, it’s also as if he is saying that there’s something wrong with being a cool kid. And that really does mess with our heads.
What is Jesus really saying here? If the poor are blessed, how poor do you have to be to qualify? And what if you are rich? What should you do about those warnings?
We need to think about context. Luke is writing for and to the Christian community in Jerusalem, which happens to be the poorest of the early Christian communities. He is also writing at a time when Christians live on the road, with people sent forth to preach the gospel relying on the hospitality of others as they travel. One scholar writes “These images of community life reveal the practicality of the Good News to the poor. The lifestyle of sharing and holding all things in common, the practice of the virtue of poverty, and the practical economics of caring for a wide spectrum of people who model belief so that others can see them form the foundation of the gospel. . . in early descriptions of the Church, the Christian communities were described in startling terms: see how those Christians love one another – there are no poor among them!”
Another context -- at the beginning of his gospel, Luke indicates that he is writing for someone he calls “most excellent Theophilus.” “Most Excellent” is a title usually reserved for people high up in Roman society. Theophilus is probably a Gentile convert being instructed in the way of Jesus. He is probably rich, full and happy now, but verse 22 says, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man”
If Theophilus joins Jesus’ community, that social exclusion and unpopularity will likely happen to him. When the cool kids hang out with losers, they lose their status and become losers themselves. Luke knows the terrible costs involved for rich people who join Jesus’ group, but he is uncompromising that this is part of the cost of discipleship.
Jesus is forming a community which overturns the categories we cling to. It’s a world of solidarity and companionship, where the distinctions between losers and cool kids are erased, where no one is threatened or afraid or left on the sidelines. This community is still so counter-cultural that we only see occasional glimpses of it in real-life. What we have been taught about losers and winners is so strong inside us that some of us cannot hold Jesus’ concept in our heads for very long at a time.
There’s a story that comes from a time of great Jewish persecution in Serbia. The community is trying to survive in desperate poverty. A father and son come to their rabbi for advice. They live in a one-room shack with a stove for heat, but it provides more smoke than actual heat, and the cracks in the walls and floor let the cold blow right in. The father tells his story “I am too old and frail to work. My son goes out to chop wood, dig ditches and latrines or whatever else the Russians want done. And I need a coat to stay warm because I cannot move around much. We only have one coat between us. I think that it is only fair that I get to wear the coat during the short days when it is so bitter cold. Then my son can have it at night since he needs to sleep. Rabbi, what do you think is the right thing to do?”
The young man said, “Rabbi, it is as my father says. We live in a small space without adequate heat day or night. But I go out early in the dark and work outside until it is dark again. If I don’t work the long hours, my father will not only be cold, he will starve to death. I need the coat, otherwise I will sweat from all my labor and then I can easily catch cold and get sick. It is only fair that I wear the coat outside during the day and then my father can have it at night. Rabbi, what do you think is the right thing to do?”
After a long silence, the rabbi says “I need to think and pray over this problem. Please come back in three days and I will have an answer for you.” So the men leave.
The three days seem to last forever. The father and the son are fixated on the coat. But then the father begins to look at his son and thinks, “I could not live without him. He cannot get sick or I, too, will die. He needs the coat more than I do – I can stay near the stove and rub my hands to remember to get up and walk around the shack. When we go back to the rabbi, I will tell him it is decided: my son gets the coat.”
At the same time, the son is watching his father and seeing how frail and weak he is. And then he thinks, “My father is old and he has cared for me all my life. Where would I be if not for him? My duty is to gratefully give him the coat. When we go back to the rabbi, I will tell him it is decided: my father gets the coat.”
So, they return to the rabbi. The father makes his speech about why the son should get the coat. Then the son explains why the father should get it. The rabbi is amazed that in three days’ time, both men have come to decisions completely opposite from where they started. The rabbi stands up and tells them he will be back in a minute. When he returns, a heavy coat with a fur hood is over his arm. He holds it out to them and says “Now you will both have a coat. The decision is made.”
The father and son just stay there without moving. Finally the son says, “Rabbi, you had a coat all this time. Why didn’t you just give it to us three days ago?”
The rabbi replies, “You were arguing over how much you needed a coat. This is my coat – and I started asking myself how much I needed my coat and if I could do without it. But now that each of you is willing to let the other one have it, I too can say, “you can have my coat. Now go home and be warm and I will be warm knowing that you care so much for each other.”
The father and the son each had legitimate need for the coat. Their reality was pressing hard on them. And yet, somehow they were able to see past that, to come to a place where each was willing to sacrifice for the good of the other. That pivot, that transformation, is fundamental to full participation in the kingdom of God. It in an internal shift which results in external actions. It is inherently bound up with Jesus’ great commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
I want to describe two levels of transformation. They are transformations I seek in my own live, but which I cannot sustain for very long and that makes it difficult to describe. One is what the father and son experienced – arriving at sacrificial love. This can be hard to do with family members and those we know. We are also called to do it for those we do not know or see.
The second transformation may be even more difficult. It enables us to leave behind the categories of winners and losers. Or perhaps, more accurately, to recognize that we are all losers. That no matter how successful we are in some categories, we are still insecure and fearful, we still find it hard to love ourselves, we are still broken in significant ways. The more that we can accept that, the more easily we will receive what Jesus offers – the blessing of mercy, forgiveness, grace and life.
Nathan, a Baptist pastor from Australia, describes this so well. He says, “I have had far more trust than I realized in my own strength, in my own ability to achieve things and make a difference. I have tended to understand myself and my ministry as contributing to the salvation of the world, to the turning around of the world’s suicidal slide into self-destruction. But in the last couple of years, I’ve realized that that slide into self- destruction is continuing unchecked. Politics is getting madder and madder. Climate change is reaching the point of no return. Churches are becoming more mired in fear and divisiveness. Nothing I can do is going to turn that around.”
Nathan goes on, “But I’m not finding it easy to let go of my belief in myself as someone who could make a difference, who could achieve something, who could help turn things around. I’m not finding it easy to hear Jesus saying blessed are the unsuccessful; blessed are the despairing; blessed are those whose efforts were dismissed and derided and ultimately futile. That’s not the blessing I was seeking.”
“Blessed are those who can give up trusting in their own strength, their own effectiveness, their own importance. Blessed are they who can surrender all that and leave it to God.” They will be like trees planted by streams of living water.
Jesus came down and stood on a level place and said “Blessed are you who are poor now, blessed are you, for yours is the kingdom of God.” May it be so for you and for me. Amen.
 Megan McKenna Like a Hammer Shattering Rock (New York: DoubleDay Religion/Random House, 2013), pp. 120.
 McKenna, Like a Hammer, p. 124.
 Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd Edition, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), p.41
 As told by Megan McKenna in Like a Hammer Shattering Rock (New York: Double Day Religion/Random House, 2013), pp. 120-123.
 Nathan Nettleton, in his sermon Blessings We Didn’t Want http://southyarrabaptist.church/sermons/blessings-we-didnt-want/