Feb. 13, 2022
“Complicated Blessings” – Rev. Brent Gundlah

         In the mid 1970s parents owned a used Ford Country Squire station wagon. It was roughly the size of a cruise ship and had a loud eight-cylinder engine that got about two miles to the gallon of regular gas.

         Its exterior was painted a sickening shade of green with a matching vinyl interior that stuck to your skin in hot weather, and it had faded fake wood trim on the side and rear panels. It was a feast for the senses and a menace to the environment.

         But none of that mattered to my sister and me, because our sweet ride had something far more important to us: a rear-facing seat in the cargo bay that we used to refer to as the “way, way back.” This might not sound like a big deal now, but to the under-ten crowd in 1975 it was absolutely mind-blowing.

         On long trips, we were allowed to sit in the “way, way back” and look at the fronts of the cars behind us instead of the backs of the cars ahead of us for a change. We got to wave and yell and make stupid faces at all the unfortunate drivers who ended up having to follow us, while Mom and Dad, who were sitting a half mile away up front, got some peace and quiet. It was, as the saying goes, a “win-win situation” for the whole family.

         In retrospect, I realize that part of what made this experience so compelling was the opportunity to observe things from a different perspective. Suddenly, I could look in reverse and move forward at the same time; I could make eye contact with the person in the car behind me with my back to my parents who were sitting in front of me. Riding around in that jump seat in my parents’ Ford presented me with a novel way of looking at the world.

         In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus presents his disciples with a new lens through which they might see and understand some things they thought they already understood.

         These verses appear at the start of Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain. To put things in context, this scene takes place right after Jesus has descended from the mountain he had climbed in order to pray. While up there, Jesus called his “disciples” and appointed twelve of them “apostles.” Now he’s back on level ground, along with the apostles, the disciples and “a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.” Because the former were Jewish cities, and the latter were Gentile cities, Luke’s implying that what Jesus says and does here is relevant for everyone.

         In the midst of this chaos — with a desperate crowd reaching out toward Jesus to find healing — Luke abruptly changes focus; he tells us that Jesus looked up at his disciples to address them directly, to explain to them what ministering to the needs of this crowd, to the needs of the world, will really be like. And we get to eavesdrop on that speech.      

         Jesus begins with a series of four brief sayings commonly known as the “Beatitudes,” a term derived from the Latin word beatus, which means “blessed” or “fortunate” or “happy.” The form of these short blessings would have been familiar to Luke’s audience because they appeared throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and in other writings of the time. They show up in Matthew’s Gospel too, during the Sermon on the Mount, with some important differences (we’ll get to that later).

         Beatitudes were sayings that proclaimed someone’s privilege or good fortune: “Blessed are those who wear a mask and get vaxxed during a pandemic for they shall not get COVID,” for example. When used in a faith context, beatitudes described a particular person or people as being favored by God.

         But if the form of these blessings was no surprise to Jesus’s listeners, then the content of them had to be a shock. Blessed are the poor? The hungry? Those who weep? Those who are hated, excluded, reviled and defamed? What’s so blessed or fortunate or happy about any of that? Who would actually want to be one of those people. But Jesus is clear that these are the people whom God blesses.

         As I said earlier, another very different version of the Beatitudes appears in Matthew during the Sermon on the Mount. And one obvious distinction is where these two speeches actually happen.

         There’s a saying in real estate circles that says the three most important features of a property are location, location and location, and that’s kind of true here too — the setting of these two versions of the same basic story is worth considering.

         Matthew, situates his on top of a mountain, and this is no accident. Lots of really big things took place at altitude throughout the Old Testament, like when Moses presented God’s law to Israel. So if Matthew wanted to underscore the importance of what Jesus says, having him head up to mountain to say it was arguably a good way to do that. The story of Moses was familiar to Matthew’s first readers, and they would have understood that Matthew was encouraging them to see Jesus as the new Moses.

         But Luke does something quite different; he has Jesus come down from the mountain to preach upon a level place among the crowd. This idea, coupled with the gathering of Jews and Gentiles from across the region serves to underscore two essential ideas for Luke: the immediacy of Jesus’s message (it’s meant for us in the world we live in now) and it’s universality (it is meant for everyone). Luke takes the concept of Emmanuel — God with us — really seriously.

         This is all corroborated by Luke’s recounting of what Jesus says, which is far more direct and urgent than Matthew’s; just listen:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Matthew.

“Blessed are the poor,” says Luke.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” says Matthew.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now,” says Luke.

         While Matthew’s Beatitudes seem to be focused upon ethereal issues like the spiritual poverty and the hunger for righteousness, Luke’s appear to be concerned with immediate social problems like actual poverty and hunger.  But the disparities between these two versions of the Beatitudes beg the following question: Which one is right?

         Was Jesus up on a mountain talking to his disciples in private about spiritual things, or was Jesus down on the plain talking to those disciples in the midst of the masses about practical things?

         Was it both? Did Jesus preach different versions of his sermon in two places on separate occasions? I have to admit that I’ve done that myself.

         Was it neither? Did none of this ever actually happen? Or did each of these writers take basic kernels of fact and run in different directions with them to support of their respective agendas?

         I don’t know because I wasn’t there — and, I dare say, neither were you. At the end of the day, we’re left to work this all out for and among ourselves — and it’s totally understandable that we might disagree (and even change our minds) as we do that in our place and time.

         Maybe one of the reasons these two versions of the same story exist alongside one another in the New Testament is to provoke dialogue across differences. And we need to remember that stories can speak truth whether or not they happen to be factually accurate; at their very best, stories invite us to see all sorts of things in new and unique ways.

         One distinctive feature of Luke’s account of the Beatitudes is the woes — oh, those woes. Matthew gives us nine blessings, Luke just four. Luke chooses to counter those blessings with parallel woes — and they’re kind of uncomfortable. Small wonder people tend to focus on Matthew’s Beatitudes more than Luke’s.

         If you’re riding in the back of your limousine as you hear the Sermon on the Plain, it might not sound like particularly good news, but if you’ve ever been forced to sit in the back of the bus it probably does. Wherever you happen to find yourself sitting, Jesus’s description of God’s reign turns the world upside down, it levels the playing field, it changes the entire game — and that’s the whole point.

         People tend to listen to the “woes’ and understand them as being punishments — for being rich, full, happy or liked. For example, when Jesus says, “Woe to you who are rich,” your interpretation of this statement might vary depending upon how wealthy you are, but it’s typically construed as a threat of reprisal whether your reaction happens to be “Yay!” or “Uh-oh!” But I have to wonder whether it’s really that simple.

         What if these “woes” are ultimately the consequence of seeing the world through a human lens instead of God’s lens? If God’s reign is defined by no one being poor, by no one going hungry, by no one weeping, by no one being excluded, then those who derive their value from being richer or fuller or happier or more beloved than other people are going to be pretty disappointed when that reign is made real, when the game is changed, when the playing field is leveled.

         And maybe the discomfort that some people feel about Jesus coming down from that mountain, getting up in our faces, and taking us to task about our lack of care for the poor and the hungry and the sad and the hated among us stems from the possibility that God’s reign is not simply some abstract, distant ideal that we’re just supposed to wait around for, but one that we’re called upon to make real, right here and right now.

         Don’t you see? The game’s already different than we thought it was.