February 17, 2019
William G. Carter
[Jesus] came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at 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 will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors 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 will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
Through the winter, we are working through Luke’s account of Jesus. His ministry is that of a prophet preacher. Through Luke’s writings, we have remembered where Jesus comes from, what he comes to do, and how far he wishes to reach.
At the heart of it all is a paradox, an apparent contradiction, a potential inconsistency. And here it is: the prophet preacher speaks of heaven while standing firmly on the earth.
Some preachers speak of heaven as a far-off destination, a possible goal. The popular notion is that, if you live right and fly straight, you go to heaven when you die. The Christian version of that is, if you put your trust in Jesus, some day you will live with him in heaven. Either way, heaven is somewhere else, up on a cloud somewhere, full of angels strumming their harps, and loaded with immaculate golf courses.
Other preachers don’t seem to aim so high. I think of the popular preacher with an expensive haircut. He packs in the crowds in the former basketball arena, and gives them a lot of advice, mostly on their attitudes toward life. He says things like, “Think positively, look up, imagine good things, and they will all be given to you.” If you listen carefully, you hear precious little heaven and plenty of earth.
The remarkable thing about Jesus is that he will not separate heaven from earth. He comes to unite them. He says such things as “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Ever stop and consider how remarkable that is? That there would be no distinction between “here” and “there,” no difference between “now” and “then”?
What if we were to live each day in the complete presence of God? Would that happen in heaven or on earth? Jesus says, “Yes.” It’s a good bit of both. In the work of Jesus, in the words of Jesus, indeed in his very incarnational existence, heaven and earth are married. They come together. And that is the paradox.
By definition, heaven is God’s dominion. It’s where God lives. It’s where God rules. Jesus comes to declare that heaven is here to rule over earth.
We hear the evidence in the beginning of our text from Luke. Jesus is surrounded by an enormous crowd of people. They come “to hear him,” says the account, “and to be healed of their diseases.” In his voice as in his touch, Jesus makes them well. That is the grace of heaven touching down on earth.
Whenever any of us experience some kind of healing in body or spirit, this is what heaven desires of us, what heaven promises for us. It is a release from the pain and the brokenness that comes with living on earth. When that happens, it is very clear that God is ruling over our situation. It’s so much more than the simple affirmation that “God is in charge.” It’s the truth that God is mysteriously here, at work among us, not off in the distance somewhere, but right here.
This is the best way to comprehend the Beatitudes of Jesus. They hold together the blessing of heaven with the brokenness of earth. “Blessed” (there’s the heaven) “are the hungry” (there’s the earth). “Blessed … are those who weep.” “Blessed … are those who are hated,” especially if they are hated on account of Jesus. And, of course, “blessed are the poor.”
Now he doesn’t say “the poor in spirit,” that’s the Gospel of Matthew. This is Luke. Luke doesn’t spiritualize poverty; poor is poor. Poor means you don’t have anything, or at least, you don’t have a lot. According to Jesus, these are the ones who are blessed.
Luke keeps the list of blessings to four: poor, hungry, weeping, and hated. He also adds a complimentary list of curses: rich, full, laughing, and those who are well spoken of. That’s so typical of Luke. He often says, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” God’s kingdom is a complete reversal of the world’s aggressive values. We heard this on the lips of Mary before Jesus was born:
[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. (1:52-53)
With the coming of Jesus, and the union of heaven and earth, there is an equalization, an evening-out. Nobody is any better than anybody else. Everybody has equal access to the same heavenly grace. There will be no real distinctions between hungry and full, or weeping and laughing. Heaven exposes it all. This is the revolution that happens when heaven infuses the earth.
It really is a revolution, the kind of revolution that has no weapons, in the name of a heaven where there will be no weapons. If you spend all your energy to get ahead of the competition, to climb to the top of the heap, you will be surprised when heaven says competition does not matter. If you regard yourself as superior to somebody else, due to your good genes, good breaks, or good religion, imagine how surprising it will be to discover how heaven is populated, and who’s welcomed there.
It’s all there in the first of these beatitudes: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
Let’s stay with this one. All of us begin our lives poor. We are born naked. We possess nothing. We are totally dependent on the care of others. And we end our lives in pretty much the same way. Oh there’s that rancher down in Texas who wanted to be buried in his Cadillac. He thought he could take it with him, but he was surprised after his death to discover the car wouldn’t run and he didn’t have the energy to turn the key.
We begin poor, we end poor. And in between, what do we do? We try to escape our poverty. We go to school, get out and get a good job, make some money, or marry somebody with money, invest what we have and make some more, only to get to the end of it all unable to carry it forward. That’s further evidence of our true poverty.
