I got a few things wrong about what Jesus got right. When circumstances change, will we change our minds about the goodness of God?

My Feelings: past and present This passage is for the sixth Sunday after Epiphany. I remember reading this passage as a teenager and later as a seminarian and being somewhat flummoxed by it. Why are the hungry and hurting blessed (literally, “happy”)? And why are the wealthy and happy cursed, or at least given a woe?

In my mind, this passage was a curse. For those suffering tangibly now, it seems that Jesus says, “It’ll be okay because you get to go to heaven.” It will only get better upon death. For those who are rich, happy, and fed, life will continue to be good, but God is upset with you on the virtue of your wealth.

It seems clunky to spiritualize this passage as well, which often happens with those we read about who are hungry or poor. Essentially the passage is interpreted as those who are spiritually hungry and poor (humble) of spirit will be blessed by God. However, we don’t spiritualize the wealthy or those who are happy. Neither does it make sense that Jesus would penalize someone based on their wealth alone. After all, Abraham had plenty of possessions, and kings David, Solomon, and Hezekiah (all lauded) lived in opulence. Theophilus financially sponsored Luke’s research and writing of the gospel and the book of Acts. Does the Lord not judge the heart and not by exteriors?

How would one even preach from that standpoint? Imagine being a congregant hearing a sermon on this and being told exactly what James says not to say, “The Lord bless you and keep you, although you don’t have adequate clothing or food.” And where is the good news for the wealthy who give generously? They are cursed just because they did well financially due to the fact that they worked diligently and honestly as unto the Lord?

As I spent time with this text, I saw that the immediate context turns this passage from a curse to a blessing.

Context is Key

First, context. Jesus has just called the twelve and the teaching and miracle-working of Jesus are attracting more disciples. As Jesus traveled, he picked up more followers, literally, people who would leave their hometowns and walk after him and listen to his teachings and witness his divine power. So popular is Jesus, that some from Tyre and Sidon come from over one hundred miles away. Jesus stops at the base of a mount, which Luke calls a plain. He heals people and also relieves though troubled by harmful spirits. This is a plain, a place that is level. Jesus would not be looking down but would be looking eye-to-eye with these. He would have heard their gasps of amazement and thanks as one person after another was healed. He would have heard their explanations of how he changed their life. This is where I see 4 ideas that open the text to meaningful engagement.

Four Ideas that Grounded Me in Good News

1. Jesus is not upset with the crowd. He has healed them and they are earnestly following him. It doesn’t seem feasible that Jesus now has a bone to pick with them.

2. There is no need to spiritualize the text. People living in the Roman Empire in the first century often lived at subsistence. They had no idea where tomorrow’s food would come from. They are really hungry. They are really tired. Likewise, in that crowd would likely be some who were able to make a living beyond subsistence.

3. Jesus knows the heart of the individuals and he also knows people change. The people who laud you today may very well try to throw you off a cliff tomorrow. This is the story of Luke 4 and also Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In a matter of just a few days, Jesus will go from hero to victim of capital punishment.

4. Jesus is being a good teacher and is preparing this crowd for the realities they will face when they go back to their villages and towns.

If I may summarize: blessed are you who came here poor, hungry, and pushed aside, now you have heard my teaching and seen my wonders through the power of God working through me and you have received the kingdom of God. No one can take that from you.

Woe, be very careful and aware, those of you who came here happy, wealthy, and with the approval of others. People change. When you go back home it is likely they will turn against you for my name’s sake. This serves as woe and a warning because times will be trying for them.

I learned that this hard passage is actually a blessing because Jesus is seeking to prevent them from becoming despondent under persecution or hardship. It’s easy to be thankful for the teachings and ways of God when things go our way. It is difficult when the tide turns and our life turns upside down. It is equally difficult to sense our dependence upon God when we move from hardship to “easy living.” Jesus may very well be teaching them to stay anchored to the teachings that drew them here no matter how their life turns out later.

How will we deal with the changing tide of opinions and circumstances? One way we find solace and stability is in God’s deep love for us, which is seen clearly in the life of Jesus. He comes to us in whatever season or station in life and freely offers the message of the kingdom. The message is not one based on making us happy or wrongly telling us that since we believe, all will be well. This is a message that endures those things that would otherwise crush us. In every situation, we are challenged to think and re-think what it means to be truly happy with God and life.

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