The Unhappy Beatitudes

First in a Series on Jesus’ Other Sermon,
Delivered August 1, 1999 by Rev. Jerome D. Cooper

Sermon Text:
Luke 6:20-26
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 men 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 fathers 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 all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated
the false prophets.

You have probably heard of Galileo and how about 400 hundred years ago he argued that Aristotle was wrong about gravity. If you took two objects with one heavier than the other, Aristotle had said if one was ten pounds and the other was one pound, the ten-pound object would fall ten times faster. Well Galileo said, ‘No. They will fall at the same speed.’ But nobody paid any attention to him. They thought that he was a little crazy. They simply dismissed it, because obviously he was wrong. But then he climbed up the leaning tower of Pisa. He took with him two objects, one heavier than the other, and he dropped them over the edge. To the amazement of the crowd, the heavier one did not fall faster than the light one.

Now this morning we are not in science 101. The point here is that sometimes you too have heard somebody say something that you thought was just plain wrong, maybe naive, misguided, or possibly even stupid, and you dismissed it. And you came to find out afterwards that what they said was actually true.

Well, in this morning’s passage of scripture, Jesus says something that just doesn’t seem right. In fact, if anybody else said it other than Jesus, we would be tempted to just dismiss it as somebody who is just a little off the far side. Who is being just a little bit extreme.

This morning we are going to look at Luke, chapter 6, starting at verse 20. Specifically, the next four weeks we are going to work through what is often called the Sermon on the Plain. What I am calling ‘Jesus’ other sermon.’ It is not a sermon that we read very often. But you will notice that it begins with beatitudes, just like the Sermon on the Mount began with beatitudes. But you know, it is funny, I have seen whole books written on the beatitudes in Matthew. They are often some of people’s favorite verses. I even have a plaque with the beatitudes that my mom made for me and which hangs in my office at home, because they have been so meaningful to me.

But it is interesting, I have never seen a whole book written on Luke’s beatitudes. I have never seen them put on a plaque and put on the wall of a pastor’s office, or anybody else’s wall for that matter. Because they are not the comfortable beatitudes that we find in Matthew’s gospel in the Sermon on the Mount.

After that introduction, why don’t we see what it actually says and we can judge for ourselves how comfortable they feel to you as well. Please turn with me to Luke, chapter 6, starting at verse 20.

Jesus looking at his disciples, he said: Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 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. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. 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. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.

May the Lord add his blessing to this reading from his holy Word. Let’s join together in prayer before we move any further:

Lord we thank you for the gift of scripture, the gift of your Word to us. Lord we also thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit that you give to us, that we might not only understand the Word, but that we might apply your Word to our lives, that we might be truly changed, more and more, into your image. So change us now through these your Words. For we ask it through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Well, wonderful beatitudes, huh? Just give you the warm fuzzies don’t they? When we are confronted with these words, we are confronted with the question, “What do they mean? What can they mean?” Jesus can’t really mean what he seems to be saying can he?

You see if we take these at face value, ‘Blessed are you who are poor…’ what would that mean for us practically? Does that mean that all of us ought to choose poverty in life? Does it mean that we ought to wish poverty on other people so that they might be blessed? If so, our Social Action Committee is out of a whole bunch of work. Does it mean that as we gather around the dinner table as a family to pray, that rather than giving thanks we ought to apologize or repent that we are about to fill ourselves and end our hunger? Does it mean possibly that God actually loves the poor more than the rich? Because it sure sounds that way.

In order to begin to answer these questions let us take a look at the gospel of Luke up to this point, and see the context that we are dealing with. In terms of poverty, we remember that Jesus came from a poor family. We see this in Luke, chapter 2, verse 24, when Joseph and Mary went to the Temple to offer a sacrifice when Jesus was a new child. The law gives two different possibilities for what to sacrifice, one for normal people and one for the poor; and we find Mary and Joseph sacrificing the offering of the poor.

We also find the words of Mary. Remember the Magnificat? That is the song that Mary sang as she was visiting her kinsman Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. As she seems to be filled with the Holy Spirit and praising and singing this song – we call it a song, it actually says Mary spoke these words, but they are in poetic form – but she speaks these words in verses 52 and 53 of chapter 1: “God has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.” Sure sounds like God taking the side of the poor, and not the rich.

