Blessings and Woes
Sermon in Eureka Church, Elsies River, Cape Town on 7 November 2010
Text: Luke 6.20-31
The text in Luke’s gospel comes through as a wake up call and is truly revolutionary even to us today. It is an utterly disturbing text to many of us and at the same time it prepares the way for true happiness and for true riches. So, instead of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount we get in Luke the Sermon on the Plains. But we can understand that we are talking about the one and the same occasion, the details of which we do not have. Jesus “lifted up his eyes” and spoke. In other words, it was a very particular moment, a moment of greatest importance and the disciples listened carefully. To their amazement, and you can imagine their facial expressions and how the hair stood out on them, they heard Jesus turn things around completely, and he did so by using four pairs of words, first in the form of four blessings, then in the form of four woes.
Blessed are you poor
Blessed are you that hunger now
Blessed are you that weep now
Blessed are you when men hate you
Woe to you who are rich
Woe to you who are full now
Woe to you that laugh now
Woe to you when all men speak well of you
Clearly, Jesus on purpose turns things upside down. Why does he do that? Well, Jesus has recently preached in the synagogue in Nazareth, which did not end very well, and he has recently addressed the fact that he has come for sake of the poor and destitute to set them free, quoting freely from Isaiah 61.1-6. And still I believe that the disciples were by and large unprepared for this bombardment of blessings and woes. The key verse seems to be v 24 where Jesus says that “woe to you who are rich because you have all the comfort you are going to get”. In other words, if your sole aim is to achieve a life of plenty of money, goods, comfort etc, if you are lucky, you may succeed, you may have your fill, so to speak. It is as if to say: you have had it. It is a life style that has been chosen, which may have some temporary benefits, but leaves you quite unprepared for other things, like misfortune, sickness, various sufferings and death.
It is not as if Jesus is saying that only the poor etc will become part of the kingdom of God, but rather indicates the blessings which the Kingdom in the person of Jesus brings to his disciples. He certainly presses the point and demonstrates that there are basically two choices. In other words, the gospel is not only for the poor but also for the rich. But the rich who receives the gospel would have to change one or two things. Looking at Jesus’ words now, I am amazed as I realise that what he is saying is not just for a few lunatics, who do not care about this world, it is not even only for the church, which has been called to be the salt of the world. No, what Jesus here is saying is a good start for a leadership manual anywhere, even in a JSE registered company. It is about putting one’s priorities right, yes it is about making the right choices from the start in life. Will you take the easy way which will give you immediate pleasure and profit? Will you take short cuts that are to your benefit but will leave others without? It is about a life that does not succumb to temptations of quick gain, a life that is principled, that has a long term view that has a proud, if still hard to attain goal.
To be a disciple you are promised with three things. First, you can be completely fearless – because you know that others cannot really do you harm, you may do more harm to yourself, and not even death is to be feared as a disciple. Second, you are absurdly happy – because you realise that the kingdom values that Jesus brings, will lead to a transformation that goes beyond the confines of this life. Third, you will constantly be in trouble – because you have been called to serve others, and those who are complacent do not like to be challenged (see W Barclay’s commentary).
Finally, before applying this text in three ways, it is necessary to see how Jesus re-interprets what has been said earlier in the sacred texts. The Old Testament may give you the impression, and rightly so, that wealth and riches may be a sign of God’s blessing over you. This was the case with Job, before he was sorely tested (by the Satan) and Abraham and the other patriarchs certainly developed a life style of such a kind. Jesus rather follows up on the Old Testament prophets and re-interprets the old texts; he does not destroy them, but fulfils them.
According to Jesus then, those who are poor, hungry, weeping, or hated, are the blessed ones. How do we understand this today? How do we apply these words? I will here talk about three things, in-house partnerships, evangelisation, and prophetic ministry.
An in-house partnership could be illustrated and applied thus. Imagine that a very rich man, maybe one of the black diamonds (not so few any longer), decides to marry a poor girl from one of the squatter camps in Cape Town. A number of questions would result, especially from the side of the rich family: is this really out of love, is she not trying to take advantage of the fact that he is rich, many would strongly discourage such a marriage and, make no mistake about it, there are very few such marriages around. Such a marriage could however be seen as a model (or metaphor) of how South Africa, and the rest of the world, has to go about creating real conditions for a lasting reconciliation. Only if the rich could marry the poor, only if the rich could enter a partnership with the poor will there be a situation conducive to real change. This could be said to be South Africa’s problem in a nutshell and it could be said to the world’s problem in a nutshell.
Secondly, we are called to do evangelisation. It is not about forcing or manipulating people who are weak into our fellowship, but we are called to offer ourselves and what we have as a church to others. We must, more than anything else, get over the tendency to only think Lutheran, denominationally. If we do the work of Christ, people will flock to us, especially those who are in predicaments of various kinds. This may seem as a paradox, but as a church of the poor there will be much room for others who are poor, and all will be enriched. The church is called to do evangelisation, inviting people to become followers of Jesus Christ. It is and will remain an offer, an invitation, an open door. Being followers of Christ, his love will have to shine through in our various engagements, in face to face encounters, in mouth to mouth talking and listening, so to speak. In doing evangelisation we do not make statistics the most important instrument in assessing whether we are successful or not. It is rather the quality and stability of the people whom we have and are getting that are decisive.
Thirdly, there is this prophetic ministry to which the church is called at all times. It is a ministry from the church to the world, and especially to those in power, be it political power or money power, in short to those with power and wealth. In a time of lots of lies and falsehood, in a time when many things are not done transparently, truth telling has become paramount. However, the aim should never be to exclude or marginalize those in power, even if that might be the impression created. Not even the old apartheid leaders should have been approached in such a way. The ultimate aim in all outreach work of the church, including the prophetic ministry, is to bring others closer, to rein in those who have deserted us, to include, to embrace. But that cannot be done by force, but only through love. It can only be done if the counterpart is willing to share. To play on words, in order to rein in, one first has to give people free rein. You cannot force anybody into the kingdom of God.
There is a special dimension to this third kind of ministry. The church must speak prophetically to those in power, to those with power. But at the same time they are also people who need God, who ultimately need a church where they can worship meaningfully. Has the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa had a hard look at this? Do we help those who are elected to positions on various levels to remain or become part of our church so as to help them to minister in their places for the sake of the people and to the glory of God? To say the least, there is a potential for such work here in Cape Town. The church must start the good work and show those in power that those who are poor, hungry, weeping, hated are the people that have to be taken seriously; they are the ones that should enjoy the blessings “which the Kingdom in the person of Jesus brings to the disciples” (Peake’s Commentary on the Bible). They are the ones whose life conditions cannot be condoned but must be corrected. But in being corrected by those in power, they also point at what really matters in life, the long term view, eternal life, the life that Jesus Christ shared and shares with us in word and sacrament.