Luke 6:17-26 : Best to be Blessed .
Year C : The Third Sunday before Lent
17 He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, 18 who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, 19 and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all. 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.
Many people have recently been following a television programme called 'popstars' where thousands of young hopefuls were shortlisted to ten. Half of these ten were selected to form a new, pop band of five, three girls and two boys. One of the later programmes featured members of the selection panel going to the homes of the shortlisted ten to tell them whether or not they had been chosen.
Immediately before today's reading Jesus had prayed all night and had selected his twelve apostles from a much larger number of disciples. Jesus invited the disciples to join him on a mountain, and then he told them who had been chosen. This leads us into verse 17 when Jesus comes down from the mountain onto a plateau.
He is addressing a mixture of people: Jews from Judea and Jerusalem; people from Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile area; and a large number of disciples.
In this passage we observe the authority of Jesus: as a healer; an exorcist; and a prophet.
We read in verses 18 and 19 that people came to be healed and that all of them were cured. These healings were a demonstration of the power that Jesus has to undo the effects of sin. Not that every disease was, and is, a direct result of a sin that someone had committed. But when sin came into the world so did sickness, death and enmity. By healing people Jesus was showing why he had come. To undo the effects of sin.
Jesus still frees people today from the power of sin and death to a new, eternal life free from the bondage of sin to a life able to follow God's ways.
Jesus also showed his authority over evil by driving out evil spirits from people. Today, some commentators and preachers shy away from admitting the existence of evil spirits. Some claim that, when Jesus' was alive, people didn't understand the difference between some diseases and demon possession, whereas we know better in our 'scientific' age. But, when you read the gospels, it is obvious that Jesus, who created everything that is created and knows everything, knew the difference between someone who was sick and someone who was possessed. Therefore, we have to conclude that there are evil spirits. However, this should not alarm us because Jesus still has power and authority over them today. So we need not fear evil spirits ourselves because we have God's Spirit within us. And, a Christian can, in the name of Jesus, that is to say relying on everything that he is and stands for, drive out evil spirits from a person or a place.
Jesus authority over evil was shown on the cross, an instrument of suffering, defeat and death. He transformed this into a symbol of love, victory and life when he rose from the grave.
We then come to Jesus authority as a prophet. A prophet is someone who speaks the word of God to people, not necessarily someone who tells what is going to happen. Jesus encourages some and warns others what may happen to them.
The teaching featured in this Chapter has many similarities with the Sermon on the Mount recorded by Matthew in Chapters 5 to 7. For example both feature the command to love enemies and not to judge others, of good people producing good fruit, and the parable of the wise and foolish builders. However, Matthew's has twice as many 'blessings' and no woes, and his sermon was much longer and was delivered on a mountain. Some of Matthew's Sermon is found in other portions of Luke (e.g., 11:2-4; 12:22-31,33-34), suggesting that the teaching may have been repeated by Jesus.
Jesus addresses his disciples from the crowd of people who are nearby. He lists four blessings which are matched by four woes. The words 'blessed' refers to a religious joy that comes from sharing in the kingdom, or rule of, God.
Jesus addresses 'the poor' and then 'the rich'. He is not saying that all poor people go to heaven, or that all rich people go to hell. He is saying to the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, the excluded and the insulted that there is the prospect of something a lot better. He is warning the rich, well fed, laughing and popular people not to trust in these things because, otherwise, this is all they will get.
As part of my sermon preparation I was watching Stephen Lee play John Parrot at snooker ( pause for laughter ). The match was very close, about four frames each and Lee fluked a red which could have led to a substantial break ( pause for yawns ). The camera zoomed in on a sombre looking Parrot and the commentator said, 'Someone up there doesn't like John Parrot.'
The Jews in Jesus-day had a similar theology. They thought that if you were rich, successful, happy and popular this was because you were favoured by God. But if you were poor, miserable, and rejected, or you had a disability or a terrible accident this was because you, or a relative had done something to displease God.
Jesus turned this erroneous teaching on it's head when he challenged the rich young ruler to give up everything, and told his disciples that it was difficult for rich people to get to heaven ( Luke 18:18ff. ). He also said that eighteen people who had a tower fall on them were no more guilty of sin than the rest of Jerusalem ( Luke 13:4f ) and that a man had not been born blind because of his own sin or that of his parents ( John 9:3 ).
Jesus' teaching opposed that of his day. Some of the teachings found in the church today owe more to Jesus' day than to Jesus. For example, the prosperity gospel that teaches that if you are faithful then God will reward you materially. Another example is of sick people who receive prayer but are not healed are told it was because of their lack of faith. Thereby resulting in a continuing illness, added guilt and, in some cases, separation from fellow Christians who cannot cope with them.
Luke's gospel contains a contrast between the religious leaders and the normal people who were addressed as 'sinners', ( cf 5:30 ). The Pharisees knew the law and the rabbanic traditions, they were considered 'righteous', and were wealthy, self-important, independent and ostentatious. Luke has already featured conflict between the Pharisees and Jesus earlier in Chapter 6 and in Chapter 5.