I’ve been watching Marie Kondo on Netflix. Know about her? She is the Japanese expert on tidying up your messy life. She has a new reality show where she goes into American houses to help them tidy up. It’s sobering. Those people have a lot of junk. There are stacks of clutter everywhere. They have mountains of possessions. Some of them can’t even walk through some of their rooms. What has become of them – what has become of us? They have so much stuff, and curiously, they have so little.
“Blessed are the poor… woe to the rich.” I watched some of the people on that show. They broke into tears as they confronted the need to get rid of the stuff that they do not need. They have so much, but they aren’t rich, not in the ways that matter. They are carrying too much baggage.
“Blessed are the poor.” Do I know anybody poor? I guess you could say all of us are poor. But have I ever met anybody poor? I have to think about that…
And then I remembered O’Shea. That was his name: O’Shea. It took a phone call to my mother to recall his name. Now I did remember his wife. Her name was Evelyn. She was a piece of work. She got a job as the part-time janitor of my home church, and I think she and O’Shea lived on the money from that part-time job. They didn’t have much else.
Evelyn was kind of squat, or as she said, “close to the soil.” She hobbled around with a crazy eye that looked northeast. She had a few curly whiskers on her chin. The church ladies grumbled that she talked like a sailor and didn’t wear enough undergarments. And she could be tough. If you tracked mud across her clean floor, she let you know about it. Not only that; Evelyn presided over my Eagle Scout project, and she made me do it over.
O’Shea was completely different: gentle, calm, serene. He always wore the same pair of overalls with patches on the knees. They had an old ramshackle house by the creek, right across the Talcott Street bridge, down by the water. Inside, the crooked floors creaked. Outside, O’Shea had a garden full of vegetables. He was a resourceful gourmet cook.
One time, he invited our pastor over for a home-cooked dinner. The pastor and his wife took their place at the table, and O’Shea carries out a steaming hot platter of meat, along with buttered potatoes he had dug out of the garden. He was so proud - the pastor’s over for dinner. “I caught this myself,” he said. The pastor puts a slab of meat on the plate, reaches for his knife and cuts it. It smells so good, so he takes a bite just as O’Shea says, “Yep, that old possum was giving me trouble, but I caught him and cooked him up. Ain’t God good to us?”
I’m not making this up. He really believed God was good. After that story made the rounds in the church, thank to the pastor’s wife, O’Shea and Evelyn invited me and my friend Jonathan over for a meal. That was about the time I decided I wasn’t much of a meat eater. Not to worry. O’Shea carries out a steaming hot platter of fish, cooked in tomatoes, peppers, and onions out of his own garden.
We put some on our plates, reached for our forks, and he declared, “Yep, I pulled that catfish out of the Susquehanna. It gave me some trouble, but God is good. Ain’t God good to us?” And he believed it. He lived simply. He didn’t have very much, but what he had came from God, and it was all he needed.
So I think of O’Shea when I hear Jesus say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” heaven.” He didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but he was blessed with everything he needed, with absolutely no desire to make his life more complicated.
It was Henri Nouwen who once said, “Jesus, the Blessed One, is poor.” He is poor because “he freely chose powerlessness over power, vulnerability over defensiveness, dependency over self-sufficiency.” Here in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus spends an entire day ministering to a “multitude” of need. Luke says he stands on level ground, not high and lofty above the people but flat-footed among them. There’s power emanating from him, power to heal and power to speak a Word that penetrates their defenses.
This is how heaven touches down on earth. On level ground. Among the poor.
And so Henri Nouwen asks,
How can we embrace poverty as a way to God when everyone around us wants to become rich? Poverty has many forms. We have to ask ourselves: “What is my poverty?” Is it lack of money, lack of emotional stability, lack of a loving partner, lack of security, lack of safety, lack of self-confidence? Each human being has a place of poverty. That’s the place where God wants to dwell! “How blessed are the poor,” Jesus says. This means that our blessing is hidden in our poverty. We are so inclined to cover up our poverty and ignore it that we often miss the opportunity to discover God, who dwells in it. Let’s dare to see our poverty as the land where our treasure is hidden.
Then he adds,
When we are not afraid to confess our own poverty, we will be able to be with other people in theirs… When we have discovered God in our own poverty, we will lose our fear of the poor and go to them to meet God.
I don’t have anything to add to that. In a minute, I think I’ll sit down and see if any of this sinks in for me. Maybe some of it will sink in for you, too.
In the meantime, I do know you can’t turn a beatitude into a rule. You can’t reduce it to a mere behavior. All you can do is put the beatitude into the air and invite God to do the rest. So here goes: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.