By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
February 17, 2019
Luke 6:17–26 (ESV)
Jesus Ministers to a Great Multitude
17 And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, 18 who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all.
20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! 23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
Jesus Pronounces Woes
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
There is something about the lifestyle of Jesus that always seems to surprise me. When we consider his life, we often think that his audience was always Jewish. This is common since he did speak in the lands of Israel. But in this passage, we get a glimpse into something more. People from all over Judea and Jerusalem and the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon came to listen to him. This struck me this week as I was contemplating this passage, so I got out a map. The lands of Tyre and Sidon are north west of Israel. Tyre was an ancient Phoenician city which is now located in Lebanon. Sidon is further north along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, also in Lebanon. These cities currently are currently the third and fourth largest cities in Lebanon. Israel has a long history with the area of Lebanon. At times they were allies and at other times enemies. And between these two cities was Zarephath the city Elijah went during the great famine and was fed by the widow. These were not Jewish people they were of Phoenician ancestry, they were Gentiles, but they were Gentiles whose history had witnessed the power of the God of Israel. Jesus is attracting a following of people that stretches throughout Israel and out into neighboring provinces. Which should remind us that the gospel is not confined to nations of men, that God’s grace and love is for all people.
I wonder if it surprised the people of the first century to find such a diverse gathering listening to Jesus. In places like Jerusalem it was more likely because Jerusalem was a religious magnet. People would travel to Jerusalem just to see the magnificent temple built to the God of the Hebrews. It was a city filled with wealth. The wealth and beauty of this temple eventually filled the rulers of Rome with envy. And when Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, the wealth of the temple was used to build many of the iconic structures throughout the city of Rome that still attract tourist today. But this is not that city, this is the Judean countryside. Although people loved Jerusalem, the rest of Israel was not as attractive. Sure, it had some vineyards and olive groves that could turn a nice profit, but it was not a center of culture. It had a few cities that made life bearable for the Gentiles, but to be stationed in Judea was to be forgotten. Jerusalem was this jewel in the wilderness. Yet a teacher from rural parts of Palestine was drawing people to the wilderness.
I think it is important to acknowledge this before we dive into the verses that follow. This crowd was filled with Jews and Gentiles. All were coming to listen to the teachings of Jesus. All were coming to have an opportunity merely touch Jesus to have their illnesses healed. Those that were struggling with unclean spirits were coming to be released from that bondage and Jesus did not make any distinction as to who they were. In other passages people from these northern regions were mentioned and, in those passages, we hear Jesus making seemingly rude comments like calling a Syrophoenician woman a dog, that woman was from this same area. Why was Jesus rude to her when he openly welcomed this crowd? The answer lies with the context, when that woman came to Jesus there was greater tension among the Jewish people that he was speaking to the Gentiles, and she was experiencing the discrimination of the crowd because of their nationalistic fervor surrounding Jesus and the Messiah. Jesus, if you did not know was a man that was filled with a sense of humor, and the exchange with her was poking fun at those that misunderstood his calling. Basically, Jesus is telling us all that to exclude people from the kingdom because of heritage, nationality, race, or any other characteristic that is out of the control of an individual has no place in the church. Jesus taught them all, and Jesus healed them all.
But what did he teach? The crowd was gathered there in the wilderness. Jesus was just prior to this up in the mountains praying, and he came down from that mountain to a level area. We are not told exactly where this area is, but it is likely the same plain where the fishermen dry their nets after their time at sea. Outside but near the city of Capernaum. Jesus comes down from the mountain and there is a crowd gathered, he turns around and he sees them all around up along the hillsides and on the plain. He greets them and he lifts his eyes. They had crowded around for the healing and now as they are astonished, and he basically has their attention secured he speaks what scholars call the Sermon on the plain.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” The first thing that we should recognized in this exchange is that there is a comparison. The blessed and those who receiving the woe are the opposite ends of a continuum. But what does it mean to be poor? I have struggled with these blessing and woes, because for most of my life I realized that I was not rich nor poor, I had been solidly in the middle somewhere. Meaning I never went hungry, but I also did not get what I wanted all the time. With this knowledge where do I fit? I would not be blessed nor would I be in the woe category. We struggle with really understanding these passages largely because we live in a culture where we have freedom. We live in a place where we have opportunities to make a living to some degree and if we need something, we can usually obtain it if we are willing to work for it. We live in a culture where there is a continuum of wealth. This was not always the case in ancient cultures. There were those that were dependent on others for their lives and those who had means. This is what poor and rich mean, dependent on others for your sustenance or having the resources available to you to survive on your own.
Where do you fall on this continuum? We can really look at it in various ways. Jesus is looking out at the crowd gathered along this plain and he can see all types of people. There are pharisees, fishermen, fellow carpenters, people from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, there are tax collectors, and maybe even a few soldiers sent to see why such a large crowd has gathered out in this rural part of the province. Jesus looks at them and he begins with blessed are the poor, the dependent and often exploited for theirs is the kingdom. In one-word Jesus has caused everyone to tense. In two paragraphs Jesus has challenged the entire worldview of the systems of mankind.
