Blessed are you Poor! (A sermon on Luke 6:20-26)

And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
“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! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

At first glance these seem to be some of the craziest words Jesus ever spoke, and when we’re talking about Jesus that is a pretty extreme thing to say, for Jesus said a lot of crazy stuff.

Think of some of the stories Jesus told, ranging, as they did, from the mildly ridiculous to the outstandingly incomprehensible, and to say that these words rank amongst His craziest is a pretty strong claim, and yet how else do you describe a series of pronouncements that begin with “Blessed are you poor”, for if there is one thing you can say about people who are poor it is surely that they are persons who have not been blessed!

A rich guy says, “God has blessed me abundantly”, and perhaps that makes our flesh creep a little because we’re not quite sure whether he got rich because of God’s blessing or because he trampled upon the heads of his competitors, but we understand the basic equation – that being successful and wealthy and secure and well-fed is a state of blessedness, and, conversely, that having all those things ripped away does not constitute a state of blessedness but sounds more like the result of a curse!

“Blessed are you poor, blessed are you hungry, blessed are you miserable and reviled!” What does He mean? For surely there is nothing particularly blessed about being poor or hungry or miserable or any of those things surely?

“Poverty is just a state of mind” some people say, and of course the sort of people who say that tend to be people who are not poor. It’s a bit like that wonderful woman Patsy on the TV show “Absolutely Fabulous”. Her daughter says to her “you wouldn’t know what to do if you ran out of money”. She says, “of course I would darling. I’d go down to the bank and draw out some more!”
Poverty is not a state of mind. It is a state of vulnerability.

I’ve mentioned before my own little eye-opening experience to the reality of poverty came many, many years ago when I was involved in a poverty awareness project with TEAR Australia. We built a little cardboard shack in the middle of Sydney square and then slept in it for a week, in the middle of winter.

Somebody had said to me then, “poverty is a state of mind”, but that experience really brought home to me what poverty is all about. I got a small taste of vulnerability to the elements that night, trying to sleep in a cardboard shack on the pavement in the middle of winter, and an even greater sense of what vulnerability was about when a gang of young lads decided to kick the cardboard shack to pieces at about 3am that morning (while me and the two girls were still in it).

Poverty is a state of vulnerability. It’s not being able to adequately protect yourself or your family from the cold of winter.

Poverty is going to court and knowing that you’re going to lose because you’re black and because you don’t have a job and so you are dependant on the services of a legal-aid lawyer who really doesn’t care whether you go to gaol or not.

Poverty is losing your children to DOCS because you just can’t control your drinking or your using any more because you just don’t know how else to handle the stress because you had to move away from all your friends and support persons because you just couldn’t afford the rent there any more.

Poverty is a state of vulnerability – to the elements, to ill-health, to corrupt governmental and legal systems, to people who want to hurt you. It’s vulnerability to our own addictions and weaknesses, and it is not a blessed state of being.

So where does Jesus get off telling us that the poor are blessed? Well He says it, I think, because alongside that statement that the poor are blessed is a promise, that those who are poor are not going to be poor for much longer!

Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours!
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh
Things are about to change, says Jesus, and the poor and the hungry aren’t going to be poor and hungry for much longer, and indeed He isn’t just talking about change but is taking the lead in initiating change!

You will remember last week that we heard Jesus launch His ministry with a quote from Isaiah 61, claiming that the “Spirit of the Lord was upon him because he had anointed him to preach good news to the poor”, and concluded that quote with the prophet’s proclamation of the beginning of a Jubilee year.

The Jubilee Year was that bizarre institution where the entire community went back to square one in terms of financial equality and wealth distribution. The Jubilee trumpet would sound and all of a sudden all debts would be forgiven, all those imprisoned because they couldn’t pay their debts would be released, and all the land would be divided up equally again amongst the families! It was Good News for the Poor indeed, and this was how Jesus launched His ministry – by blowing the Jubilee trumpet!

