Chances are, if you are a part of a mission trip or youth conference group, the end of you day brings everyone together for conversation. It is an opportunity to unwind a bit and debrief your experience as a group. Reflections are shared and the activities of the day are put into context a bit. Often this time begins with going around sharing about the day. One way to frame it is for everyone to share one positive thing and one challenging thing about the day. Sometimes it’s called highs and lows, but my favorite iteration is “roses and thorns,” which brings the reminder that even within the same flower of a day, there is beauty to behold as well as prickly things that might take you by surprise.
In today’s gospel verses, we find a short series of roses and thorns as described by Jesus to his disciples and the crowd who had gathered around. In Luke’s gospel, they are described as “blessings” and “woes.” They are a part of a lengthy sermon that is paralleled in Matthew’s gospel as well. Rather than the 107 verses we hear in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Luke’s gospel has Jesus only giving a 32-verse sermon known as the Sermon on the Plain. These verses might sound familiar as they are echoes of the well-known Beatitudes in Matthew 6, although here Luke puts a different spin on things.
First, he identifies the blessings, or the roses. He identifies the poor, the hungry, the weeping, those who are excluded and persecuted. If these examples strike you as odd, you’re not alone. They are far from a typical list of blessings. Often we associate the word “blessing” with happiness or good fortune. But in the Greek, makarios holds a bit deeper of a meaning. It is beyond the superficial or even material possessions; it is a word more closely connected to the first-century sense of unity with God in an eternal sense, relating to righteousness and being in right relationship with our creator. Fred Craddock says that:
These statements are performative; that is to say, the words have power and perform or make true the kinds of life presented in the statements. Jesus is making the official proclamation of the way life is inside and outside the reign of God[i].
To be “blessed,” meant living in a keen awareness of the presence of God. It is not to be free from struggle, but to be oriented towards a reality where God’s realm is realized. In each of these blessings, the struggle comes with a promise of reversal: the hungry will be filled, the weeping will give way to laughter. These promises echo the song of hope Mary sang in Luke 1, with a complete reversal of fortunes for the rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, the full and the empty.
Luke’s words are grounded in present reality, and our responses to them should be as well. Thomas Frank offers that it is notable that Luke’s location is different than Matthew’s. In Matthew, we see Jesus taking his disciples to the mountaintop, looking down on the world around them and giving them the big picture. But in Luke, Jesus is on the plain with them. His words are simple, straightforward and concrete. One translation of the location is that he is “on the level,” which hints that this conversation from Luke’s perspective is about Jesus being squarely in step with the realities of our human existence, and speaking plainly to us about it. He looks up to the disciples and the crowd with these statements:
as if to say, what are you doing right this minute? People are sick and dying right here, tormented by spirits. . . Will you get down here with me and help?[ii]
In these verses, Jesus is “on the level” with us, telling us the truth of our lives as he sees us, and confronting us with our responsibility to be a part of God’s kingdom with our response to what we see in the world.
God calls us to be a part of the kind of kingdom that Christ modeled. Immediately prior to these verses, Jesus is surrounded by crowds seeking healing, which he offers. Throughout the gospel, particularly in Luke, we find Jesus attending to the very real needs of the poor and suffering. We see Jesus acting with love and compassion in a powerful ministry of presence, and calling his disciples to do the same. We can reach out to those who are hungry, that they might be filled, whether that is through a mobile food pantry next Saturday, or backpacks for children who might not have anything in their pantries at home. We can offer comfort to those who weep, by reaching out with phone calls, cards, or visits and offering friendship and care that gives way to laughter. These are ways we can live into the blessings that Christ teaches, plain and simple.
