Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
In today’s Gospel, we hear the beginning of the sermon on the plain, which is a well-known passage often taken to be a list of the people that Jesus is saying are favored by God and those who’s lives have damned them. Make no mistake, this passage certainly is, as David Ostendorf calls it, “the raw, unvarnished, faith-rattling declaration of the realm of God.” It is not however a list of who is in and who is out or a blanket statement intended to be applied in the way we often think.
The first important thing to note which is commonly overlooked is that Jesus is not pronouncing this list of blessings and woes to the people gathered to hear him preach or declaring this to be the way of universe. In fact, before he begins to speak, scripture says he looks up at the disciples. Jesus is address this to the disciples, to people who have chosen to follow Jesus. This statement is one of warning and of calling to those who would follow, whether they are disciples, the church throughout history, or to us gathered here today. It is a call to a life in the kingdom of God that is unlike anything society at the time of Jesus and still society today declares good.
This passage contains four blessings and four woes that directly correspond to each blessing. As we can see, it starts out with, “blessed are you who are poor” and then the woe which follows is, “But woe to you who are rich.”. Knowing that Jesus is addressing this to his followers, which we often these days simply call, ‘the church’ begins to offer a different view of how this is to be taken. This is a guide to how the Kingdom of God, heralded by the incarnation of Jesus, a Kingdom we constantly strive to live into, and seek glimpses of through the mysteries of the Eucharist. This Kingdom turns the values of life on its head, and asks us to suppress the most animalistic, base desires and passions for a higher existence.
Something else I want you to catch is that the words that are chosen in the Greek for, “woe to you” show clearly that this is not a damnation, but a warning and signpost for the Kingdom. This, “woe” does not carry a meaning that infers if you are rich, you are going to Hell or that it is a grievous sin. What it does mean is a warning. You could read this as ‘be careful’ or ‘watch yourself’ or in more modern parlance, I like to imagine Jesus telling his disciples, “they better check themselves before they wreck themselves.”
To hear the ‘woe’ section another way, The Message bible rewrites it as, “But it’s trouble ahead if you think have it made. What you have is all you’ll ever get. And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long. And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games. There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it. There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests – look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.“
Jesus is warning his followers against complacency and against putting all their care into the kingdoms of humanity. It is easier to worry less about others when you have yours. It is also easier to justify not giving to those in need when you are fighting to have your own. Jesus calls those without ‘blessed’ because they are not wrapped up in the world, not focused on what the Empire teaches as blessing. This passage is not to look at those who are suffering in homeless camps and simply reassure them that they are blessed so they should be joyful in their suffering. This passage is clear that those who take up their cross have a different way to live turning from the values of empire and turning to the values of the Kingdom of God.
Last Friday evening, at the Eucharist which opened the Diocesan Convention, Bishop Benfield preached about greed. Later we would hear more about the story of Adam and Eve and how we can absolutely see that their sin is in many ways greed. They want more knowledge, more power, more ability. I see the hallmarks of that in this Gospel lesson today too. Greed manifests in a lot of different ways, not just for money or possessions, and letting that drive our existence is absolutely in opposition to the Kingdom of God. Bishop Benfield referred to purveyors of the prosperity Gospel, such as Joel Osteen, and how the understanding that God will bless you more and more as you give more and more, and that financial success is a sign of God’s blessing are clearly not in line with the teachings of Jesus.
This passage today from Luke absolutely underscores that. God does not shower us with fat bank accounts. God blesses us with those who need our help, when we have more than we need. God blesses us with reminders that if all we focus on is our own success, we are in danger of walking down a path that heads away from the values of the Kingdom of God. This passage is not about salvation. Nowhere is it said that one is ‘damned for eternity’. Salvation is separate from this, and as we know already offered through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
The sermon on the plain illustrates ways in which those of us who follow Jesus are to live. It warns us against the dangers of complacency, against the sin of greed, against putting all our trust and all our care into the values of the empire. We are called to a different world. We are called to a Kingdom where the values reflect love for all, care for all of creation. That is our work as followers of Christ. Perhaps we should reread this passage as saying, “Jesus looked up at the congregation of St. Andrews and said…” This is as much for us here and now as it was for the disciples then. It shows us that though the Kingdom of God is eternal, seeking out its values still remain a difficult task.
Find places in your life that you think fit the blessings here, and that fit the woes. I promise you we all have them. When you have found them, decide what that means and what you’re going to do about it. Lent will be with us soon, and that’s always a good time to try on a change in life. Seek out a path that leads to blessing and not to the warnings that Christ offers us. There is a way to live as his followers, so let us be reminded of that today as we daily continue to take up our cross.