Jesus Teaches and Heals
[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.
Blessings and Woes
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.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
You might be familiar with Henri Nouwen’s work. He was a Dutch Catholic Priest (1932-1996) who wrote, taught, and served extensively on matters of spirituality, identity, pastoral ministry, and social justice.
At the center of his life’s work was a desire for people to know their belovedness as children of God; in fact, much of his work revolves around this core message. Take, for instance, Nouwen’s sermon at the Crystal Cathedral in1992, where he discusses the central question that keeps us going as human beings: “Who am I?” In it, Nouwen outlines how we often answer this question in three ways: I am what I do; I am what other people say about me; and I am what I have.
I thought of this when I imagined the scene Luke depicts for his version of the Sermon on the Mount—which here is actually the Sermon on the Plain.
Jesus comes down from the mountain where he has been praying, and where he has appointed twelve of his disciples to also be his apostles. He walks among the crowd made up of people who have come to hear him teach and to be healed by him from up to a hundred miles away. Along with the crowd and the twelve, there are other disciples as well.
It is while Jesus is going among the crowd and healing them that he looks up to his disciples to deliver this sermon. I find it interesting that Luke makes it clear that Jesus is speaking to the disciples, even though the crowd is obviously listening in, and has, in fact, come to listen to Jesus teach. It’s a layered invitation that is applicable to each of the groups listening.
Without saying it directly, Jesus’ list of blessings and woes names some of the very fundamental views of human self-identity: who am I? Am I what I have? Am I what I do? Am I what people say about me?
What sustains you in difficult times? What is the source of your endurance? What is the source of your happiness? These questions carry across the readings for today. As we move deeper into this time after Epiphany, the lectionary transitions from revelations about who God is to revelations about who God is for us.
Jeremiah makes clear that God is the source of both our trust and our sustenance, equating God’s very self with the trust that leads to blessing. God’s blessing, however, should not be taken for granted. Jeremiah has learned this the hard way, having been confronted for comparing the Lord with failing waters. Now repentant, Jeremiah adapts the language of Psalm 1, a text likely part of his scriptural canon. Affirming with the psalmist that God provides for the well-watered tree, Jeremiah adds that even in times of hardship, such as he experiences, God continues to sustain through a strong root system.
In the western United States, bristlecone pine trees, possibly the oldest living organisms on earth, grow at high altitudes and in desert conditions due to the branched and shallow root systems. These trees have survived for thousands of years but have a twisted and worn appearance to show for it. Neither Jeremiah nor Jesus promises that the blessings of God will be easy or pretty, but they promise that a life lived in God not only will sustain the faithful but will bring about blessing and fruit of its own kind.
Jesus gave everyone who heard, especially his disciples, clear orders as to how his vision of God’s work would go forward. Four promises, and four warnings, presented in terms of Israel’s great scriptural codes: in a book called Deuteronomy, there were long lists of ‘blessings’ for those who obeyed the law, and ‘curses’ for those who didn’t.
These formed part of the charter, the covenant, the binding agreement between God and Israel. Now, with the renewed Israel formed around him, Jesus gives his own version of the same thing.
And a radical version it is. It’s an upside-down code, or perhaps (Jesus might have said) a right-way up code instead of the upside-down ones people had been following. God is doing something quite new: as Jesus has emphasized in the synogogue in Nazereth, he is fulfilling his promises at last, and this will mean good news for all people who haven’t had any for a long time. The poor, the hungry, those who weep, those who are hated: blessings on them! Not that there’s anything virtuous about being poor or hungry in itself. But when injustice is reigning, the world will have to be turned once more the right way up for God’s justice and kingdom to come to birth. And that will provoke opposition from people who like things the way they are. Jesus’ message of promise and warning, rang with echoes of the Hebrew prophets of old, and he knew that the reaction would be the same.
In Jesus’ words, we hear various answers to the “Who am I?” question: I am poor, I am hungry, I am weeping, I am rejected and ridiculed. I am rich, I am content with myself, I am laughing about my success, I am someone who everyone admires… Or, as Nouwen summarizes: I am what I do (weep or succeed); I am what I have (plenty or not enough); I am what people say/think about me (good or ill, truth or lies).
Underlying the blessings and the woes is a necessary understanding about connection. Disciples have chosen the “right” connection: they have left jobs and a way of life to learn from their rabbi; they have chosen to identify with Jesus.
The crowds who have come to hear and to be healed have come for the moment, but to disciple is for life. Being a disciple is, truly, an answer to the question, “Who am I?”
As identities, the descriptions we use are deeply rooted in us; they describe the connection we hold with what we believe to be true (positively and negatively). Nouwen’s desire for people to know that they are the beloved of God was for a purpose. Along with being extremely biblical, it is also life-giving, worldview transforming, and purpose shaping. In other words, it is exactly what every invitation from God in Scripture is: an invitation to be rooted in Christ and God.
So we need to reconsider our thoughts about identity and how this passage shows answers to the “Who am I?” question. What Jesus is saying here isn’t that we, as his disciples, must choose to be poor, or to be hungry, or to always be full of mourning, or to willingly seek out rejection and defamation—just as we are not to seek out to be rich, or content with ourselves, nor to become indifferent to the needs of others while we live the good life. .
No, the point that Jesus is making is about connection. He’s helping to give the disciples something about their identity to hold onto when the bad times come. In spite of having experiences of need (poverty, hunger, grief, rejection), as his disciples who are connected to him, they are blessed. And not only are they blessed because they belong to him, they will experience the “great reversal” that is the Kingdom of God (a major theme in the Gospel of Luke) as they are promised the kingdom, to be filled, and that they will laugh. Their identity, connection, and rootedness in Christ propels them into the great future God will bestow.
Jesus says that his disciples are blessed when these sufferings (specifically when we are rejected by others) on account of their connection to him. And he says that when other people see this connection to Christ so clearly that they respond to it—even if their response is negative—then his disciples ought to rejoice and leap for joy and to know that their reward, the fulfillment of their identity, is yet to come.
The “wealth gap,” “food deserts,” the “education gap,” the “health gap,” and lots of other gaps and failures around the globe mark the two sides of the blessings and woes. It’s the gap we are called to address by this passage for God’s sake and our own. It’s what we as children of God do and what we repent of not having done, confident that God gives new opportunities to live with generosity and attention.