Sermon on Luke 6: 17-26 (and Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1, 1 Corinthians 15: 12-20)
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts
Be acceptable to you
O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.
“A tree planted by streams of water.”
These are the words on the headstone of my father’s grave.
We chose them carefully after he died, seven years ago around this time in February.
One reason was that my father was able to recite their context, Psalm 1 in Hebrew.
He loved to show off a bit with it, given the opportunity, much to the embarrassment of his offspring.
But there is a deeper reason. My father had come to know the delight of meditating on God’s Word in his life. And he had found a stream of water, indeed the living water Jesus talks about in the Gospel of John, which carried and sustained his life through drought and dryness.
It is the voice of Wisdom, which joyfully burst forth in Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17: How blessed are those, who trust in the Lord. How happy are they who meditate upon his word, who draw inspiration and counsel for a well-ordered life from it.
Whoever plants their life close to this life-giving stream will be well.
It is always a special privilege to talk to people who have grown old in close proximity to this stream of life.
Their tree of life might not always look impressive and polished, you can see that branches were broken off and feel some very hard pieces of bark, metaphorically speaking, but at times you catch a glimpse of green leaves and of rich fruit. In my father’s case there was a freshness of spirit, a curiosity and alertness for people around him, and an ability to love and affirm deeply and warmly. I think many of us were attracted by the same qualities in Fr Simon, whose passing we mourn at this time.
How blessed the man, who puts his trust in the Lord, throughout a long life.
And how blessed are we, who know such people, men and women.
Today’s Gospel contains a similar structure of blessings and corresponding woes.
But it is not the righteous and the wicked who are juxtaposed as in Psalm 1.
Nor those who trust in the Lord and those who make mere flesh their strength, as in Jeremiah 17.
Instead we hear:
Blessed are the poor!
Blessed are those who weep!
Blessed are those who hunger!
Woe to the rich!
Woe to the well-fed, literally those who have stuffed their faces.
Woe to those who laugh!
The whole passage comes across like a sad joke, standing the words of Wisdom on its head:
“Whatever they do, it shall prosper”, the psalmist has joyfully called out.
And now we hear that it is the poor, not even the poor in the Spirit as in the Gospel of Matthew, but simply those who cannot meet their basic needs, who are called blessed.
Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
One might be forgiven to find such language rather cynical at first glance:
“Happy all you homeless and starving people who cry your eyes out with worry: You will be fed and made glad in a distant heavenly Kingdom.”
Or one might be forgiven to find this quite spiteful: Some underdogs announce the revolution, where the wealthy will be plundered and the oppressed can feast – with new injustices replacing old ones.
But we have to take a closer look.
First, it is not hunger or sadness or poverty, which is blessed. It is the people who hunger and weep and are poor. For Luke the poor are in a pole position to receive the Good News, together with the humble and lowly of heart. Together with the notorious sinners who know they are notorious sinners. All these groups are in a pole position to receive the Kingdom, well, simply because they need it and know they need it.
To them the Gospel issues a joyful promise: From now on, in the shadow of the coming and present Kingdom the hungry ones are blessed, not because they are better people, but because they will find a rich table prepared for them. And they will be the people who are first to sit down and eat.
The blessings and woes of today’s Gospel are echoing the song of Mary: “He has filled the hungry with good things. And the rich he has sent empty away.” (Luke 1:53)
But perhaps we wonder: why can it not just be the good news for all who suffer lack, a divine topping up so to speak so that everybody is on level footing again?
Why the woes?
There is something challenging and serious in Luke’s Gospel.
In the light of the kingdom of God everything is moving, nobody can just conveniently stay where they are.
Just like the poor, the humble and the penitent sinners are in a pole position to receive the Gospel, the rich, the arrogant and the powerful are in grave danger to miss it altogether.
This becomes hauntingly clear in the first “Woe”:
“Woe to you who are rich, because you have received your consolation.”
You have been paid what you were after, to the last penny.
The people addressed here are happy enough with the things money can buy.