This would be challenge enough, but the gospel pushes us even farther, as Luke punctuates these blessings with 4 corresponding statements of “woes.” These are the thorns; examples given of things that are soon to be upended. These woes, unique to Luke, are tough ones to hear, particularly if we find that they are descriptive of us. Jesus, speaking quite freely and plainly, calls the audience and us, out of our complacency and away from the safety and security of our laurels that we rest upon, and says that the reign of God, here and now, is about something more than just our own accomplishments. In fact, these accomplishments might just be our undoing.
I think Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of these verses in The Message helps get at the meaning of these verses well. He puts verses 24 through 26 like this:
But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made.
What you have is all you’ll ever get.
And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself.
Your self will not satisfy you for long.
And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games,
There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it.
“There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular. (The Message, Luke 6:24-26)
To be the most faithful to the gospel, I’d offer, Luke calls us to step aside from our preconceived notions of being blessed, and be willing to embrace the kind of upside-down reversals that Jesus presents. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is meant to startle us out of our complacency and inspire us to action. As David Ostendorf notes:
God does not take kindly to half-heartedness. God does not bless us as we maintain the status quo, reaping the accolades of those who hear us and follow us. God does not bless us as we bathe in respectability in the eyes of the world. God does not bless us as we quietly maintain tradition and gloss over or ignore prophetic voices calling us back to God – in the church and in the world. God does not bless us as we protect and build institutions and empires. God does not bless us, well off, full, comfortable, hearty, and well-spoken of[iii].
These four pairings, blessings and woes, roses and thorns, challenge us to look at our lives and our world with new eyes. They challenge us to clarify our values and examine what are the things in life that we will take a stand for in relation to faithful living. Packed into these verses are very real instructions for the disciples, including those of us who claim to follow Christ today, to reorient our relationships and reverse the social, economic, and political injustices that surround us so that we might live most fully into the reign of God here and now.
In the 1930s, church leaders in Germany had such an opportunity. As Adolph Hitler rose to power he capitalized on fear to abolish rights and democratic processes. Many took the union of Christianity, nationalism, and militarism for granted, and patriotic sentiments were equated with Christian truth that quickly led to calls for a racially pure nation with Hitler’s rule as God’s will for the German people. But some resisted this trend, including several pastors and theologian Karl Barth. After meeting regionally, they gathered representatives of Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches in Gemarke Church, Barmen, in the city of Wupperthal at the end of May 1934. 139 delegates, including ordained ministers, church members, and university professors, made a declaration to appeal to the Evangelical churches of Germany to reject the German Christian accommodation to National Socialism and proclaim instead the church’s freedom in Jesus Christ who is Lord of every area of life. They made 6 assertions, all based in Scripture, to present a statement of faith that would call the church to faithfulness to the gospel once again. We will use part of it as our Affirmation of Faith later this morning. The document helped unify the church in belief and renew faithfulness against an otherwise popular message that they believed was a threat to the gospel itself. The Declaration of Barmen is almost a modern blessings and woes, proclaiming what the reign of God should be, and firmly taking a stand against that which would threaten the very gospel Jesus proclaimed. It, along with others in our Book of Confessions, particularly the Confession of 1967 and the Belhar Confession, are one way the church collectively seeks to be a prophetic voice to the world, all grounded in an understanding of the vision Christ presented on the plain for the kingdom of God to break into the world.
And, in the end, that is what the Beatitudes call us to – a better understanding of what it looks like for God to reign, a God who sees all of God’s creation as beloved and blessed and calls us to be in a community that models such a perspective. These words from Luke are not a gospel of comfort, but a gospel of challenge to embrace the world with the love and eyes of Jesus. Woe to those of us who miss the opportunity to be a part of such a world. Blessed be the ones who are able to live in the upside-down world of God, for them the kindom of God is revealed. Amen.
~sermon by Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford, Heritage Presbyterian Church, February 17, 2019
[i] Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990)
[ii] Thomas Edward Frank, “Pastoral Perspective: Luke 6:17-26,” Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Volume 1, Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).
[iii] David L. Ostendorf, “Theological Perspective: Luke 6:17-26,” Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).