Psychiatrist Robert Coles tells a story about a poor black woman in New Orleans who sells her body almost every night to wealthy old men in order to take care of her five children. And each night this woman takes half of what she earns as a prostitute and gives it to the nuns who run the local soup kitchen.
Coles asks the question, “Is this woman blessed or is she cursed?” From her perspective, most likely the answer is both. But from the perspective of today’s gospel lesson, she is more blessed than she is cursed.
The entire spectrum of biblical scholars—from conservative to liberal—agrees that the words of the Beatitudes form the very core of Jesus’ ministry. These no-nonsense words give to us his central wisdom, his focused vision, and his principle mandate.
Both the gospel of Luke and the gospel of Matthew record the words of the Beatitudes. But there are major differences in the two presentations. Matthew has Jesus leaving the crowd and going up a mountain away from the hubbub to share these words with just a few chosen disciples. Luke, on the other hand, has Jesus coming down the mountain, onto the plain, where the crowds surge around him, trying to touch him. They are trying to literally suck into themselves the power coming out of him.
Matthew has nine blessings. Luke has four. Matthew “spiritualizes” the beatitudes — blessed are the “poor in spirit.” Luke is blunt. “Blessed are the poor”—period. Matthew puts it all in the third person — blessed are “they.” Luke brings the words home — blessed are you — right here in the present.
Finally, Matthew keeps things on a positive note, focusing only on blessings. Luke matches the blessings with an equal number of curses. Luke reminds us that the opposite of blessing is woe and for God, both/and, not either/or is the way things are.
As is the custom in many worshiping communities, you responded to today’s readings: The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.” But did you, do we, really mean that? Are we truly thankful for these words from the gospel of Luke?
In his straightforward way Jesus tells us that those who are blessed, those who are “happy” according to another translation, are the poor, the hungry, the ones who are weeping. Blessed are those who are hated and excluded. And then to make matters worse, he says, “Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are full. Woe to you who are laughing. Cursed are you who enjoy the admiration of others.” You know, you never want to hear God say, “Woe to you.” Not good!
Friends, no matter which way we slice it, we are in the cursed group and not the blessed group, at least much of the time. Indeed, as The Message by Eugene Peterson suggests: “Some of you are rich, too bad for you; you have had all you will get.” So, what is going on here?
An old story is told about a Quaker who put up a sign on the vacant piece of land next to his house. It read: This Land Will Be Given to Anyone Who Is Truly Satisfied. A wealthy farmer who was riding by stopped to read the sign and said to himself, “Since I have all I need as a wealthy man, I certainly qualify. I might as well claim the land.”
He approached the Quaker to seal the deal. “And art thou truly satisfied?” the Quaker inquired.
I am, indeed. I have all that I need.”
“Friend,” said the Quaker, “if thou art satisfied, what dost thou want the land for?”
What does it take to make us satisfied? What does it take to make us “happy”? And is happiness the same as blessing?
In his book Making Sense of Suffering, Peter Kreeft suggests that the modern summum bonum is pleasure, control, and conquering suffering. Yes, the modern drive is to pit human power over against nature and to see suffering as scandal, and to rise above it at all costs. He goes on to remind us that the summum bonum of the Christian life is very different. It is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever — and sometimes that means entering and embracing a world full of suffering. In other words, happiness is not a warm puppy. It is not about feeling good, but about being good. Blessedness is not about the “good life.” It is about a life that is good.
The Hebrew writers have given us a very simple image this morning to understand the tension between “happiness” as the world defines it and “happiness” as God offers it. It is the image of a tree planted by streams of living water so deeply rooted in the ways of God that no matter how violent or desolate the world around us may become, we stay connected in a very deep and basic way — connected to the vast oceans of God’s grace.
In 1993 I went on a pilgrimage to the Middle East with a tour group. We were struck by the vivid difference between Galilee — the verdant, green, watered haven in the north of Palestine versus the Dead Sea region — the vast stretch of desolation, knee deep in barren salt, just a hundred miles south of Nazareth. The aquamarine sparkle of that water is dazzling with a kind of deathly beauty. But it is a no man’s land where the glaring sun and parched earth destroy any inkling of life close by, and the sparkling water is so full of minerals that no flora or fauna can live in it. That’s where it gets the name, the Dead Sea.
