When I was in high school, I had the experience many times of being the last to be picked for a soccer team. In our games classes we played soccer for half the year, and the usual practice was for the teacher to pick the two captains and then let the captains pick their teams. Of course the captains chose the best players first, and I was a terrible player, so I was always one of the last to be chosen. This has probably done me irreparable psychological harm. I should probably hire a lawyer and launch a million-dollar lawsuit against my high school!
Our Gospel reading for today comes right after Jesus has picked his team – not eleven, like a soccer team, but twelve, the number of the twelve tribes of Israel. This was not an accident. Jesus was picking an ‘Israel’ team, as Tom Wright puts it. He was reconstituting God’s chosen people under his own leadership, and everyone would have understood what he was doing. But he wasn’t acting like the captains in my high school. He wasn’t picking the people who were obviously the most qualified, the leadership candidates, the ones who had taken proper rabbinical training, the movers and shakers. His team was made up of working-class people, fishermen, tax collectors, and even a former terrorist. What was Jesus thinking?
Then, having chosen these apostles — the ‘sent ones’, that’s what the word means — he leads them down the mountain and begins to speak to the people waiting there. There are disciples there too — not just the twelve, but what Luke calls ‘a great crowd of his disciples’. There are also a lot of curious people who have come a long way to hear Jesus and to be healed. Jesus starts by healing those who need it, and then he turns to the disciples — again, not just the twelve, but the larger crowd — and begins to speak to them, telling them what life in his new Israel is all about. Listen again to his shocking words:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice 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.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 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. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6.20-26)
I suspect there are few passages in scripture that have been more misunderstood — and more ignored — than this one.
Throughout much of Christian history this passage was ignored. The popular hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ originally included these words: ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, (God) made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate’. So instead of Jesus’ revolutionary challenge to the social order, we have Christian faith used to prop up the class system. Jesus’ words ‘The poor you will always have with you’ have been taken as permission to do nothing about poverty. On the other hand, some people have chosen to spiritualize these verses, following Matthew’s version which talks about the ‘poor in spirit’ and ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’. The problem is, that’s not the sermon Jesus preached here. Here he speaks about literal poverty and hunger, and we have to take Luke’s text seriously.
Another way this passage is often misunderstood is to romanticize or idealize poverty. Let’s be clear about this. When Jesus talked about the poor, he didn’t mean those who live what we now call ‘a simple life’, with a few less possessions and a bit more generosity. He was talking about not having enough money to buy the basic necessities of life, so that starvation is a real possibility. It’s important to remember this, because some people have interpreted this passage to mean “Blessed are the poor — so you need to be poor in order to be blessed.” But if that’s true, then why was Jesus constantly telling us to giveto the poor? If poverty is blessedness, aren’t we taking away their blessedness by lifting them out of it?
So what on earth is Jesus saying here?
We need to read the text carefully. Jesus does not say that the poor, the hungry, the mournful and the persecuted are blessed because they are poor, hungry, mournful, or persecuted. No, the reason they are blessed is because God is going to change their situation! The poor will possess the kingdom of God, the hungry will be filled, the ones who weep will laugh, the persecuted ones will receive the same reward the prophets did when they were persecuted.
Jesus is standing in a great prophetic tradition of ancient Israel, which sees the coming ‘Day of the Lord’ as a great reversal. Standing in front of Jesus in the crowd are the poor, the hungry, those who mourn, and those who are persecuted. In the broken state of the world at the moment, these people are the ones who suffer. They are the marginalized, the ignored, the exploited, the ones who get picked last for the soccer teams and get ignored when religious leaders pick their disciples and so on.
But the good news for them is that the kingdom of God doesn’t follow those rules. The kingdom of God is an upside-down kingdom. Or perhaps it’s a right-side-up kingdom in an upside-down world. It’s a kingdom where, as Jesus liked to say, the first are last and the last first.
But on the other hand, there are also those standing in the crowd who have selfishly hoarded their riches. They’ve gorged themselves in the five-star restaurants, spent their lives in laughter and partying and making merry. They make the pages of ‘People’ magazine and they frequent the corridors of power in the local community. In the present state of affairs in the world, they get all the attention. But Jesus warns them that when the kingdom of God comes, they will find themselves the losers. He says to them in verse 24: “You have received your consolation.” The word in the original language for ‘receive’ means ‘the payment of an account in full.’ In other words, Jesus is saying, “You’ve received all you’re ever going to get.”
