You can find an audio and video recording of this meditation here.
Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad and rejected. Woe to you who are rich, satiated, happy and popular. You’ll get yours. Boom. That’s the Gospel for today in a nutshell, right?
Is this text really telling us that we’re bad if we are financially and emotionally doing okay, even that God is going to get us back for all our ill-gotten wealth and health? And, furthermore, just what does this passage have to do with day in which we remember our loved ones who have died, other than the brief mention of those who mourn?
I wondered the same when I read this passage for today, and I took it as a sort of challenge to find out how this Scripture fits with this Sunday. So let’s start with the main words that are repeated several times in this passage: blessed and woe. As Scripture scholar Matt Skinner says, “‘blessed’ has become a very churchy word with little meaning for most people.” The Greek word translated here as blessed, makarios, is sometimes translated as “happy” but that’s a pretty anemic word nowadays. He says “unburdened” or “satisfied” is probably closer to the original intent. Unburdened are you who are poor, for yours is the kindom of God. Satisfied are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
As for the word “woe,” it’s definitely intended to form a sharp contrast to “blessed.” But it doesn’t mean“unhappy” and certainly not “cursed” or “damned for all eternity” which is, I think, how many of us might hear it. Let me be clear: These blessings and woes are not referring to rewards or punishments coming in the afterlife. This passage is not saying that you who are poor and hungry and sad are going to heaven, and those of you who are rich and full and happy are going to the other place. In Luke, Jesus is very clear that the reign of God is already here. It’s a present reality. It’s not about the afterlife.
Instead, Skinner says, we should hear the word “woe” as something more like “yikes” or “look out.” Jesus is trying to the attention of those who are listening, not condemn them. Jesus is saying that those who struggle will be satisfied, will be unburdened in this life, and those who find their lives to be enjoyable and easy should “look out.”
Why might this be? What’s so wrong with having an easy life, at least at present? Jesus is living in the upside-down kindom. He’s living in a world where those who are first shall be last and the last shall be first. Where those of low status, those who are powerless, disenfranchised, are lifted up and where those who have it all are put on par with everyone else. He’s living in a world where the despised — the “impure,” the rejected, even those who have consorted with the enemy like tax collectors — are welcome to the same table with those who are respected and respectable, where they are all welcomed into a new community, a new social reality.
For those of us who are currently poor in spirit or materially, we will experience satisfaction, an unburdening of what burdens us in this new, liberating community. Here, we will find a community who will sing to us (sing): “I will weep when we are weeping; when you laugh, I’ll laugh with you.” Here, we will find people who will help us make the rent, find asylum, mourn with us when a loved one dies, bring us food when we are sick.
And what about those of us who may not be currently poor in spirit or materially? Jesus is urging us to look out, because being satisfied and satiated can actually be dangerous for our souls. Those of us with financial security and secure positions in the world may be lulled into thinking that we’re self-sufficient, competent people who don’t need to depend on anyone else. We’re the people who give, not the ones who receive, right? We’re not the vulnerable. We’re here to support the vulnerable, right? Those of us who “have it together” may be lulled into believing that we know how the world really works, and that we don’t have everything to learn about the way the world really works from someone who is poor or disenfranchised or suffering. Those of us who can satisfy any hunger as soon as the urge hits may not realize how absolutely, utterly dependent we are on the Creator, on creation, on others.
And those of us who have never known deep sorrow or loss may be unaware of the treasures that lie in those depths. (This lovely phrase is from Debie Thomas’ essay on this Scripture.) I feel blessed that I was able to learn of those treasures when I was fairly young. When we were all in our early 30s, the wife of one of my best friends was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and Mark and Mev allowed me to walk with them over the year and a half of her illness. One afternoon, I was “on” with Mev. It was about two months before she died, after she had lost her speech. She signaled that she wanted to be pushed in her wheelchair out to the porch of their apartment in St. Louis. She breathed deeply, taking in the bright blue winter sky and puffs of white clouds. A red bird landed on a tree near us, and she pointed to it. I wondered what she was pointing out — it was so ordinary — and then I really looked. “The red against the blue sky is beautiful, isn’t it?” I said. Mev, who was a photographer, nodded vigorously, delight in her eyes. We did this a few more times, Mev pointing to perfectly ordinary things, me naming. That afternoon, she gave me eyes to see how utterly beautiful the ordinary world is. Like: Look out! This world, that tree, that bird, is never to be taken for granted.
After Mev died, Mark’s mantra became: “Life is precious. Life is short. Life is sweet.” He had it written on a piece of paper in big letters near his desk. And when I was confronting some pain, some challenge, some anxiety, he would talk it through with me and then, often, say: “Life is precious. Life is short. Life is sweet.” Like: Look out! Be glad that you are alive to have to deal with this. Be glad that we are here together, talking.
Knowing that we are all going to die, that we are mortal, that those we love are mortal — this helps us touch into the humility I think this passage is calling us to. Those of us who are struggling are often more aware of our need, our vulnerability, our humble-ness. We know we need God, each other. Those of us who aren’t struggling as much may need that call to humility, that reminder that we are all vulnerable and in need of what others have to give, that we are incomplete without each other, that every breath, every bird, is a gift from God. Amen.