In this morning’s reading, when Jeremiah compares a shrub in the uninhabited salt land with a tree planted by water he is literally giving us a choice between life and death. Do we trust the dazzling desert of the world’s ways or do we trust the rich soil of God, constantly being fed by streams of living water? The choice is ours, but the consequences are clear. Rooted only in the ways of the world, we will quickly shrivel up and die. But rooted in the moist promises of God — in the words of the prophet — we “shall not fear when the heat comes,” and “in the year of the drought, we will not be anxious” and “our leaves will stay green and our branches will bear fruit.”
Jesus is saying two things to us today. First, he is saying that when we live out of vulnerability and need — out of our emptiness and not out of our fullness — it is then that we can connect with God and that God can give us what we need.
Jesus is not saying that it is bad to be rich or full, to be healthy, strong, or lighthearted. Rather he is suggesting that fullness and satisfaction often leads to self-sufficiency and self-absorption —a state of independence that distances us from God and leads us to glorify ourselves instead of the holy one who has given us life. We think we have no need of God. Ever hear the statement: there are no atheists in a foxhole. When everything is going well we forget about God. When we are desperate, we can’t stop crying out to God.
For several years, during my 40s, I stopped crying. I don’t know exactly why, but it may have had something to do with having gone through a really hard time in my life and I dried up, lost the ability to feel. I didn’t have the reserves to think about sadness, injustice, suffering, or vulnerability. I was
consumed with numbness. And yet I remember feeling sad from time to time, sad, because I couldn’t muster the tears. I couldn’t access my feelings and I had lost the ability to be vulnerable. I felt isolated from God, very alone.
These days, tears come easily to me as much in times of joy as in times of sorrow. And often my tears flow for the pain of others, not just for myself. I certainly don’t feel as “in control” as I used to.
But I do feel more human, much more connected to and dependent upon God. Life is somehow much richer. And, I understand why Jesus says “Blessed are those who weep.”
Recently there have been tears flowing around here over the deaths of some of our beloved. Some of you are watching beloved parents at the end of their lives, and the pain is excruciating, so the tears flow. Some of you are facing your own mortality because of serious disease, and tears of fear, rage, and sadness often threaten to drown you.
I am always somewhat surprised when people apologize to me for crying or seem embarrassed by their tears. Friends, I believe that our weeping is a gift. Our tears soften the suffering of the human condition. In a strange way, they connect us deeply with the mysteries of life and death. When we cry we release toxins from our bodies, and the psychological community tells us that crying causes the release of chemicals in the brain that help ward off sadness and depression. Tears are cleansing.
What Jesus is offering us today, what Jesus is inviting us to experience today, is the rich honesty of vulnerability and the deep soil of our own human need. And what Jesus promises is the nourishment of mercy and healing that God gives to us when we are rooted in the holy.
Our scripture goes on to give us a second even stronger message. Not only are we called to recognize our own need and dependence upon God. We are called to recognize the need and vulnerability of others. And then to offer to them, through our lives, the rich soil of compassion and justice. We are called to be in solidarity with the poor, the hungry, with those who are weeping. We are called to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.
Biblical scholars point out that the Beatitudes are what is called a “performative word.” These predictions about blessedness are not going to happen — they are already happening. This is not about what might be. This is about what is. This is God’s agenda, God’s vision, God’s kingdom. The reality described by the Beatitudes will happen, is happening, whether we choose to be part of it or not. Only a few of us are called to be the poor. A few more of us are called to work with the poor.
But all of us are called to be for the poor — because that’s what it means to be God’s people.
Friends, our scripture readings for today remind us that “human happiness” and “holy happiness” are often two different kinds of reality. Jesus is suggesting that “blessing” is more than enjoying ourselves. The goal of life is more than self-fulfillment. And prosperity is more than getting what we want. Happiness is to be open to God. Blessedness is to be fully alive and in harmony with God’s ways both in the good times and the bad. Let us be comforted and instructed by the words of the psalmist:
“Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
“Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on his law day and night.
“They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.
“It is not so with the wicked; they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
“Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.
“For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed.” (Psalm 1)
May it be so for you and for me as God’s righteous. Amen.