Then we move to John the Baptist and his ministry. You remember John in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He was laying it on pretty hard with the folks and saying, ‘You have got to repent. If you don’t repent, all is lost for eternity.’ The people responded to him and they asked him, saying, ‘What shall we do then in response to this?’ And John answered, ‘The man with two tunics should share with him who has none. And the one who has food should do the same.’

So, what does it mean to repent of our sin and turn back to God? The very first thing that John says in terms of the consequences, is that we share with those who are in need. We give our food to those who are poor. We give up what we have for the sake of others. It is an economic response to a spiritual reality.

And then finally, we find Jesus and his first statement of public ministry . As he goes into the synagogue in his home town, he opens the scroll of Isaiah to read. And in chapter 4 of Luke, verse 18, we find Jesus’ self description of his ministry. ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to everybody.’

No, actually that is not what it says. That is only what we want and expect it to say.

‘The Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. To proclaim freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, release of the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Even Jesus sees his own ministry as preaching good news to the poor.

Now we are very good at spiritualizing words like “poor.” That is why we like the first beatitude in Matthew chapter 5, verse 3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But that is not what Jesus says here. Jesus is not talking about the poor in spirit. He means the literal poor.

The next question we need to ask is, “what is the general context within which we find this sermon?” Here we find a couple key things. First of all, this is the first actual preaching of Jesus recorded by Luke, other than what I just read for you from what he said in the synagogue about his calling, his mission. But now he has just called the twelve disciples – right before this in the previous verses – verses 12-16. He has called together the twelve disciples, and now he is beginning his first sermon. In other words, in this sermon we find Jesus talking about Discipleship 101.

Now it is true that we have seen a little bit of teaching from Jesus already in chapters 4, 5, and 6; but it has always been in response to conflict; so therefore, Jesus was not picking his own topic. So the second point is this: in this sermon, for the first time, Jesus gets to choose what he wants to talk about.

So we find here in this passage: 1) Jesus’ first sermon to his new disciples about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ; and 2) It is the first time that we find Jesus choosing his own subject for teaching. Both of those ought to alert us to the fact that this is important teaching. That is why during these four weeks we will be going through the whole sermon. But we are back to where the sermon begins, “Blessed are you who are poor…”

Next in understanding the context and what Jesus means is asking who Jesus was speaking to. Who was in Jesus’ audience? It was certainly not the rich. In general, it was the poor who came to see Jesus, to hear him, to be healed by him, because they felt that his ministry message was truly good news for the poor, the powerless, those who were at the lowest rung of society.

But in addition to just the general poor – to whom this certainly would have sounded like good news – more specifically, it says that he was speaking to his disciples. Were his disciples poor? Well, if they weren’t before he called them, they were afterward, weren’t they? Because when he called them, he asked them to give up their previous life and to follow him. And so we find some of them as fishermen leaving their boats and nets and following after Jesus. We find Matthew the tax collector leaving his tax booth and simply following Jesus. And so in a very real way, as he is speaking to his disciples, they are people who have become poor for the sake of Jesus Christ. And so as they hear these words, “Blessed are the poor,” it is an encouragement to them. They have become poor for him, but that is not cause for woe, it is cause for blessing.

Not only do we find that they have left things to follow Jesus, we find that pretty soon Jesus is going to ask them to give up even more. When he sends them out later in Luke, into ministry, he sends them out into the towns and the villages of Israel. But what does he give them? What does he tell them to take along with them as they go? No money. No food. And wherever they go, if they are not received, if they have been rejected, knock the dust off of their sandals and move on. He is preparing them now by this sermon for what it will mean to be his disciple.

Did you realize that the only miracle that Jesus performs which is found in every single one of the four gospels, is the feeding of the five thousand? Now what is that all about? It is about people who are so hungry to hear the words of Jesus Christ, that they forgot that lunch had passed them by, and that dinner was about to do the same. And they were hungry. Sometimes the consequence of following Jesus is, in fact, literal hunger.

What about Jesus? In the wilderness tempted for forty days. At the end of that time, he was what? He was hungry. And the first temptation that Satan gave him on that last day was, ‘If you are hungry and if you are the son of God, make bread and eat.’ Well if Jesus had said, ‘Yeah, you are right. I don’t need to be hungry,’ and made bread for himself, where would we be today? But Jesus, out of his obedience to God, encountered poverty and hunger, weeping and rejection. All for our sake.

