Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 6
20 Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

After a few weeks of bad press, you might want to curb your ambition to be a billionaire.

Do they pay enough tax? Should governments trade tax breaks for new jobs? Are they qualified for high office simply because they are rich? Should they be allowed to control so much of the world’s wealth? See, it’s hardly worth it, being a billionaire. Too many questions, too much scrutiny, and where would you keep all your stuff?

Ironically, the current richest man in the world, worth an estimated $125 billion, is a bit of a lightweight compared to other wealthy people in history, when their wealth is adjusted for inflation. John Jacob Astor was richer, making his fortune from the pelts of small furry creatures, and when that became less profitable, he bought up much of New York City. Henry Ford was richer than him, making cars, and Cornelius Vanderbilt was richer than him, in railways and shipping. Carnegie (steel) and Rockefeller (oil) were both three times richer than today’s titleholder, but they all look poor compared to Augustus Caesar, who controlled a fifth of the wealth of the Roman world, worth maybe four or five trillion dollars.

I’m going to come back to Augustus in a moment, but I shouldn’t trash the rich without mentioning some of the good they do. The library across the street was partly funded by the Carnegie Corporation, one of over a hundred in Canada to receive such funding. If you head down to the AGO, you will see Lord Thomson’s collection of paintings and little boats, a billionaire with a good eye and a thing for Cornelius Krieghoff. Even the church has benefited, with families like the Masseys and the Eatons founding charities and building churches.

So when Jesus says “woe to you who are rich” or “woe to you who are well fed,” he’s speaking within living memory of Caesar Augustus, the five trillion dollar man. Imagine owning a fifth of everything, every fifth house on your street, and every street, in every town, in the known world. So it would be easy to think that Jesus isn’t talking about us, the comparatively wealthy. Maybe he’s just saying ‘woe’ to Caesar, and everyone else in a really nice toga.

Or maybe not. 50 feet behind me is a walk-in clinic, giving us instant access to healthcare, something we tend to take for granted. Does that make us rich? Close to a billion people live in extreme poverty, meaning less than two dollars per day—does that make us rich? Over half the world’s population has no income protection program to fall back on—welfare, employment insurance and the like—does that make us rich?

While you answer that question in your mind’s eye, let’s look at the rest of the passage. This passage is part of the Sermon on the Plain, Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, but comes with one striking difference. It has a similar list of beatitudes (the “blessed are” sayings) but it also includes an equal number of “woes,” kind of anti-beatitudes, or warming markers. A quick glance might lead you to assume that these woes are like curses (cursed begin the opposite of blessed) but scholars say no— “woe to you” is more of a mark of God’s displeasure, like “sad for you” or “sucks to be you” as the kids might say.

Taken in summary form, you are blessed to be poor, hungry, weeping or hated, and the opposite (woed?) to be rich, full, laughing or well-thought of. In each case Luke gives us an example or a qualifier, like “woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” that either expands the thought or cites the opposite. In the middle of these statements he adds what amounts to an aside, a “message to the reader” on the topic of persecution:

23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

Recall that Luke is writing late, and the followers of The Way are already experiencing persecution. This sidebar comment offers some comfort to those who are feeling excluded or reviled, and points to the future hope of some reward. Luke is not saying that heaven is reserved for the poor, hungry, weeping or hated, only that those who endure suffering in Jesus’ name will receive unique care.

The woes, of course, are always more interesting, a kind of moral rubbernecking where we get to look on while God appears to withdraw favour from people and groups of people that don’t resemble us. The rich, the full, those who are excessively happy and well-regarded, especially those who don’t deserve such high regard. It becomes a sort of personality test, the extent to which we look at these as distant or close to our experience. Some are happy to view these as wholly-other, while some see themselves among the woes, if even for a moment at a time.

And this leads us back to the very subjective nature to categories of human experience. We may not be poor according to contemporary accounting, but we can feel poor, or diminished, or somehow other. We may not experience physical hunger very often, but many know longing, or the challenge of unmet needs. We may not be weeping like those who are truly weeping, but moments of sadness come—we wouldn’t be human otherwise. And the opposite, as I’ve said: we’re all rich, well-fed and given to laughter, if your comparisons are broad enough.

In effect, Jesus is capturing everyone at all times. We swing back and forth, different characters in the same human drama, experiencing the joys and the vicissitudes of life, often on the same day. So it becomes difficult to find ourselves in the passage, find the simple key that clearly defines who we are and where we are with regards to God’s favour. We need to look farther afield for insight, maybe beginning at the beginning.

In the garden, of course, there was no rich or poor, no one was hungry (before fruit season) and there was no cause for weeping. Famously, it was the radical 14th century priest John Ball who asked “When Adam delved (tilled the soil) and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” What he meant was that hierarchy and inequality are not our natural state, it was imposed on us. For this catchy slogan (and others) he was hanged, drawn, quartered, and displayed all over the kingdom.

When the people became slaves in Egypt (not endured servants as some might have you believe) they cried out and God listened to their suffering, calling Moses to free them with the power of God. Then the people found themselves in exile, weeping by the rivers of Babylon, unable to sing the songs of Zion when their captors made this cruel demand. Yet God offered them comfort, and a path to return, where the songs were sung again.

When Jesus met the sick, the sad, the tortured, he offered healing and forgiveness, comfort in the face of rejection and hope in the face of fear. He become the embodiment of God’s desire to find us at our more vulnerable moments and offer something—wholeness, reconciliation, a return to others. And this appears to be the key to understand all these blessings and woes: we move back and forth between vulnerable and the opposite, but God finds us in the first. Those who live in fixed state of vulnerability get God’s unique regard: a desire to comfort them and offer them a home.

The usual conclusion to sermons like this one are “go and do likewise.” Don’t do this and make sure you do that, live in the best category and avoid the other. Help others and great is your reward. So yes, do all that. But I want to add another conclusion, a little further than ‘go and do likewise’: explore your vulnerability. Some feel guilty for enjoying all they have, worried that somehow favour will rest on others. I would say that makes you vulnerable. Some give more and do more and spend the rest of their time worrying that they ought to give more and do more and I say that makes them vulnerable. And some are done with caring, maybe they have nothing left to give, the world has worn them down, and I say this makes them extremely vulnerable.

And we already know that God has unique regard for the vulnerable. In the midst of all the subjectivity that defines life on earth, God finds us at our most vulnerable moments and offers help. When we’re less vulnerable, it’s safe to assume that God is busy helping others, mirroring Jesus’ ‘the healthy are in no need of a doctor.’ But that’s always shorted-lived, and help returns.

Wherever we find ourselves, may God provide what we need when we need it: comfort, or even a little discomfort, and help to those in need. Amen.


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