The Greek word for 'poor' usually means more than those who were economically disadvantaged. The picture is of people who had little money or possessions and who, therefore, depend utterly and desperately on God for help.
In Matthew's beatitudes Jesus says, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit', and there is certainly this element in Jesus' words here.
The rich are not merely those who are materially well off. The implication is that they have chosen immediate, present gratification before any eternal blessings. They may think only in terms of the physical and ignore the spiritual, trusting only in their riches. Perhaps they accumulated their wealth through the exploitation of the poor.
Three weeks ago we read in Luke 4:18 that, in fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah, Jesus said that he had come to bring 'good news to the poor'. Here, Jesus develops this.
If you were to ask what you would give to a poor person the most obvious answer might be money, a job, and a home. But Jesus said that the poor can enjoy the kingdom of God. Note that he said, 'yours is' , the present tense. Whilst many of the blessings of God reign in people's lives will not be enjoyed before glory, it is a reminder that some of the blessings of the kingdom are in the here and now.
The Old Testament law made provision for God's people to provide for the poor and the enslaved 9 ( cf. Deuteronomy 15 ). Many of the fist Christians were poor and slaves. In the New Testament we read that the Galatian, Macedonian and Corinthian Churches collected for the poor in Jerusalem. So, some of the blessings referred to may be material blessings through the generosity of other believers.
It is a reminder to us in the West that we are relatively very rich, and that we have the duty and joy to share that with our brothers and sisters around the world.
The challenge of becoming poorer because of the gospel is also relevant for Christians today. For example a Christian might refuse to do something that is contrary to his/her faith at work and, therefore, be dismissed or passed over for promotion.
There is also the spiritual element; that the knowledge of sins forgiven, the joy of a right relationship with God, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and answered prayer put material deprivation into context.
Those who 'hunger now will be satisfied'. Here the blessing is in the future, and those who hunger for righteousness as in Matthew 5:6. Perhaps there is also the hunger for a perfect world as originally created by God.
Those who weep may carry a personal burden or a one for all of society. Rather than being comforted ( cf. Matthew 5:4 ) they will laugh.
The idea of happiness is featured in the next verse when those who are hated, excluded, insulted and rejected because of their faith are told to rejoice. These things happened to Jesus , to the prophets before him, and Jesus' true followers will be persecuted in these ways, too. The reason for the rejoicing is that it is a sign that they are a true believer if they are persecuted and that they can, therefore, look forward to their reward in heaven which will outweigh any transitory thing that this life can offer.
Many people in the early church were hated, beaten, and killed. They were excluded from synagogues, from towns, and from justice. They were defamed, insulted, and thought to be of the devil.
Today, in some parts of the world Christians face similar treatment. They are insulted, assaulted, raped and killed. They are excluded by, and from, their families. They are excluded economically, unable to continue their trade when they turn to Christ. This is happening in some areas of the world, and often the church is growing in these areas as people see God at work.
Mehdi Dibaj, was imprisoned by the government of Iran in 1984 on charges of "apostasy," since he had converted from Islam to Christianity. The penalty for this crime according to Islamic law was death. Mehdi languished in prison for ten years before his case came to trial. When it did, his written statement of defence was a simple and straightforward affirmation of commitment to Jesus Christ. The last few lines of that defence contain this remarkable paragraph:
[Jesus Christ] is our Saviour and he is the Son of God. To know him means to know eternal life. I, a useless sinner, have believed in him and all his words and miracles recorded in the gospel. I have committed my life into his hands. Life for me is an opportunity to serve him, and death is a better opportunity to be with Christ. Therefore I am not only satisfied to be in prison for the honour of his holy name, but am ready to give my life for the sake of Jesus my Lord...
On December 12, 1993, the court before whom this defence was made sentenced Mehdi to death. Then, under intense pressure from people in the West who knew of the case, including the U.S. State Department, the Iranians released him in January 1994. Seven months later, he was found dead "under suspicious circumstances" in a Teheran park. He was the third Christian murdered in Iran after his release from prison.
Those who trust in their riches rather than God, however, will have nothing to look forward to, "But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.'
Those who are well fed will go hungry, said Jesus because they have enjoyed God's material gifts in this life but face an eternity without God and everything that he brings. Not just material gifts but spiritual blessings, too
Those who laugh, perhaps at the expense of others, or in the light of their wealth, will weep. Weep at a life wasted in pursuit of the wrong things. Weep at wasted opportunities that could include ignoring, or rejecting, the gospel.
As a contrast to verse 23, and to illustrate the shallowness of popularity, Jesus concludes; Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.
Jesus words of blessing are to sustain, encourage, and inspire believers.
Jesus words of woe are to warn those who trust wealth and popularity to repent, and turn to God in humble dependence upon him.
May we live our lives as those who store treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal ( Matthew 6:20 ).