And in this morning’s text, Jesus was preparing his disciples that they could expect pretty much the same thing. But that they should not be discouraged by that. But rather realize that when they find themselves in that position, they are to be considered blessed. In fact, we find this explicitly in the fourth beatitude, “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you, and reject your name as evil.” Not because it is a good and noble thing for people to reject you for just any reason. It goes on to tell the reason for that rejection: “because of the Son of Man.” The Son of Man being Jesus, himself.

Rejection is not good in and of itself. Nor is he saying that poverty and hunger are good in and of themselves. If they were, then the promise to those who are hungry would not be, ‘ because you will eventually be well fed.’ The point is that when the kingdom comes in its fullness, then poverty will be erased; then hunger will be eradicated. There will be no more rejection or weeping, but laughing and love and acceptance.

But we don’t live there yet. And so in these beatitudes specifically, we find the disciples being called blessed, when as a consequence of their obedience in following Jesus Christ, they become poor, they encounter hunger, and weeping, and rejection.

Now you might be thinking, ‘Whew! That’s good. We have just explained that away so that I can stay comfortable in my wealth. It is just that God hasn’t called me to be obedient in a way that makes me face poverty or hunger. So I am safe.’

But Whoa! that is not exactly the point here. In fact, we need to move on to the Woes – the second half Jesus’ opening. You see, Jesus doesn’t simply say, ‘If you happen to become poor while following me, just remember you are blessed. But if you happen to stay rich, more power to you.’ He doesn’t say that at all. He goes on to say something we wish he hadn’t . He says, ‘Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now… Woe to you who laugh now… Woe to you when all speak well of you…’

These are hard words aren’t they? Now just to clarify who he is speaking of when he talks about the rich. I can say with very little doubt that the vast majority of people sitting here today, or standing as the case may be, are counted among the rich in this verse. You and I are the rich. The rich in this context are both those with worldly wealth as well as worldly power, and you and I have both. Now we can always turn to others who have more than we do; but for a taste of reality just look around you, whether you only look around at Baltimore, or for an even more extreme comparison you look around the globe. Either way, we here today are rich in the things of the world. We are the ones who are comfortable, who do not worry about hunger unless we have chosen to be hungry because we are fasting for a day or two. So these words are to us, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.”

Now if we interpret these words in the same way that we interpret the blessing, then what we are going to say is, ‘Well, just as the beatitudes weren’t actually saying that the state of being poor is what is blessed, but rather it is when we are poor for the sake of Jesus Christ in obedience to him, maybe these woes are saying that it is not so much the very fact of being rich that is woeful, but it is when we are following after and chasing those things rather than seeking Jesus Christ. So when we are seeking our comfort and putting our confidence in riches, then that is the only confidence and the only comfort that we will have. And ultimately, if we laugh now because we find that our lot in life is treating us well and we feel good about it, and we are comfortable staying where we are, and that is what we really wanted out of life, then that is all the laughing and all of the joy that we are going to have, because after this life ends there will be only weeping.”

I think that is true. That is part of the true interpretation of these woes, but I believe it is also more than that. Jesus isn’t just saying, ‘If you seek these things you will be sad; and if you lose them following me you will be happy.’ There is a real trajectory to what Jesus is saying here and it is found in the contrast, ‘Blessed are you who are poor… But woe to you who are rich…’ There is something positive about the poor and something negative about the rich that is hard for us to really deal with, or to fit into the understanding of life that we have built around us.

This is not just an ‘If you are rich be sure that is not what you are seeking’ perspective. That is not what Jesus says here. ‘Woe to you who are rich.’ He confronts us. It is a dire warning for us. You see, you and I are faced with choices every single day of our lives. Sometimes we don’t even realize we are faced with a choice. And very often, we simply make the choice that is most comfortable. That maintains the status quo. We make the choice that protects what we have, and hopefully even adds to it a little bit. But that is the way of the false prophets that Jesus mentions.

The reason the false prophets were treated well in the history of Israel is that they told the people what they wanted to hear. When the Jews were taken into the Babylonian captivity for example. The false prophets said it would be over in a matter of a couple years. But Jeremiah told them that they would be in captivity for more than a generation, so they better settle down and make the best of it. False prophets proclaimed “peace,” while true prophets preached repentance and turning from sin and complacency and self-seeking. Now who would you want to listen to? Most of us prefer the voices of the false prophets telling us that everything is fine with our lives and that we don’t need to shake things up. And the voices of the false prophets can come from outside of us, in the culture – even in the church – or from inside our own heart and head, as we tell ourselves that all is well.

