The structure of today’s gospel passage is four blessings contrasted with four woes, all of which serve the purpose of encouraging believers to “look heavenward” during trial and tribulations.
What does it mean to look heavenward?
And, if we’re able to discern such meaning, what good does it do?
So many of the commentaries on Luke’s Beatitudes spend lots of time talking about a theology of suffering – that in suffering there is eternal meaning. When it comes to difficult circumstances, thinking in terms of endurance for the sake of God’s Reign leaves me pretty cold. I came away from several reflections feeling deeply that I want no part of a God who says, “Never mind your sufferings now; you’ll be rewarded later!”
And yet, I’m still searching for some kind of understanding about this eternal meaning piece. And while it’s not a perfect place to land, I came across a suggestion somewhere along the line this past week or so that suggests that in God’s eyes, the past can indeed be seen, used, perceived as a prelude to a noble future. That kinda works for me. Take, for example, two of the greatest theodicy challenges: The Holocaust and 911. Maybe in God’s eyes the point is not the horror and disaster, but rather, what came as a result, that is, the long and ardent outpouring of compassionate response and the efforts made, (flawed though they may be at times), toward ensuring such horrors never happen again.
If that IS how God sees such things, then the focus is much more on encouragement in the face of pain, it would seem. Is that the eternal meaning? Are these Beatitudes Jesus’ eternal encouragement somehow?
If we begin to make room for such thoughts, something begins to stand out in regard to these blessings and woes. Whether one is rich in this life or poor, it’s not really the role of any human to either judge or to even harbor expectations as to how reversal of fortune may occur. The purpose of human witness, it would seem, is to, instead of judging, simply act: lift the fallen, restore the broken and heal the hurting. Full stop.
The eternal meaning relates to the Spirit in the Beatitudes, which now seems meant to encourage, and by encouraging, strengthen the lives of those who really hear its message.
The four blessings are matched point-by-point with “woe to you” statements. One might call these curses. It’s seems less appropriate to call them curses when we remember they come from the mouth of the Lord of Love. And that being the case, I guess we’re meant to wrestle a bit with these woes in order to find how they advance the cause of love.
My first thought about that springs from my babysitting job each week. I love little Rory, my grand-niece, very very much. But she has definitely entered into the age when she is exploring – how shall I say it – the glories of willfulness. I admit to having to gentle set strong limitations for her, partly so she will not injure herself, and partly in order that she not develop habits of irresponsibility – meeting her perceived needs at the expense of others.
I’ll also admit that this kind of thinking has its risks when I try to expand it to a more global framework. For instance, if I were in charge of Congress (who, frankly, seems like they need a bit of the same kind of loving discipline I’d offer an almost two-year-old), I’d be very tempted to impose some form of time-out – y’know, term limits.
And while there’s a kernel of truth in there, it’s probably not the best thing for us to tiptoe over the “woes to you” we’re facing here. If, in this rather affluent community, we’re not squirming a little bit when we hear them, we might not be listening hard enough. We might best be served by listening at least enough to be unsettled. When we live in the center, and not on the margins of society – when we enjoy privilege rather than discrimination, we might hear Jesus’ words and feel our hearts sink. I don’t think we’re meant to avoid this. And yet, I don’t think it’s the point of this message to have us stay in that place of sinking feeling. Perhaps the eternal meaning here has to do with making a sincere reflection on our lives that somehow dwells in the power of this passage. This message does indeed have the power to move us out of fear and dejection, and into hope and commitment – maybe even a hope borne of commitment.
This life we aspire to, is a life of godliness – and if you don’t like godliness, then holiness. And if you don’t like either, then think of the Golden Rule: “Treat Others As You’d Like To Be Treated”. No matter which words you use to describe the life of the world in which “everybody does better when everybody does better”, it’s not always easy. It can be very difficult, this loving your enemies thing. Sometimes it requires thinking a lot differently…finding that spirit of wisdom and revelation that St. Paul speaks of – y’know, looking at the word and the world through the eyes of your heart.
I made an exercise the other day out of re-thinking these Beatitudes – y’know, casting them in 2016 terms. See if this helps generate some interesting new thoughts:
• Blessed are you who have been taken advantage of, whose needs have been ignored, who have been mistreated out of some brand of human fearfulness that fosters negativism and comparison-making. We, the world, look to you for the guidance we need to make God’s Reign become the reality.