Of course the promise of the social upheaval that Jesus was going to bring about had been spoken about even before his birth. You will remember Jesus mother singing: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)

The coming of Jesus was always going to be a time of massive social change – the beginning of a process where everything would be turned upside-down. The poor will be lifted up and the rich brought down, the first will be last and the last will be first, the hungry will be fed and the over-fed will have to learn to be satisfied with less. Why? Because the Kingdom of God is coming, and it’s a new age of equality and sharing, where the poor are not going to be poor any more, and the sick will be made well and those who struggle and who labour and are heavy-laden will find rest.
This is the Gospel. This is the promise of Jesus. This is the Kingdom of God that we are welcoming into our midst – a new age of equality and love which is good news to the poor and the suffering and the vulnerable and the weak, even if it is not great news for everybody.
Those who have grown rich on the misery of others lose out in the Kingdom of God. Those who remain well-fed and at peace while their sisters and brothers suffer around them find that the protective wall that has shielded them from the adversities of life is suddenly removed. Those who carefully watch everything they have to say and make sure they act in a way that is politically correct at all times so that they don’t offend anybody and so maintain their position of popularity and keep their celebrity status in the glossy magazines find that their times of high living have come to and end. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets”

Of course this mention of the false prophets reminds us that this division between the rich and the poor, the hungry and the well-fed, the miserable and happy, etc. is not a distinction made solely upon economic grounds. There is a significant spiritual dimension on view here too, and the poor that Jesus is focusing on here – the poor who will one day be blessed – are most especially Jesus’ own poor disciples!

I’m not suggesting that the only poor people Jesus intends to bless are His disciples but I do think that it is clear in the passage that all the disciples Jesus is addressing are considered to be amongst the poor who are to be blessed.

Indeed, the passage begins, “And Jesus lifted up His eyes on His disciples and said ‘Blessed are you poor'” And so while the disciples might not have been the only poor people there, all the disciples were poor people, and in fact they were poor because they were disciples.

That is made plain in the verses immediately preceding Jesus’ speech here, as we’re told that these disciples had all just left their boats and hence their jobs to join Jesus’ Apostolic band! They were all therefore without jobs and homes! They had chosen to be vulnerable and poor for the sake of Jesus, rather than maintain their earthly securities, and the implication of course is that this is the same choice that is laid before all of us – to maintain our secure lifestyles or to follow Jesus on the path of poverty and vulnerability.

“Blessed are you poor”, says Jesus, and that is a word of hope for those of us who have opted to join Jesus on the road-less-travelled, and yet it is also a sobering reminder of the fact that choosing to follow Jesus does mean choosing poverty over wealth, vulnerability over security, pain over comfort, and integrity over an immaculate reputation.
Martin Luther used to speak about how the Cathedrals in his day were arrayed with statues and paintings designed to educate the illiterate in the truths of the Gospel. As you walked into the church, Luther said, you would see wonderful statues of the saints at rest lining one side of the church – expressions of peace and satisfaction on their faces. On the other side of the church you would see paintings of sinners struggling with devils and demons that were attempting to drag them off to hell! Luther thought these images were terrific, except that they were all the wrong way around. It’s only the devil’s own, he believed, that are truly at peace in this world. The rest of us are struggling and fighting and barely managing to hold ourselves together!
I think Luther was right, and I do think that this myth is still regularly perpetuated – that the mark of the faithful believer is that he or she has been blessed with wealth, a happy family, an abundance of possessions and a better-than-average sex life – whereas the truth, I think, is more regularly the opposite – that the faithful follower of Christ is never truly at peace in this world, can never happily hoard his money while so many of his sisters and brothers are starving, weeps over the weaknesses he sees in himself, as he does over those he sees in his sisters and brothers around the world that are the cause of so much pain, violence and injustice.
It is not our vocation to be at peace in this world – to be blithely happy, contented, without worry or pain. Even so;
“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
“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!
Be blessed, for the Kingdom of God is near!

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, January 2010.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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