My mother grew up in a family of 6 with a father who was a brick-layer in Johannesburg. He didn’t earn a whole lot of money. But unfortunately on top of that for much of his life, he lived with an alcohol problem. It meant that whatever money he did earn, much of it was spent on his alcohol dependence rather than on the family.
My mom has shared how as a child she has memories of walking the streets after the coal truck in order to pick up the bits of coal that fell from the truck. If you had to ask my mom, I think she would say that poverty is not something to be glorified. For her family, it was a painful and difficult experience.
If poverty is not something to be glorified, then how to we interpret this passage from Luke 6 today. It is one of those really difficult passages of Scripture. To be quite honest, I have never heard anyone preach on it before, despite the fact that it is a passage that comes up every 3 years in the revised common lectionary for those preachers who follow the lectionary.
In many ways, the passage is quite a shocking one. It begins by saying that the poor are blessed and that the kingdom of God belongs to them. It goes on:
Blessed are you who hunger now for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Then in a strange twist, Jesus speaks words of woe to the rich, for he says they have already received their comfort. He goes on...
Woe to you who are well fed now, you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
In the Old Testament scheme of things, and in Jesus day, it was always the rich who were understood to be the one’s who were blessed. Even today, maybe more than ever, we still think of those who are wealthy as being blessed. And in the grand scheme of things, we who are gathered here today, in the eyes of 90% of the world’s population would be regarded as being rich.
One commentator writes that this passage in Luke’s Gospel, it is the first place in the wider Jewish tradition where the poor are said to be blessed. In the normal logic, it would have been said that the poor were somehow cursed. They deserved their lot in life. They were poor because they were lazy or they and their parents were sinners. The poor were not God’s favourites and therefore did not deserve or receive God’s blessings.
Here in this passage, Luke’s Gospel turns that logic completely upside down. Suggesting that somehow in God’s scheme of things the poor are the blessed one’s and maybe not the rich?
How does one make sense of such words that sound so shocking?
A helpful perspective that comes from a Methodist Colleague from South Africa named Trevor Hudson. He tells a story of a mother who had three daughters. On one occasion during a conversation with some of her friends, one of them asked her a really difficult question: “Which of your three daughters do you love the most?”
It was a question that she couldn’t answer. She had tried hard as a mother to give each of her children equal portions of her love and so to answer the question would be a betrayal of how she had tried to be as a parent and a mother.
The friend persisted with the question: “That’s all very well, but surely one of your daughters stands out among the three of them. Surely there is one that in your heart you love secretly more than the other two.”
After continued persistence in questioning her for an answer, the Mother finally gave in. She said, “The one that I love the most, is the one who at that particular time is hurting the most.”
Reflecting on that story, Trevor Hudson suggests that that is what God’s love is like. We are all God’s children, but as you read the Gospel stories, as you read the way Jesus interacts with people, the example of Jesus suggests that God’s love is expressed most especially for those who are hurting in the world.
When we read passages like this one today that speak of the blessedness of the poor, it is suggests that they are blessed in the sense that they are the particular subjects of God's concern and compassion, not because poverty is necessarily a blessed state to be in.
But is is also important to pause and reflect on what Luke means when in his Gospel he uses the terms “The Rich” and “The Poor”.
For Luke, the poor is an umbrella term that refers to all who receive a raw deal in life, particularly because of the way human life is structured. In Luke’s Gospel, it refers firstly to the economically poor. Later on in Luke’s Gospel in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich man (which only appears in Luke's Gospel), Lazarus represents the poor who are destitute, those who don’t have enough to live on to care for their basic needs. But in Luke’s Gospel, the poor also refer to the socially and spiritually poor: tax collectors who were socially rejected and on the margins of society, women who were treated like second class citizens . The outcasts, those who are pushed to the edges of society due to various kinds of afflictions, aliments disabilities and sicknesses.
One the other hand, the Rich in Luke’s Gospel refers to those who are self-satisfied in their wealth and in their privileged position in society – quite happy for things to remain just as they are. In Luke’s Gospel, they are the self-righteous in believing that their state of blessed-ness is somehow because they are God’s favourites. The rich in Luke’s Gospel are those whose hearts are closed to the poor, who have no sense of responsibility towards uplifting the poor. In fact in that parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the Rich man seems to be completely oblivious to the presence of Lazarus at his door. The Rich in Luke’s Gospel are those get wealthy through ill-gotten gain as well as those who keep building bigger and better storehouses to store their wealth with no thought of using it to benefit others.
Luke’s Gospel as it re-tells the story of Jesus, has a vision of building a more just and equal society where the Rich are brought low and humbled, and the poor are raised up and empowered. In the song of Mary near the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, she bursts into song, praising God who will scatter the proud, bring down rulers from their thrones, he will lift up the lowly, he will fill the hungry with good things, but will send the rich away empty, why? Because they already have more than they need.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is pictured as one who gives new dignity to the poor and marginalised, who empowers them to become full and whole human beings again. To repent in Luke’s Gospel is to no longer participate in perpetuating the status quo of society with it’s stark distinction between the Rich and the Poor. It is to become a partner with Jesus in using one’s wealth and influence to build a different kind of society that works to healing the divisions in society. In the story of Zacchaeus, which again only appears in Luke's Gospel, Zacchaeus stands as a model of one who is rich, who has a change of heart, and begins to use and share his wealth in order to become a partner with Jesus in building a new kind of society.
To end briefly: On Monday night I attended the Women’s League, although as Sonya very astutely pointed out to the guest speaker, I am not a women! But it was a real inspiration to hear how Janice Barr and her family have created a legacy for their daughter Charlene in running a charity (Charlene's Project) in her name that is uplifting the lives of the poor in Uganda, Syria and Guatemala. Inspiring to know that every penny they receive goes directly to those in need. It was a challenge as one who has recently moved from South Africa, a country with great poverty, to one of the wealthiest countries in the world to ask the question: “What am I doing in my privileged position, to make a difference in the world? What am I doing to become a partner with Christ to give dignity and empowerment to those who find themselves at the very bottom of the pile?” Amen.