“Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are those who weep. Blessed are those who are excluded and reviled and defamed.”
They don’t sound much like blessings to me. If anything, I might be tempted to call them curses, or even maybe woes. But Jesus has his own list of woes: Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are well-fed. Woe to you who are happy and laughing and are spoken well of.
That’s backwards, right? It isn’t the first time that expectations for how things ought to be will be turned upside-down in Luke’s Gospel, starting with that prayer of praise that Mary spoke in Elizabeth’s presence,[i]that prayer about how the hungry will be filled, and the rich will be not so rich. This isn’t the prosperity gospel, for sure. Everything is sort of backwards in Luke.
And that wasn’t the common thinking at the time of Jesus. The common thinking was that material success in life was a sign of God’s favor. And we still have prosperity preachers, those preachers who will tell you that good health and wealth will be yours if only you have faith and live right—and maybe send them a contribution. But that certainly isn’t what Jesus is saying.
But if that isn’t what he’s saying, if that isn’t it, then what exactly does it mean to be blessed?
Well, I went to Twitter and looked up hashtag blessed. If you don’t do social media, you should know that you can assign a subject to your post, and then people can search for that subject and find everyone who posted something that they thought related. So I looked up hashtag blessed one morning last week. Twitter told me that in the previous hour, up until 8:30 in the morning, 130 people had something to say about being blessed. And these were the first few I came across:
The first one I saw was a pro basketball player posting a picture of himself jumping for joy because I guess his team had done well the night before. The next one was a video posted by a rodeo rider who managed to stay on a bull for nine seconds. That’s pretty impressive, but is it blessed?
There were a couple of blesseds who had just been accepted to nursing school and to pharmacy school. Then there was one, this is a complete puzzle to me, a huge plate of fried catfish. Right? Blessed?
And the last one before I finally stopped, and I couldn’t even tell if this was real or a joke, but I looked at this guy’s feed, and it seemed to be real. He claimed to be a minister, and he was blessed because of the tax cut. He said, “With only two family members to support and a very solid six-figure income, we are paying less in taxes than we have in years.”
Well, first of all, if he is a minister, I want to know what church he’s working for. But really, that is a blessing? In today’s world, publicly sharing your blessings, it’s mostly—out in the social media world—become a way to sort of brag without really bragging.
You know: “Look at me, because I’m blessed. I’m blessed because of all the good things I have.”
And here we have Jesus saying something really different. He’s saying, “Blessed are you who are poor,” and He’s talking about real poverty. He’s not talking about the kind of spiritual poverty that we hear about in Matthew. Matthew has written the version of the Beatitudes that are maybe a little bit more familiar to us, the ones that say, “Blessed are the poor in spiritbecause yours is the kingdom of heaven.”
But in Luke, Jesus is talking about real poverty, real hunger, real deprivation. And it’s the complete opposite of what we usually think of as a blessing. No one ever goes on Twitter to announce, “Can’t pay my bills this month! #blessed”
So we’re back to the same question, then. What, exactly, does it mean to be blessed?
The Greek word that’s used in the original, the untranslated version, means happiness or good fortune or bliss, but really it’s so much more than that. To be blessed in the sense of this Gospel really means living in a way that’s right and good, living in a way that’s righteous, living in a way that’s excellent in the eyes of God, living in accordance with the values of the kingdom of God, of the world the way it would be if it were as God would have it be.
I think a closer way of putting it is to say it means to be at peace because you’re living in harmony with those values. But this is true peace, true peace of the soul.
On the other hand, material possessions can give us pleasure, certainly, but not true peace. Because you think God really cares about those things that please you, but they’re really insubstantial, they pass away? Woe to you who are rich, because you’ve had your good times already. You’ve had your pleasure.
So that leaves those of us who are not hungry in a rather awkward position, doesn’t it? What are we supposed to do? Fast?
I don’t think that’s the point here. And I also don’t think it’s quite the point to say, “Well, I’m pretty well-off, and I make a point to give a good part of my income to my favorite charity or charities.” I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. We need to do that, too.
But there really is a difference between charity and justice. Charity is a donation to keep somebody from being hungry for a day. Justice is working on those things that are wrong in our society so that people aren’t hungry all the time. The reason they’re hungry now is not because God doesn’t love them as much as God loves you. Not because they aren’t blessed by God.
That can be, for Christians, real danger in making too much of our blessings if we do see them as a sign of God’s favor. I’ve seen this on service trips, where people say, “I had to go on this service trip because I am so blessed, and I wanted to share some of that.” It’s as if they’re saying, “God has favored me, God likes me better, but I’m a good person, so I’m going to share some of it.”
This Gospel is saying the opposite. This Gospel is saying that God favors the poor person. I’m going to come back to that point.
So working for justice, how do we do that? Maybe some people will work for a non-profit or volunteer for a justice-oriented organization. Maybe some of us can’t do that, but there are simpler ways to do it. Writing to your elected representatives is one. Advocating for policies of justice. Educating ourselves so that we see how our way of being in the world—both as individuals and also collectively—how our way of being in the world impacts others. There are a lot of organizations out there, but just to name one, the Episcopal Public Policy Network can help with both of those, both with the education, and they make the advocacy really easy.
Desmond Tutu, he’s a really good guy. He’s well-known as the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town at South Africa. He’s well-known as a human rights activist. He chaired the committee that worked to bring people back together again after the end of apartheid there. He’s extremely eloquent on all subjects, but to the point of this Gospel he once said:
“The church has a responsibility for all, the rich and the poor, the ruler and the ruled, the oppressed and the oppressor. But it needs to point out that God does take sides. Incredibly, He sides with those whom the world would marginalize, whom the world considers of little account.”[ii]
Blessed are you who are poor. God is standing on the side of those who the world considers to be of little account, and Jesus is telling us that we need to make sure that we’re standing there, too. Amen.
[i] Luke 1:46-56
[ii]“12 Sayings from Desmond Tutu, a Voice for Justice in a Time of Division,” https://sojo.net/articles/12-sayings-desmond-tutu-voice-justice-time-division. Accessed Feb. 16, 2019.