The line between preaching faith and preaching fear is thinner than you might think. In Luke 6, Jesus says, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God...But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation." Is he trying to scare rich people into thinking that they will be left out of the reign of God? Is he trying to comfort those who lack resources in this life? Or is he trying to convince all of us how to believe in God?
It's Friday, and I don't usually post on Friday, but I didn't get a chance to write yesterday, and I am headed to diocesan Convention today, so I'm working. Plus, as my friend Steve Pankey noted on Monday, the opportunity to write on Luke's version of the Beatitudes doesn't come around very often. Matthew's version of these counter-cultural sayings only contains the "blessed" statements--the good news for the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. On top of that, as you can see in that brief summary, Luke also shifts the focus of the blessings from spiritual to material: "Blessed are the poor" vs. "Blessed are the poor in spirit." All of that to say, Luke takes the gloves off and pushes Jesus' preaching from a radical message of inclusion to an ultra-radical message of redistribution. Not only are the traditionally underprivileged people given a leg up in God's reign. The advantages that the privileged people have enjoyed evaporate.
The unusual sharpness of this message is reflected in the social media traffic I've seen among clergy colleagues. One asked a peer group how preachers in "rich" churches handle a gospel lesson like this one. Funny, I've always thought Jesus had tough words for rich people, but there's something about Luke's Beatitudes and the fact that it doesn't come up in the lectionary cycle very often that should make all of us who have a steady paycheck, a roof over our heads, and enough food to eat a little nervous.
It should make us nervous not because God is threatening to damn anyone who is financially secure but because having wealth makes it much, much harder to put our trust in God. After all, it's easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God's reign. The redistribution envisioned by Luke's Beatitudes isn't an earthly reset but a heavenly one. The point becomes clearer when we look at these parallel verses next to each other:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.What is the point? The point is that those who suffer in this life are blessed by God because God knows them and loves them and will remember them in God's reign. Jesus asks those who live on the margins of life to have hope and put their trust in God's promise. The challenge for those who are lacking, it seems, is to trust that things won't always be hard--that God will remember them and take care of them. Likewise, Jesus warns those who have plenty in this life that they have already received their compensation. A simple reading is that Jesus is telling us that you can either be rich in this life or in the next but not both. Simple is usually right. Maybe it's my privilege showing, but I wonder whether Jesus is telling the rich that temporal blessings are just that--temporal. If your consolation, reward, and hope are the benefits you receive in this life, you can't understand what it means to hope for God's treasure in the next. The challenge for those who enjoy earthly blessings, therefore, is to believe that God is their only true hope.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Blessed are you when people hate you...for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Yes, that sounds a lot like a stewardship sermon. I'm convinced that the most important spiritual thing that most of us can do is let go of our claim on wealth. I have good company, though, as Jesus seems to share that concern. You can't get into the reign of God if your hope is in your bank account, your paycheck, your insurance policy, or your 401(k). That much is plain. Do you have to sell it all and become poor? Maybe. Must you be willing to do that for the kingdom's sake? If you want to be among the blessed in God's reign, the answer seems to be yes.