for Sunday February 17
[Jesus] came down with [the twelve] 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. 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.
I wish this text did not have ‘Woes.’ A bit ironic when last week I had been so stricken as to join Isaiah’s own and claim hope in it. It would seem nicer if this text had only blessings. Even if I could not claim myself among those identified as ‘blessed’ — we are not poor nor hungry, although weeping I know — I could at least hang near their fringes. Luke’s Jesus does not seem to permit this sidling near. There are those pronounced ‘blessed’ and those to whom Jesus addresses woes. Luke’s Jesus explicitly addresses the extremes, as if there is no middle. One is blessed, or one is addressed with woe. Those are the only options.
‘Don’t spiritualize Luke,’ the commentaries all agree. When Luke says ‘poor,’ do not helpfully complete the phrase ‘in spirit’ (Matt 5:3), think destitute, even desperate. When Luke says ‘hungry’ do not imagine hungering for righteousness (Matt 5:6), think bellies bloated with emptiness, of daily bread prayed for more often than eaten. Definitely do not let this thought drive you up from the table for another square of dark chocolate. Set yourself back into your seat, staring — glaring — at this text, sorry you cannot count yourself poor and hungry, sorry to know you are rich and full, wishing there was a word in Jesus’ words that you could claim as happy, a happy word you could claim as for you.
‘Happy’ or ‘fortunate’ — these are equally apt translations for the ‘blessed.’ And the ‘woe’ is not itself a curse although it pronounces the pain to be felt when we see as God sees. The words are powerful, blessing no less than woe. Jesus’ speech makes something plain that was not so before; Jesus’ speech makes something be that had not been before. The poor realize their inheritance, the hungry experience fullness, the mourners hiccup past the worst of their tears and begin to feel a peace steal over their spirit. Jesus’ words perform what they describe: blessedness.
And the rich? Those who are full and laugh and have the praise of ‘all’ (an inherently suspect acclamation)? Does Jesus truly speak ‘to’ or only ‘about’ them? Are they rhetorical figures, straw-persons set in opposition to the blessed? Were they there among that crowd of disciples who had come to hear and be healed? If so, what did they hear? How were they healed?
‘Power came out of him,’ Luke writes of Jesus, and the power that came out from him ‘healed all of them.’ And then Jesus looks at his disciples — not only the twelve apostles but the whole ‘crowd’ of disciples there — and speaks.
Healing precedes hearing, one commentator notes. I wonder. Maybe the power that comes out and heals is Jesus’ speech. The sound of his voice, the rise and fall of his tone, the shapes of his words, strung into sentences of blessing and of woe, sentences that make things happen. You listen as if he is talking to you. You listen because he is talking to you: ‘Blessed are you,’ ‘Woe to you.’ And because Jesus is talking to you, you yourself, you hear what you had not before. You’re not inappropriately sidling near, as if hoping blessing might trickle down. You already are there, already trying to hear. Maybe the point is not, or not only, the proclamation of blessing, the pronouncement of woe, but the adjustment of sight, the glimpse for a moment as if through God’s eyes, of God’s judgment, in God’s reign. A flash like lightening on a summer night that shudders across the entire sky, shows the world brighter than day, so that darkness after seems blacker than before. But there was that moment. When you saw. That those consoled in their riches have exhausted all the consolation that they can know. But those — rich and poor alike — who gather on a plain, bringing their illnesses and their troubled spirits to the source of consolation may yet be healed, may yet become a community together, a crowd of disciples, gathering and eating and sharing the kingdom of God.