Lessons from Luke

Blessings and Woes – Luke 6: 17 - 31

February 13 2005

Christopher H. Edmonston – Howard Memorial Presbyterian Church

I.

As you all know, a little more than a year ago, I had accepted the call of the pastoral nominating committee of this church to be the new pastor.  That began a process that involved the vote of the congregation and the approval of this Presbytery – the associated and related Presbyterian Churches of this area of North Carolina.  As part of that process, just about a year ago, I was required to appear before the examinations committee of the Presbytery which was meeting at a church in Raleigh.  So, just like my mother taught me, I put on a nice suit and left early to put a good foot forward.

Without a “yes” vote from this committee, there would be no new call to pastor Howard Memorial.

            Committees are strange animals.  In their members are different points of view, agendas, and assumptions.  In that room were assumptions and ideas about me, the church I came from, and the church, Howard Memorial, to where I was going. 

One of the committee members opened his Bible, and read to me Luke 6: 24, "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation,” and asked me, “How would you preach this at Howard Memorial?”

            Now I didn’t bother to point out to him that what he had just done was dangerous in many ways – it is never a good idea to pull one verse out of the Bible and think that it stands alone somehow.  This is a practice called isogesis, and many of the great injustices done in the name of God have been justified by using scripture this way.

            While I didn’t point this out I was aware of what he was driving at:  I was coming from a wealthy church, and going to what is by most any standard a wealthy church – how was I, he wondered, going to be confronted by the tough words of Jesus about money and wealth as I pastored, preached, and taught among you here at Howard Memorial?

II.

To be sure, I received the vote of the committee.  But as it turned out, he did not think that I answered his question very well and he let me know it in no uncertain terms.  What that conversation started for me was a larger conversation that has continued until now and has become an area of deep interest – it is the focus of my doctoral project.

It is also the focus of my sermons these five weeks of Lent.  Whether we are aware of it or not, money, wealth, riches, richness and how they are related to the poor and the witness that we should be making in the name of Christ raise their collective head in the Bible more than 750 times.  Rich and poor are a major concern of the Gospel and Luke – God’s concern for the poor as expressed in the call to justice and ministry with and for the least fortunate among us (see Luke 6: 20); and God’s concern for the rich, the fortunate among us in so far that Jesus sees fit to issue a warning (see Luke 6: 24).  One is an expression of blessing.  The other is an expression of woe – which is not condemnation, but of lament and sadness.  Both blessing and woe come with layers of challenges.  The question for us then:  what to make of these blessings and woes of Luke’s sermon on the plain?

Well for starters, I think it impossible to answer any such question through isogesis – we can’t just look to these 14 or so verses in Luke and draw any permanent conclusions.  No we must look at Luke with a broad lens, take a panoramic view, if you will.  We need to look deeper into Luke, to find examples of rich and poor to determine exactly what is meant by these blessings and woes.

During Lent, we’ll be looking at these lessons from Luke.  We look at these during Lent because so much of human sinfulness is tied to the need to possess, the need to have more than our neighbors, to have the right house, the right car, the right family, take the right trips and so on.  Lent is that time of year when we come clean about our sin and about our need to confess it before the cross of Christ.  This Lent we are going to talk about wealth and about sin.  God willing by the end we’ll know in much deeper ways what Luke says about these matters and what Jesus wants us to become as disciples. 

III.

            One final comment before we dive head first into this text.  And it is a hard comment to make – one that any preacher would make with some sense of fear and trembling.  And that is simply that most of us, I am quite sure, do not think of ourselves as wealthy here.  Many of us here are wondering what this text from Luke and these sermons can possibly have to do with us.

            Now to be sure, none of us here is like the 32 year old banker in New York described in the book, Luxury Fever, who built a 10 million dollar castle in the Hamptons with its suits of armor and underwater sound systems in its swimming pool.[1]  But who among us here can claim to have never had a fantasy about having such things?

            Who among us here cannot find ourselves in these phrases from a book entitled, The Overspent American?:  “This book is about why:  About why so may middle-class Americans feel materially dissatisfied.  Why they walk around with ever present mental ‘wish lists’ of things to buy or get.  How even a six-figure income can seem inadequate, and why this country saves less than virtually any other nation in the world.  It is about the ways in which, for America’s middle classes, ‘spending becomes you,’ about how it flatters, enhances, and defines people in often wonderful ways, but also about how it takes over lives.”[2]

            Perhaps this is not you, but it is I am quite sure a relative; maybe a child or a grandchild.  I will confess to you that it is certainly a description of me and my family and no matter how many times I recite Luke 16:13 to myself – “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” – I am desperately tempted to possess what I do not yet possess from my mental wish list and to provide for my children the best of everything; often regardless of the moral and spiritual cost that is paid in every such desperate acquisition.

            I think Jesus is talking to me here in Luke 6 – he is trying to get my attention.  And being as I don’t think that you and I are all that different, I also really suspect that Jesus is trying to get yours.

IV.

In Luke 6, Jesus is speaking to the disciples and to the crowds that have gathered to hear him and to be healed by him.  This text is most commonly called the “Sermon on the Plain” – because Jesus delivers it from a level place.  Its sister text is Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount.”

