This morning’s gospel sounds a little alien. We are so much more used to reading Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes. Luke’s shorter and more threatening version of Jesus’ words to his disciples is disorientating – dissident. Even the location for the sermon is different. Matthew has Jesus teaching from a hillside. Luke sets him on a plain – on level ground.
As Americans, Matthew’s version, though longer, is infinitely more comfortable. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” provides us with some hope for ourselves. We may not be materially poor but we can identify ourselves with spiritual poverty without too much difficulty. Luke’s “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation,” is hard to be enthusiastic about. Even if we don’t always feel rich, we are more prosperous than the rest of the world, and, as the richest nation of the world, we are hyper-sensitive about our own lack of provision for the indigent poor and the uninsured sick.
Jesus is speaking of the realities of human life. There are poor people right next to this church. They are hungry and anxiously waiting for food sufficient for this day. There are broken hearts all around. Only last week some poor, despairing man jumped from a third floor building on Hanover Avenue, and we hardly noticed. Luke provides us with no spiritual escape hatches. Jesus is describing what is.
Before we start feeling depressed or angry, before we turn away from these words, let’s try to enter them without guilt about our prosperity, dread about what we might be expected to give up, or fear of being asked to solve the problems of the world.
Jesus, having just chosen the twelve apostles immediately prior to this event, comes down from the mountain to be with the great crowd of humanity standing on the plain below. Jesus comes among us. There, amidst a great multitude of people, Jesus sets about teaching and healing them. They have come to listen. Presumably there is something attractive about the man who speaks such strange words and more, demonstrates a remarkable power to heal. Luke tells they all tried to touch him. In touching him, they hoped to share in whatever it was he had that they so much wanted. Here they encounter someone who can fill their aching emptiness. A man who has chosen to share his love.
Jesus, looking at his disciples, those who have already chosen to walk his way, begins to speak of that mystery – of what he has to share. He is speaking especially to the poor. It is plain Jesus’ ministry is most particularly to the disenfranchised, marginalized persons of the world. Why is that so? It is so because what Jesus was about was love. Love of God, love of neighbor, love of self – which in the end means love of enemy. And love, of its nature, goes where is most needed.
As a young girl I was confirmed by Bishop Leonard Wilson of Birmingham, England. Bishop Wilson was a difficult, irascible person, mainly because he spent his life in a great deal of pain. He earned those pains as a direct result of his love for others. He was a special hero to me and many others. During the Second World War, he had been imprisoned by the Japanese. During his incarceration, he ministered to his fellow detained Christians, smuggling consecrated bread and wine to each prisoner.
He was tortured by his captors. One of his tormentors became infuriated by the passivity of Bishop Wilson’s response and screamed at him, “Why do you refuse to curse me? I am killing you, but you do not curse me. Why do you not hate me?” Looking his tormentor in the eye, Bishop Wilson replied, “Because you are my brother.”
Years later, long after he had been liberated, Bishop Wilson was conducting a confirmation at his cathedral. Looking down, he saw he was laying hands on his tormentor.
To the end of his life, Bishop Wilson suffered the pain of those wounds but he knew also the joy of God’s transforming love. His suffering became the means of another transformation – in the same way Jesus’ love transforms us today. Bishop Wilson’s suffering was Jesus’ suffering love. There can have been no mystery for Leonard Wilson in Jesus’ observation, “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 in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.” Leonard Wilson did not choose his suffering, but he turned it into love.
Likewise, a group of wealthy women in Calcutta asked Mother Theresa how they might help the children of that city. She responded that they should provide food. They gathered poor children in a stadium and set a boxed lunch before every child. In amazement they watched while, after the blessing, each child sat, box unopened, waiting to be dismissed. Puzzled, the women asked Mother Theresa why their good food had gone untouched. “They are waiting,” she said, “until you tell them to go. Then they will take the food and share it with their families at home.” “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” I wonder who was fed what and who received the most on that hot and sticky day in the poorest city of the world.
The truth is that these people knew about love. They had heeded Jesus teaching to us to love and it bore fruit in their lives and in the eyes of others. We would like a world without suffering – and so, I dare say would God – but suffering is with us and only love can, without cheapening its reality, transform it into something else.
It cannot help but strike us that generally we do not suffer for our faith nor, by the grace of God, can count ourselves among the perpetually poor and hungry. Yet we do struggle with our own lives and seek ways to make our faith real too.
Jesus understood this dilemma. He understood that our money, our material prosperity, our comfortable homes, good food, and the flattery of others can dull the spirit. Wealth can be the loneliest experience of all. Wealth often divides us form our fellow human beings. We become afraid to confess our anxieties, our troubles, our need for love. Successful people aren’t supposed to have needs so be careful to hide them. So guard that wealth and keep on smiling – even if your heart is breaking.
When we measure our success by material achievement and conventional recognition we become possessed. You may recall that the Sunday Times Dispatch published an article describing the world of investments in New York where otherwise quiet, sane men and women are obsessed not only with the making of money but also with ensuring that their colleagues do not make more money and achieve more success than them. Thus a base salary of $120,000 to $150,000 a year was considered low and a bonus at the end of the year of $85,000 pitiful – particularly if someone else was awarded $100,000. The entire tone of the article suggested a level of human depravity of biblical proportions. I could imagine that those Old Testament prophets would have had a fine old time with that kind of lifestyle. But the tragedy lay in the destruction of ordinary human beings. No one, living such an experience, could emerge unscathed, while the distortion of values and elimination of compassion calls those individuals into an emptiness for which we can only find the world hell.
Yes, Jesus speaking on that plain understood us very well. Some of us are poor and some prosperous, some popular and some lonely,
some are socially acceptable, others live on the margins, but, wherever we find ourselves – should we choose to follow Jesus – we choose to know our lives as gift.
Our circumstances are different, but each life is precious and, whatever the circumstances, we can depend on the fact that we are loved by God in a world where Jesus commands us to love one another. It matters not whether you are rich or poor, but it does matter how we follow.
The decision to follow is a decision for life. Our Lord invites us down the path of life. It is a life not bound by possessions, achievement, status, education, health, or wealth. For, as Jeremiah writes, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit. The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse, – who can understand it? I, the Lord, test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.”
It is life in which there will be death and hurt, mistakes and regrets, but it is also a life that is more than all those things for it is an invitation to joy.