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Both Luke and Matthew record a version of Jesus’ sayings which we call the “beatitudes.” These are the opening verses of today’s Gospel reading, in which Jesus pronounces blessing on those who are poor, oppressed and in distress. They’re beautiful words of comfort and hope, but Matthew and Luke present them just a bit differently.
For example, Luke doesn’t “spiritualize” the problems Jesus is addressing. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus pronounces blessing on the “poor in spirit” and those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness”, whereas in Luke, Jesus simply pronounces blessing on those who are actually poor and actually hungry. Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus speaking in the third person – “blessed are those who”, while Luke presents Jesus more personally addressing the people listening: “Blessed are YOU”.
But most noticeably, at the end of Luke’s recitation of the beatitudes, Luke records Jesus as going on not only to say “blessed are you”, but a series of “woe to you” pronouncements, which parallel the blessings!
“Woe to you” is not nearly as warm and fuzzy. Matthew doesn’t record these words. And so we’re often tempted to skip over them, as those they were just an aside to a few obnoxious people that Jesus happened to notice and wanted to call out.
But actually, we should stop and ask why Luke recorded these words for his first readers and for us. What’s the point of the “woes”? In one sense, it should be clear that if God cares for the poor and oppressed, others should, too, regardless of the woes. It’s also not that Jesus is saying that being full or happy is a bad thing in and of itself (notwithstanding some Christian interpretations!), otherwise he wouldn’t promise that those who are hungry would be filled and those who are mourning would laugh…
So why the “woes?” Luke doesn’t explain his editing, but I’ve got a theory. Often, when I read the beatitudes (either version), I’m tempted to react in one of two ways. The first is if I’m at a particularly low point in my life. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen very often, but if I am, it’s comforting and uplifting to know God notices and cares, and that whatever I’m going through will not have the final word in my life. And of course, that’s one of the important lessons that we’re supposed to get from the beatitudes.
But most of the time, I realize that my life, even when it’s tough, is not nearly as bad as it was for these folks Jesus was addressing, or for lots of other people in our world today. And at those times, I’m likely to hear these words as God’s promise that the poor, oppressed and rejected will be cared for by God and in the end God will take care of them. And that’s great… especially if it means that I can rely on God to take care of the pain and suffering around me so that I don’t have to!
And I think that’s where the woes come in! Perhaps Luke included these words because he realizes that it’s easy for all of us to hear these comforting words of Jesus to others, feel warm and fuzzy, and then go on about our business as usual. But in fact, Jesus is laying out a vision of what God is doing in the world around us, and calling all of us to be a part of it. And the woes are directed to us when we forget that.
These “woes” are Jesus’ call and reminder to us to not be:
- Self-absorbed with what we have or don’t have – and that’s easy to do. We hear words like, “woe to you who are rich” and think, “well, that’s not me because I’m not rich!” And we think that because most people define “rich” as meaning “somebody who has more than me!”… And yet, even Americans who make the median household income are in the upper 1 percent of global wealth… but even that knowledge can make people self-absorbed (there was a website I saw pointing this out which said that this knowledge should make people proud of themselves and happy and motivate them to save more for themselves and teach their children how good they have it…!); whether I think I have a lot or a little, it can still all be about me. Yet Jesus calls me to care about my neighbor; and so woe to me if I’m letting God care about my neighbor because I’m too focused on myself and with what I have or don’t have…
- Self-reliant – that also, can be easy to do when I read the beatitudes and think, “oh, what poor folks who need God’s help because they can’t manage.” I, on the other hand, can manage things myself, and that’s good because God is busy with other people… But there are points in all of our lives when we realize we’ve reached the end of our ropes and we need help to manage. And at some point, as we take our final breaths, we’ll really be at a point where we can’t fix things for ourselves anymore. And woe to me if I reach that point, and don’t have God there to rely on for help…
- Spectators – this is maybe the easiest thing to do when I read the beatitudes – ah, God will make all things right! And there are some things that only God can make right. But if God cares about hungry people, then God wants to use me to help those who are hungry. If God cares about people who are cast out because of their faithfulness, then God wants to use me as a physical sign of support in their lives. Luther reminds us in the catechism that to pray for daily bread is also to open ourselves to being God’s instruments of providing daily bread to our neighbors. And woe to me if I see God’s light coming into the world, and I just sit back and watch and be entertained, instead of getting in the act and being part of what God is doing … (this was some of the impetus to getting “souperbowl Sunday” started…
Jesus came into the world to be the light of God’s love and presence in real human lives. He came to help out with real human needs. And indeed, we all have some needs that only God can meet.
But Jesus calls us all to get in on what he’s doing. He calls us to be agents of God’s love in the lives of others in our world, and to show forth God’s light especially in times of darkness.
And so Jesus calls us to get in on the act. He cautions us not to get too caught up in ourselves. He reminds us not to rely on our ourselves. And he invites us each day to be people who actively open ourselves to being agents, not spectators, of what God is doing in the lives of others around us.