Now beyond the differences in place, and the fact that Luke’s version of this sermon is much, much shorter, there are two key differences between Matthew and Luke in direct reference to the text we have today.  The first is that Matthew’s sermon contains no “woes” -- Matthew only has the beatitudes.  Secondly, Matthew modifies the phrase, “Blessed are you who are poor,” to read “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Well, we have to ask, why the difference?  Scholars have long pointed out that Luke might well be understood as being a gospel that has a particular concern for the poor, the lost, and those who are cast outward onto the margins of society.  Luke has long been called the gospel of the lost and the Jesus that Luke portrays is a prophet-preacher who proclaims great reversals and makes promises to those long forgotten by society:  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” (Luke 6:23-24).[3]

Luke, from the opening words of Mary and Gabriel, to the final encounters of Jesus with his disciples on the road to Emmaus is about those who have been forgotten being remembered; it’s about the mourners who will laugh; it’s about the hungry who will eat.  It is about a triumphant Jesus who does not water down his language of grace OR his words of caution and who takes both the saints and the sinners upon his back as he ascends the cross.

            The challenge of course is finding our place in the blessings and woes.  The question is, who is more lost as Jesus addresses them here – the poor who are hungry, are they more lost?; or is it the wealthy and the full, those who think they blessed and lord such blessing over the heads of others, are they more lost?  Blessings and woes, woes and blessings…they are both here for good reason.                    

V.

So what to make of all of it?  One of the questions that I think about a lot:  Are the poor really blessed?  Do those who line up five and six deep at soup kitchens, those who come to my office here at the church seeking assistance, do they feel blessed?

VI.

Another set of questions:  What is meant by rich?  Who is rich?  Does God really lament, really express woeful disdain when some rely upon their wealth and power and not upon Him for daily bread?

The Bible does not contain exact figures or descriptions for when one crosses from middle-class struggling into downright poverty, or from upper-middle class to just plain wealthy.  No, in both cases we’ll have to look further into Luke and its lessons to find out.  The answers are there but they demand some work on our part.

VII.

            What I am suggesting is that this text from Luke, these blessings and woes, this sermon of Jesus only sets a stage for what is to come.  What matters today more than anything is that we realize that Jesus had made a judgment here, one that confers blessings upon some, and woes upon others.  The challenge is to find ourselves, courageously, in the story.   

Let us not fall into to the two most common errors, here, errors that I think many of Jesus’ first hearers probably fell into.  The first error is thinking that the gospel is talking to someone else, and therefore it is irrelevant to us and our lives (Surely I am not rich!  There is no way that this is about me!  Jesus is talking about some other soul in some other pew.).  The second error is thinking that all the gospel has to offer us is condemnation and lament, and therefore it becomes inconsequential as a tool for growth and change in our world (well is that is how Jesus really feels, and he has nothing good to say about me, then I’ll just find another path.  If I can’t feel good when I come here, I just won’t come here at all).

I think this is why Jesus is all the time saying, “Let anyone with ears to hear, Listen!”  Sometimes the task of Jesus is to tell us the stuff that we do not want to hear, to break us down like wild horses in order to serve the kingdom, to make us take the medicine without the spoonful of sugar; to help us, through telling us the hard truth, be better than we think we can be.

Let us not walk away dejected simply because God makes demands.  Let us not give up on Jesus because he calls us to repent from our sinfulness.  For it is in being broken that we are made whole.

VIII.

The great seduction of money, the great seduction of wealth is that it does provide so much security all the while telling us that we need nothing but it – and more of wealth – in our lives.  Wealth can give us instant gratification like very few things can.  It is nice to have nice things.  It is good to have a good job.  The great problem is, of course, that like every other sin, honoring our wealth more than we honor God feels so good while we are doing it.  And feeling good about what we have instead of what we are and what we believe is just another means of amusing ourselves to death.  If you have the courage to hear it, that is what Jesus is warning us about and it is source of his woe, his lament for us. 

IX.

            In America, 2005, we see wealth as a virtue.  Americans have bought the notion that there is a good life and if you can bankroll you can have it.

            The expression, “Live the life you have always wanted,” no longer means a life of spiritual consciousness or moral goodliness – it means a life of material affluence.

            Jesus for his part sees wealth at best as problematic – he wants us to eat, but not necessarily to feast at every meal.  Jesus, in fact, sees wealth and money as downright dangerous as they push us away from God and towards ourselves.  The wealthier we get, the more we tend to want.  In the midst of all of our luxuries and their crying out to be served it becomes difficult if not impossible to hear the voice of God.  Perhaps this is why so few of us ever hear the voice of God – we are too busy listening to the voices of what we have made little gods and have, in the words of Jesus, received our consolation.

The great deception is, of course, that the dollars we work so hard to protect from the clutches of others and in whom we have placed our trust are the very same dollars that abandon us in times of greatest need.  In my life, at least, no dollar has ever prayed for me or ever hugged me back.  I am quite sure that the same is true for all of us.

May Jesus help us, through these words of warning and woe open our eyes that we might see Him, and the poor whom he loved, and ourselves as he would see us – serving nothing less than the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Amen.



[1] Robert H. Frank.  Luxury Fever:  Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Age of Excess.  1999, page 3.

[2] Juliet B. Schor.  The Overspent American:  Why We Want What We Don’t Need.  1998, page 6.

[3] See Johnson, Luke, 1991 page 22; and Craddock, Luke, 86 – 89; and most any other.