Let’s think about this a little more. Let’s remember that when Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God he’s not talking about ‘what happens after we go to heaven when we die.” The Christian hope isn’t a lifeboat to rescue people from a sinking earth and take them off to another place. The Christian hope is that God loves this beautiful but broken creation of his, and he is going to heal it and remake it according to his original plan. The New Testament writers all believed that one day God’s victory over evil through Jesus will be complete. When that day comes we’ll see life on earth as God intended it, free from the ravages of evil and sin.
But in this passage Jesus reminds us of the present unjust reality, in which the world is divided into haves and have-nots. This is one of the ways the disease of evil manifests itself in the world. It’s a world in which the CEO of a multinational corporation can earn three or four hundred times as much as the people working on the shop floor in that company. It’s a world in which the average household income in our part of Edmonton is over $80,000 while much of the world lives on less than a dollar a day. That sort of world is a sick kind of world. But the coming of the kingdom is going to change that. The kingdom of God is a society in which those who are needy will receive what they need. It’s a society where everyone will have enough and no one will have too much. It’s a society where we will truly love our neighbours as we love ourselves, and because all love to be generous to each other, everyone will be cared for.
So Jesus’ point is not that when the kingdom comes, the rich and powerful will finally get what they deserve. This wouldn’t jive with the whole teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, and the fact that he had rich friends and enjoyed their company. So it’s actually a bit more nuanced than we might think at first reading.
Before Jesus was born, Mary sang these words:
“(God) has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51b-53)
The problem is that in human revolutions, after the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up, the lowly then become the new powerful. And they quickly learn to be just as cruel and oppressive as their predecessors!
That’s not what Jesus has in mind here. His point is that in the kingdom there won’t be any mighty at all. No more rich and poor, no more powerful and underdog. There will be no poor because all will share, and so all will have enough. There will be no hunger, because people will care for one another spontaneously and joyfully. There will be no question of the poor taking vengeance on the rich or the oppressed rising up and murdering their oppressors. No: the law of the kingdom is the law of love for your enemies. That’s what Jesus told us.
But here’s the catch. All are welcome in God’s kingdom, but you have to accept the kingdom lifestyle. So we who are rich will not be able to enter the Kingdom and at the same time hang onto our opulent lifestyle. We are challenged to learn the joy of generosity. We are challenged to drastically lower our own standard of living — and to learn to enjoy doing so — so that all may enjoy the basic necessities of life.
The powerful will not be able to hang onto their prestige and power in the kingdom. They will have to be willing to embrace the underdog as their equal. Those who are not willing will not be able to participate in the kingdom. That’s why there will be no comfort for them. It’s not that they aren’t welcome in the kingdom. It’s that they aren’t prepared for everyone else to be as welcome as they are. They aren’t prepared to give up their seat at the front of the bus and embrace the other passengers as their equals.
Two last points here. First, is this kingdom of God meant to be present or future? Obviously a large part of it is still future. Jesus came two thousand years ago and announced that the kingdom of God was at hand, but there is still poverty and sickness and injustice and oppression. Obviously, we still have to look to the day of resurrection for the fulfillment of a lot of these promises.
On the other hand, we have a lot of evidence that the early Christians caught Jesus’ vision and tried to live it out in the present. The early Christians in Jerusalem pooled their possessions so that everyone had what they needed and no one had too much. Not every church in the New Testament went that far, but it’s clear as we read the book of Acts and the New Testament letters that generosity was a major Christian value, and luxury and selfishness were frowned on.
And this leads to my last point. The church of Jesus Christ is called to be a signpost of the kingdom. We’re called to live into God’s future, rather than living by the values of this present age. Jesus said that God had sent him to announce good news for the poor, but the Gospel can only be good news for the poor if we’re willing to live by it ourselves, so that there are no poor among us. In other words, Jesus’ love and generosity is meant to infect the church, so that those who have in abundance share with those who don’t. This isn’t meant to be a legalistic thing we do because we’re forced into it. No, when Paul was raising money for poor Christians he told his friends in Corinth that ‘God loves a cheerful giver.’ (2 Corinthians 9:7)
And of course, God is a cheerful giver. Paul ends that chapter about giving with the words ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!’ (2 Corinthians 9:15) The love of God sent Jesus to the Cross for us, freely and willingly. We followers of Jesus are called to learn the same generous and sacrificial lifestyle. St. Francis summed it up years later when he said, ‘It is in giving that we receive.’ Let us pray that God will help us learn this lesson well, so that we can truly mean what we say when we pray day by day, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. Amen.