• Blessed are you who don’t have enough to eat. Not only do you inspire a handful of people in this community to get up a little earlier on the 2nd and 4th Saturday mornings each month to help fatten your larders, the generating impulse we act upon fills those days in ways that really help make a life for each of us, a life that, with each and every soul that joins on, demonstrates God’s love more tangibly in the life of this city and maybe even the world.
• Blessed are you who are weeping now. Your tears wash the darkness from our hearts, and awaken a compassion so tender that it has the potential to color all we say and do and are.
• But woe to you who have chosen not to see how the Spirit of God’s purpose undergirds the secular law of the land. Woe to you who have, instead, denied that spirit in favor of using legal complexity to, as quietly as possible, justify greater and greater hording of wealth among so few at the expense of so many. You may indeed see this as some form of consolation, but it is a cold consolation compared to the warmth that comes of giving your fair share in behalf of those less fortunate.
• Woe to you for whom full bellies and full coffers mean more than kindheartedness and sharing. Can all that material wealth satisfy the human hunger for love and acceptance so urgently craved by your beautiful heart and soul?
• Woe to you who are laughing now. For if you’re not laughing with the fallen, the broken and the hurting – if you’re not laughing together with them in the joy and relief of having discovered loving relationship through the offering of support, your laughter may be so hollow it will ring like a shower of tears, threatening to drown out the voice of gentle love that all people of this earth need so much.
• When people speak well of you, greater good is required of you.
• So love your enemies, do good to those who hate you – make acts of loving kindness toward them anyway.
• Bless those who curse you, those who take advantage of you, even those who harm you or seek to do so. It’s all about praying for them always.
• Make giving to beggars a grace-filled habit. Ask the person’s name and pray for her or him that day.
It doesn’t take much to see the broader application of Jesus’ words today.
And on this day, in particular, when we celebrate the Feast of All Saints, we not only affirm the lives of those we’ve loved and lost – those who have been like saints in our lives – we also look through the lens of Luke’s Beatitudes at the saints who inhabit our present day world. Saints like:
• Dr. Anarkali Kaur-Honaryar – a Sikh woman born in 1984, she grew up to become a powerful human rights activist and, in fact, a Senator in Afghanistan, who helped draft the country’s new constitution after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.
• The Hindu Guru Swami Ramdev Baba who, born Christmas Day of 1965, has become a master of pranayama, or yogic breathing, and developer of powerful Ayer Vedic medicines.
• Julian deShazier at the University of Chicago Divinity School who, also known as the Emmy winning hip hop artist JKWest, was instrumental in securing one of Chicago’s Level 1 Trauma Hospitals.
• The countless Jewish Tzaddiks – righteous ones believed to bear mystical powers.
• Navajo/Cheyenne activist and poet Lyla June, whose very recent words at the Standing Rock protest in North Dakota bid all parties involved walk in the walk of forgiveness – letting down anger, bitterness and hatred because, even as the women who’d been maced and beaten there have declared, “This world does not need more hatred!” “Forgiveness”, she says, “doesn’t mean that what happened is okay. It means we’ve chosen to respond with love. And it’s because we love not only our water and our air, we love our human family.”
If these women and men are not the modern-day embodiment of Jesus’ message in Luke’s beatitudes, then I don’t know who is. Throughout the world’s history saints have been thought to be cloistered nuns and pious priests – people who walked the narrow route, that rugged thorny maze.
The greater truth may be that there’s incredible diversity in both the joys and difficulties through which saintly ones discern God’s call.
What may separate saints from the rest of the world in the minds of some, might turn out to be precisely what makes for godliness and even saintliness in the person sitting next to you right now. Unique strengths and weaknesses come together in ways that help uncover the spark of divinity that ignites every individual in a special way – and even more, inspires the unique ways each one of us responds to that light as our gifts allow.
It is an openness to the light of God in our own hearts, AND in the hearts of others, that helps us know the eternal meaning in the words we sang together at the start of worship today – words that have particular resonance this week, on many levels:
“And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again and arms are strong. Alleluia, alleluia!”