And so we go about life making our choices. Sometimes we make those choices consciously, but most often, we probably make them unconsciously. It is just the way things go. It is just the way that we assume life works. But if we are disciples of Jesus Christ, that means more than just knowing who Jesus was and accepting his love for us – his payment for our sins on the cross. Those are essentials, but they are not enough to be a true disciple of Jesus. A disciple is one who follows in the footsteps of the master. And Jesus over and over again tells his disciples that that is what they are to do. To follow in his footsteps. And Jesus made very intentional choices throughout his life, so that it is not just his words that challenge us. It is his very life. It is his very way of living that confronts us. He chose poverty for our sakes. He called his disciples to choose poverty for our sakes.

So is it possible to be rich and still be a Christian? I believe so. Certainly in some other parts of scripture in the New Testament we are told, ‘Command the rich of this world not to be arrogant… but to be generous, storing up treasure in heaven.’ But we are also told in another New Testament letter, ‘Listen you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you!’ So it is possible to be a Christian and to be rich, but that is not the norm that Jesus gives to us. The norm that Jesus gives to us is the sacrifice of what we have. The sacrifice of all we have to God: for the sake of God, and for the sake of others. And to you and to me who are rich in this world, this may not be very comforting.

In some ways it doesn’t seem like good news. But it is good news to the poor. You see these words to the original disciples were both comfort as well as challenge. They were challenging to the disciples in the same way that they are challenging to us. Because nobody likes to give up what they have. None of us do. It is always easier to defend and keep what we have, rather than to learn how to give it away. So that is the challenge, but it is also a comfort because it tells us that when we become a Christian it doesn’t mean that everything in life is just going to move along nicely.

I have certainly heard of seminars (although I have never been to one), and I have read articles and books for Christian businessmen that if you simply put biblical principles into practice in your business, you will be successful. Is that what the Bible says? It actually seems to be almost the opposite of what the bible says. I am not saying that we shouldn’t put Christian principles into practice, but what I am saying is that I know of people who have put them into practice in their jobs and businesses and they have paid the price. It has not brought worldly prosperity. It has often done the opposite. I am not saying that it will never bring prosperity. There are so many different situations and contexts and circumstances to make statements like that.

But the point is, as we follow Jesus we need to know that things don’t always go right. In fact, they often go wrong. But we should not see that as a judgment upon ourselves. Sometimes we might say, ‘But I followed what I felt God was calling me to do and it just didn’t work out. This went wrong, and this went wrong, and that went wrong. Is God judging me? Did I stray from his path?’ Jesus’ words are, ‘No. Sometimes that is the consequence of true obedience – of following me. It will not be easy. But do not take difficult circumstances as a sign of my absence. Rather, if you find yourselves in difficult circumstances because you have followed me; then far from signifying my absence, the difficult circumstance is a sign of my blessing and my presence in your life.’

So what do these words mean to you? What do they mean to me? You know, there is no neat formula. I have to struggle with these words the same way that you do. But the key is being willing to struggle with them. Being willing to hear them as the words of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Not just the words of some teacher that we can easily dismiss. These are the words of life. We have got to pay attention to them – whether they are comfortable or uncomfortable – whether they console you or confront you. We can’t just say, ‘Well, I like the beatitudes in Matthew a lot more, I think I’ll stick with them.’

I can not tell you what this means for your life. The Holy Spirit is the one that needs to show you how you need to respond. The Holy Spirit needs to continue his work in me as well, to teach me how to respond as well. And we have got to have the Holy Spirit because these words are not easy, they are not natural, and living them will not be easy either. But may the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit that was in Jesus, also be alive and active within us in such a way that we are able to hear the words of Jesus Christ and have the courage to begin to live them as we follow Jesus Christ and the footsteps that he left for us. After all it is where those footsteps led that we celebrate this morning in communion. We celebrate the death of Jesus on the cross, giving his all for us, that through his resurrection, we might be empowered to live as he did. Do we hear his call?

Let us pray together:
Lord we thank you that in the fullness of your grace you became poor for us; Lord, that you gave all that you had to God on our behalf that we might know you, that we might know your blessing. Lord, fill us with your Spirit in such a way that we will be able to follow in your footsteps. For we ask it through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen.