The Subversion of Culture
When they came down from the mountain, the disciples stood with Jesus on a large, level area, surrounded by many of his followers and by the crowds. There were people from all over Judea and from Jerusalem and from as far north as the seacoasts of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those troubled by evil spirits were healed. Everyone tried to touch him, because healing power went out from him, and he healed everyone.Then Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours. God blesses you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied. God blesses you who weep now, for in due time you will laugh.
“What blessings await you when people hate you and exclude you and mock you and curse you as evil because you follow the Son of Man. When that happens, be happy! Yes, leap for joy! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, their ancestors treated the ancient prophets that same way.
“What sorrow awaits you who are rich, for you have your only happiness now. What sorrow awaits you who are fat and prosperous now, for a time of awful hunger awaits you. What sorrow awaits you who laugh now, for your laughing will turn to mourning and sorrow. What sorrow awaits you who are praised by the crowds, for their ancestors also praised false prophets."
This little passage is sometimes called 'The Sermon on the Plain' because of verse 17. This passage reminds us of the 'Sermon on the Mount' found in Matthew 5 - 7 with various differences. Some people use those differences as 'proof' that the Bible contains errors. However, as someone who has spoken many times about a certain subject, whether it be in a public forum or in a private setting, I know that I tend to repeat myself but that there are also various differences. Does this mean that I didn't really speak in both settings? Of course not. It just means that some things change and some stay the same depending on the situation (and my forgetfulness). I see the same here. I'm certain that Jesus had a series of topics and he talked about them over and over again. He traveled to various regions, 'counties', and towns telling the same stories again and again. Along with that retelling, I'm sure he changed some of the situations and settings. But the basic message was the same. And it is to that message I now turn.
Let's ask some really basic questions to start off with. Why did the people come to see Jesus (and mind you, they came from quite a long distance. Tyre and Sidon were roughly 100 to 150 miles away). The people came to have certain 'felt needs' met. Verse 18 tells us that they come from near and far to 'hear him', to be 'healed of their diseases' and some of them were even 'delivered' from 'evil spirits'. I think this is a much over looked point in the life of the Church. We need to be asking ourselves -- are the 'felt needs' of the community, of those around us, being met by what we do through our various church programs? I am not so much talking about things like Vacation Bible School, although the spiritual life of a community, of the people, is extremely important. I am referring to 'real world' things. Where the community is in pain. How can we better address those needs? I think verse 18 gives us some clues. Are the physical needs of people within our communities being met? Are there adequate places for receiving medical attention? What are the costs for receiving that attention? Are those businesses that are trying to meet those needs looking to make a fast buck or are they genuinely concerned with the people? Or are they just putting a bandage on a much larger problem? In the case of those with 'evil spirits' (and we must acknowledge that some of what the first century called 'demon possession' we now label 'Mental Health'), are we just locking them away and drugging them up until they finally die? Where should the church be in these type of situations? Should we be doing anything about these things? I think we should. I think that is part of the point of these stories we read about in the New Testament. To show us ways in which we can change the world. To help us discover ways of bringing God's New Creation Project to fruition in the 'real world'.
And this is not just limited to the things we can do locally. We should also be looking into the policies and procedures that make up those situations. In other words we should be rallying for change in the areas where the poor and outcast are being treated unfairly -- where people are being discriminated against. I'm not saying we have to agree with every position. What I'm saying is that we have to look at the bigger picture. Of what the world would look like if God were running the show (because God, through Jesus, really is). With that in mind, we look to implement what we can here and now to bring that about. And this can be a scary thing for those the 'world', the culture, deems rich and powerful. As you can see, this leads us directly into the next section of the above passage.
Jesus compares, as he often does, the poor with the wealthy -- the down-and-out with the well-to-do. He says time and again, that the poor, the outcast, will one day be the ones on top. The wealthy, he says, will be the ones on bottom one day. How are we to take this? Is he saying that it is evil to be wealthy, well fed, respected, etc.? That the true goal is to be poor and that all that really matters has nothing to do with here and now? And what about this 'reward in heaven'? Does this mean that we have to go 'to heaven' to get this 'reward'? That is, that going to heaven is the end of the game, so to speak?
I think it can be taken that way. That is to say, if we take these verses out of context with the rest of the Bible, we would probably get that conclusion. Certainly there is comfort for the outcast. That is a major theme throughout the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. But the reality is not to be found 'in heaven'. I once heard a lecture where the speaker made this comment that is germane to my point. He said, 'That is not how the logic of this works. If I tell a friend that I have a beer for him in the fridge; that doesn't mean he has to get into the fridge to drink the beer.' The 'reward' comes 'from heaven' to earth. Look at these verses from Isaiah:
Yes, the Sovereign Lord is coming in power. He will rule with a powerful arm. See, he brings his reward with him as he comes . . . The Lord has sent this message to every land: “Tell the people of Israel, ‘Look, your Savior is coming. See, he brings his reward with him as he comes.’ ”
Isaiah 40.10; 62.11
And this passage from Revelation:
Look, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me to repay all people according to their deeds.
In these passages (and many others could have been cited), we see that the 'reward in heaven' that Jesus is talking about in Luke 6 will be brought to the people here on earth. That is the whole point of New Creation -- the joining together as one, the marrying of, 'heaven' and 'earth', of God's dimension of creation and our dimension of creation. At the consummation of 'all things' the whole creation will be together again (Romans 8.18ff; Revelation 21-22; etc.). Sure, okay, the 'rewards' that Jesus is talking about here won't be paid in full until that time. There will be an outpouring of God's grace to 'finish the job'. But we don't 'go there' to get it. God, through Jesus of Nazareth, will bring it to us.
But what about the well-to-do? Again, I think we should be aware of the whole context. The point is, what are the well-to-do doing with their blessings? That is the question. Are they giving to the poor? Are the feeding the hungry? Are they consoling the sorrowful? If the answer is 'no' to those questions, then their 'reward' won't be so pleasant.
I think it goes right back to 'felt needs' that I wrote about above. There is nothing in these verses about trust or belief. It is understood. Jesus was directing this sermon to his followers, not the general public. These are statements about how the faithful are supposed to act. They are 'signs' of faithfulness. These signs come out of a trusting in Jesus; of believing that God raised him from the dead. That is the point of doing those things. If we see our brothers and sisters in need, we are to act. We are to give to them. It seems that if we don't act, then it would constitute 'evil'. That is what the next few verses are all about.
You know, I started to go ahead and start on that section but instead, I think, I'm going to save that for another time. Perhaps I'll do a series on 'good works' and what that truly means for those of us who believe that God has really, actually, reconciled 'all things' to himself, things in heaven and things on earth, through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
Until next time, Peace be with you.