The Kingdom Perspective - Luke 6:17-26
There once was a poor boy in ancient China. He had wealthy neighbors who had a son and they would play together and became friends. As the boys grew older, the rich boy’s family moved away, close to the palace and he lost touch with his friend. For the rest of his childhood the rich boy went to school and worked hard to become a noble in the king’s court like his father. The poor boy’s parents died and he became homeless. He worked as a day laborer when he could, but most of the time was a homeless beggar. The rich boy grew up, had a family, worked in the king’s court, lived in safety, and always had plenty of food and money.
Decades later when both men were entering old age, a monastery was built in the town. The poor man was eager to join and immediately took to life as a monk. The rich man decided to retire to the monastery to work on his spiritual journey. There the two men recognized each other and embraced like long lost brothers. The rich man found the strict life of a fasting and sleeping on the floor to be daunting, while the poor man found having consistent eating patterns and a roof over his head were quite comfortable. Though he had no formal training, the abbot soon recognized that the poor man understood much about the deeper meanings of life. He became a respected teacher of other monks, who looked up to him for his wisdom. The rich man remained a novice monk the rest of his life, and struggled to reach the level of depth and understanding of his friend.
I tell this story because in the Gospel reading today Jesus has some challenging things to say about the rich and the poor. Jesus’ words may have been good news for his original audience but they’re challenging for us today. Those of us in middle to upper class communities would be wise to sit with the discomfort this text creates. Jesus was a poor man. There’s no doubt about that. And most early Christians were poor. And compared to most people in Jesus’ time, most of us are quite rich. Here Jesus is saying that there’s something about poverty that makes them blessed. Modern American Christians live in a society that honors wealth and success and financial achievement. We’re bombarded daily by images of the rich and famous. We look up to celebrities, athletes, and billionaires like they have the answer to what life’s all about.
In a podcast hosted by professors at Luther Seminary, my alma mater, professor Rolf Jacobsen pointed out the meaning of the words “blessed” and “woe.” He said that in the Jeremiah reading the Hebrew is accurately translated as blessed and cursed. But in the Gospel reading the English words “blessed” and “woe” are not the most accurate translations of the original Greek.
The meaning of the Greek word we translate “blessed” is closer to meaning “respectable” or “admirable.” It means the ones you should look up to. The ones you should admire are the poor. In our world, then and now, the wealthy and successful are who we tend to admire, the people we look up to. But in Jesus’ kingdom it is the poor who are regarded with the highest honor. It is the poor we should look up to. It is the poor who really get what life is all about. What Jesus is essentially saying to us is: look at the poor, let them lead you, they’ll tell you the most important things to focus on. They’ll teach you what life’s all about. They have a privileged worldview. Those who have it easy don’t really get it. So look up to the poor who have the kingdom perspective.
So that’s a new angle on the word “blessed.” And the word “woe” does not mean cursed. It means like “Whoa! Look out!” Danger! Caution! Beware! The word woe is the opposite of the “Do not be afraid” phrase spoken by prophets. So it doesn’t mean you’re cursed; but it does mean you better watch out if you’re rich, or full, or laughing, or spoken well of. Jesus’ point here seems to be we should beware of having it all in life. It doesn’t mean we’re cursed, but that we should have caution and not trust our own worldview too much. Because wealth can make you lose perspective. Success can make you lose perspective. Always having food on the table can make you lose perspective. Jesus says “Look out!” to those of us who are rich, because it’s likely that we don’t understand Jesus’ kingdom perspective.
Since it’s Super Bowl Sunday I have to include an example about football. It might be a stretch but hear me out. What Jesus is saying is sort of like saying an NFL star who always had it easy and was always super successful, doesn’t really get what football’s all about. But it’s the guy who had to work his way to the top, who had to fight for his job, who had to overcome injuries and getting cut by different teams, he understands what it’s all about. Whether he ever makes it to the top or not, he gets it.
Tom Brady, who most say is the greatest football player of all time reflected back on the success he had early in his career in the documentary series “Man in the Arena.” His first championship was exciting but after winning 3 Super Bowls in 4 years he wondered if reaching the mountaintop of Super Bowl champion was really all it’s cracked up to be. It wasn’t until enduring Super Bowl losses and not winning for ten years that he really learned how to be the best player he could be. The sting of losing gave him perspective and changed the way he understood football and the way he understood life. Tom was basically saying: if everything in football comes easy it makes you lose perspective about football. And if everything in life comes easy it makes you lose perspective about life.
Now what Jesus said in this Gospel reading today is that if you are rich, if you always have enough food, if you’re laughing and always lucky enough to be in a good mood, and if people always admire you and speak well of you—then you probably have lost perspective. If you’ve never experienced true poverty, if you’ve never had to go to bed hungry, if you’ve never been depressed, if you’ve never been bullied or wrongly accused—then you probably don’t have a full a picture of what life is all about.
And let’s face it, most of us, probably all of us, would be rich by Jesus’ standards. Myself included. So he tells us to look up to the poor, to admire them—rather than admiring the richest and most glamorous among us. Rather than looking up to my football hero Tom Brady, Jesus is saying I should admire the homeless man on the side of the street. That I should ask him how to live life before I ask Tom or any celebrity role models.
Now it's important we don’t romanticize poverty here. A poverty-stricken world is not God’s intention. Jesus came that we may have life and have it abundantly. Jesus calls our world to be a place where all people live life abundantly. And what Jesus is saying here is that it is the poor who have the blessed perspective. They’re the ones who know how to make it happen. They’re the ones we should look up to and honor and hold in highest regard. What do they say is important? What would they say the church should be doing in the world? What would they say our national priorities should be? If we really believed what Jesus is saying here, what would change about our life? What would our churches look like? What would our sense of leadership look like? What would human civilization look like if we truly admired the poor? What does this challenging teaching actually look like if we live it out?
I bet you a homeless man in Hartford would have a very different idea about what society’s priorities should be than a billionaire CEO, even if the CEO is a decent church-going guy who donates to charity. There’s something about always having your needs met that makes us lose perspective. But when your needs aren’t being met you are hit with the daily reality that the world could and should be a different place. When you live that reality, you understand why we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, and you probably have a better idea of how to make it happen.
This is a challenging text for me. And it should invite us into introspection and prayer. Allow Jesus’ words to transform us by the renewal of our minds, as St. Paul says in Romans. And pray that even if you don’t have the most privileged perspective, God will give you the humility to listen to those who do. And know that Jesus Christ lived among us as a poor man in an oppressed nation and was tortured to death on the cross to heal our blindness, forgive our sin, and reconcile this broken world with God. And to help us all live with his kingdom perspective that he is calling us to follow.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, 2/13/22