It is easy for us to look at these verses and say that Jesus is commanding us to become activists for social justice, but I think that is missing the point. When Jesus says these words, he is telling us that there are those that live dependent on the graces of others and there are those who have the means to provide. What he is wanting us to recognize is where we are. The poor are blessed because they are aware that they have needs, and the rich have pity because they are unaware. Does this mean that Jesus hates the rich? No, it means that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom because it is difficult for them to see that they are not self-sufficient.
When we are poor, when we are dependent on others for our welfare, we recognize that everything we have could be lost. If we were to lose our job how long would it take for us to lose the house, we are living in? If we are disabled what would happen if the generosity of our society were to evaporate? If we are retired how comfortable would we be without social security? If we work for others or receive our sustenance from some other entity other than ourselves, we are poor. Our livelihood depends on the means of others. The less income we have the more we recognize.
But what is often overlooked in this relationship is that there are people in the world who could probably survive for quite some time if they lost a job or retired from their labors. Many would say that those individuals would be rich. Those with means often forget something very important, they too are dependent. How did Bill Gates accumulate his wealth? How do the corporate executives acquire their salaries? How do those small business owners survive? Each of these in most cultures including our own would be seen as rich by many. They are rich because they seemingly do not depend on others. But if Microsoft did not sell a product to customers would we speak about Bill Gates? Bill Gates is dependent on his customers for his lifestyle. Just as every business owner is. Jesus says woe to the rich because often the rich do not recognize that they are just as dependent on others as the poor.
Blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are those that weep, blessed are those who are reviled. Woe to the rich, woe to the full, woe to those that laugh, and woe to those who are spoken well of. What is Jesus telling us? We need each other. Those that weep need others to mourn with them, to walk with them through the shadows. Those that laugh need others to help them realize that life is not always easy. Those that are hungry need others to share a meal with them and those that are full need other to share with, so they are aware that life is not always easy. Those that are reviled need others to encourage them, and those that are spoken well of need others to show them that life is not always easy. Those that are poor need others to help them provide for their families, and those that are rich need others to show them that life is not always easy. Jesus is telling us that we need each other.
The only way we can see the kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven is if we open our eyes and see those around us. The only way we can see the kingdom of God is if we are willing to look at the world around us from the perspective of someone else. The only time we can see the kingdom is if we take the time to see that of God in everyone and live the love that God has for them with them.
Jesus looked up at that crowd gathered on the plain and he saw just what we see today. He saw tax collectors taking more than required. He saw people engaged in business exploiting others. He saw people that lived off the generosity of others because of a disability. He saw fathers and mothers with hollow eyes because all they had went to feed their children. He saw Jews and Gentiles. He saw the accepted and the oppressed. He saw suffering and he saw plenty. He saw everyone on that hillside totally unaware of their true value, and everyone gathered on that hill was unable to see their true need, community.
Everyone has value because everyone is loved by God. God so loved the world that he sent his only son not to condemn the world but to save it. God loved each person to such a degree that he does not wish that anyone should perish but that all would have life everlasting with him. We have value. We have such value to God that Jesus chose to leave heaven to live among people like us, to teach us the ways of God, to show us how to participate in life with God, and he provided the means to that life through his death and resurrection. We all have value, yet we are all dependent.
Scripture tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We look at sin and we consider it to be a transgression of the law. But in reality, it is not recognizing the value we and others have to God. We all sin because we believe that we are more important than another. We all sin because we disregard our value to God. We all sin because we do not acknowledge our dependence on God and others. Every law in scripture revolves around the core principle that God loves us and we should love him and those that he loves. Every law, all ten or 613 however you look at it deal with how we love God, or how we regard ourselves of others. And Jesus says that all sin is forgiven, except one. That one sin that is not forgiven is the grieving of the holy spirit. What is that grief but rejecting to see that God loves all and we all are loved.
Jesus lifted his eyes to the crowd pronouncing his blessings and woes not because either end of the spectrum has more value than another. He pronounced those blessings and woes to open our eyes so we would be able to see that we need each other, and we need God to help us see the value of those around us. Do we see our value to God? Do those of us who weep at night because our lives seem so hard realize just how much God loves us and wants us to share our story to others so they can weep with us as well. Not for pity but for the simple fact that we need to realize that life is hard. Do those of us that cannot see how we will survive another month living in our current financial situation realize that God loves us and wants us to share our story, not for pity of others but so others can recognize that there is a need and we should all help each other. Do we realize that those that are spoke against and those that are speaking against them are equally valued by God and therefore welcome in any place that claims to honor him? Blessed are you and woe to you. And as we enter this time of open worship and communion as Friends, let us pray that as we lift our eyes today and throughout this next week that we will be able to see through the lifted eyes of Jesus. Our ever-present teacher and guide, the one who brings God to humankind and lifts humankind up to God through his life, death and resurrection. And let us turn to him and begin to walk again following his life and lifestyle of loving God, embracing the holy spirit and living his love with others.