And tragically, this is all they will ever get.
Because, you know, their hands are already full.
Their hearts are full. Their minds are full.
I think Paul deals with a similar problem, though he uses very different words. He has the rare problem of a perfectly happy and content congregation on his hands.
They seem to be well pleased with themselves and their new religion.
And they seem to be quite content to understand the resurrection in a merely spiritual way, something which helps them to cope better with the demands of life, to develop their full inner potential.
Resurrection of the bodies? They seem to have said. Urrgh. No thanks. Too gory. To speculative. Who is to say what really happens? Best to make the most of every day.
Paul gets very angry with the Corinthians, because they are satisfied when they should still be hungry. If you like they have spoiled their appetite for the good things of God’s Kingdom by munching on a lot of sweets.
“Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich, already you rule as kings” Paul says elsewhere in 1 Corinthians. (3:8a).
But this won’t do. A greater hunger is called for, because a much greater fulfillment is promised. The resurrection is about no less than the transformation of the whole person, mind, spirit and body, this is no less than the transformation of the whole creation.
“But now Christ has been raised from the dead, Paul calls out, the first-fruits of those who have died”, the beginning of the new creation (15:20).
There is a banquet ready for us, which far surpasses our greatest desires.
But how hungry are we?
There is a stream, which brings life in the driest desert – but how thirsty are we?
In Luke’s version of the blessings and woes, Jesus talks to the disciples.
This is different from Matthew’s beatitudes.
Blessed are you, my disciples, who are poor now.
Blessed are you, my disciples, who weep now.
To quote one of our Mirfield students, these words are really a “rallying call for the disciples, a bit like in the film Braveheart.”
The discipleship Jesus talks about is indeed not for the faint hearted.
Jesus tells those who follow him that they will be excluded, hated, misunderstood and slandered.
All this is “for the sake of the Son of Man” (6:22).
But note that they are called blessed. Note that they are told to rejoice and leap with joy.
I think this is the reason why totalitarian systems are often so nervous about Christians.
It is hard to make people afraid who leap like a young frog when they suffer exclusion.
It is hard to get people distracted or keep them quiet who are so very hungry that they reject the bags of sweets you give them.
Because that greater hunger they suffer for the sake of the Kingdom,
That greater thirst they suffer for the sake of the Son of Man
That deeper longing they undergo for the sake of the Gospel –
It will all be fulfilled in a way beyond imagination.
This fulfillment will come about “in heaven” as our text puts it, when God fully reigns and when God is all in all.
But this is not a kind of “pie in the sky” or the famous carrot, perennially held before our poor noses.
Luke gives us two beautiful scenes in his two books, where we catch a glimpse about what it looks like when the hungry are satisfied and when the satisfied become hungry for the Kingdom.
The first one is the famous feeding in the wilderness (Luke 9:10-17).
Like the tree, who finds the stream of life-giving water, the people gathered around Jesus in a deserted and inhospitable place are fed with bread.
They all ate and were satisfied, writes Luke, using exactly the same word as in the beatitudes.
The second scene is the beginning of Acts, which we recently had read to us again. (Acts 2:37-47; Acts 4: 32-37).
Here we witness scores of people joining the young church and are motivated to use their belongings in a different way.
They part with them and give the proceeds to the apostles. Or they use them for the enjoyment of everyone.
And instead of having the tables turned where the poor become rich and the rich poor we have a scene of contentment and equality.
“There was no needy person among them” Luke writes (Acts 4:34).
All this is expressed in daily meals, where the believers eat their food with gladness (2:46). There is an intense note of joy in these scenes, and I am pretty sure that some good apostolic jokes made the rounds, too.
As in the wilderness feeding, Luke leaves it open whether these meals are the Eucharist or a table where people eat an ordinary meal. I think for Luke, really, the two are inseparable.
So as we gather around the Lord’s table once more, may we be satisfied at the depth of our existence and may we leave hungry for the Kingdom.
Because Christ has indeed been raised from the dead and is meeting us in his feast.