“He came down with them 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.'” – Luke 6:17-26
In our society, we have been trained to understand the world in the binary: people must fit into one of only two boxes. Right or Wrong. Good or bad. Democrat or Republican. Conservative or liberal. Black or white. Male or Female. Gay or Straight.
So it can often be difficult to understand anyone or anything that does not fit into one of two boxes and rather falls somewhere on a spectrum.
I do not like the binary. Because I do not fit into only one of two boxes in most areas of my life, and I know many other folks who do not either. For one: as a bisexual woman, my sexual orientation falls somewhere in the middle of a spectrum. And it can be painful to feel invisible when it is constantly assumed that I fit into only one of two boxes or when my bisexuality is actually placed into a tight box where all of the stereotypes and misconceptions about bisexuality are assumed about me.
I also definitely do not like to be placed in a box when it comes to my world views or my beliefs. This leaves no room for me to be a complex and unique human being who is constantly a work in progress.
And to see people only in the binary is not just problematic and harmful when it comes to sexual orientation, world views, or political or religious beliefs. People do not always fit into one of only two boxes when it comes to race, gender roles, ethnicity, economic status, gender identity, and the list goes on.
Seeing the world only in the binary and thus placing people into boxes is incredibly harmful because it puts parameters on what it means to be in one of these boxes and it limits and erases those who do not fit into these boxes.
Michelle Obama shares how this binary lens can be harmful in her memoir “Becoming”:
“The deeper I got into the experience of being First Lady, the more emboldened I felt to speak honestly and directly about what it meant to be marginalized by race and gender. My intention was to give younger people a context for the hate surfacing in the news and in political discourse and to give them a reason to hope. I tried to communicate the one message about myself and my station in the world that I felt might really mean something. Which was that I knew invisibility.
I’d lived invisibility. I came from a history of invisibility. I liked to mention that I was the great-great-grandaughter of a slave named Jim Robinson, who was probably buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on a South Carolina plantation. And in standing at a lectern in front of students who were thinking about the future, I offered testament to the idea that it was possible, at least in some ways, to overcome invisibility.
Later in the book, she explains: … “Hamilton (the musical) (has) touched me because it reflect(s) the kind of history I’d lived myself. It told a story about America that allowed the diversity in… So many of us go through life with our stories hidden, feeling ashamed or afraid when our whole truth doesn’t live up to some established ideal. We grow up with messages that tell us that there’s only one way to be American – that if our skin is dark or our hips are wide, if we don’t experience love in a particular way, if we speak another language or come from another country, then we don’t belong.
That is, until someone dares to start telling that story differently.”
Today we hear Jesus giving Luke’s version of what we often call the Beatitudes. Here – at the beginning of his ministry – while preaching a sermon on a plain – Jesus gives four blessings that compare with four woes.
Blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry, you who are weeping, and you who are being excluded, reviled, and are experiencing acts of hate.
This sounds pretty good, right? But then Jesus continues: But woe to you who are rich, you who are full, you who are laughing, and you who are popular or who have gained the respect of others and are only spoken well of.
If we look at these Beatitudes through the lens that our society has trained us to have, it sounds a lot like Jesus is speaking only in the binary. And it seems quite harsh. People fit into one of only two boxes: and depending on the box you fit into, you are either good or bad. You either receive a blessing or a curse. You either belong to the kingdom of God or you don’t. And for many of us, this is not exactly good news, as we may actually be woe receivers in at least one of these categories at some point in our lives.
But I don’t think this is what Jesus is trying to say here.
You see, the author of Luke is very clear throughout his Gospel and its sequel – the book of Acts – that Jesus’ message is one of inclusion, not one of exclusion. The good news Jesus proclaims is not only for the Jewish community, but it is also for the Gentiles. It is not just for the religious elite, but it is also for the common laypersons.
It is not just for the powerful and the privileged, but it is also for those on the margins: the women, the widows, the children; the poor, the sick, the blind; the immigrants, the oppressed.
The Kingdom of God that Jesus is reigning in is offered to ALL people – and it is especially offered to those most vulnerable.
It is an upside down Kingdom of God, both in the here and now and that which is to come, where the last would be first and the first will be last, the poor will be blessed, and the slave will be free.
This was a radical concept – especially in a world where it was those who had religious and societal power who were seen as worthy of receiving blessings, and where those who were poor, sick, or had any physical ailments were believed to be sinful and thus cursed for their sins.
It seems to me that what Jesus is doing here is what Michelle Obama says is: daring to start telling the story differently.
You see, here in Luke, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus comes to level the plains. Heck, he actually comes down into a level plain.
After praying in solitude in the mountains, he calls the twelve disciples, whom he also called apostles, comes back down the mountain with them and goes into a level place, where all people – especially those on the margins – can have access to him. There, he joins a multitude of people who had traveled from all over to hear him preach, to be healed of their diseases, and to be cured of unclean spirits. And so Jesus meets the people where they are at, joining them in the midst of their suffering, and stands with them on common ground.
And after healing them, he looks at his disciples and begins proclaiming these radical blessings and woes.
He has come to proclaim a Kingdom of God that calls for equality for all people and that will flip the systems of injustice upside down. He has come to bring good news to those who needed it the most.
You see, for Jesus, it is not that the rich, the full, the joyful, and the popular are not also in need of God’s love, and Jesus is not saying that they will not be included into the Kingdom of God. It is just that there are other people who need the extra attention and care right now.
This reminds me of a metaphor that I have shared before when explaining the importance of proclaiming that black lives matter. I think it is a helpful metaphor, so I’m going to share it again:
It’s like if your neighbor’s house is on fire. The firefighters are going to go to that neighbor’s house and try to put that fire out. And – if they are any good at what they do – they will not stop at your house to have a cup of coffee while they are on their way. This does not mean that your life does not matter. It just means that your neighbor (who’s house is currently burning to a crisp) needs a lot of extra attention and care right now.
Similarly, those who are poor and hungry, those who are weeping and grieving, those who are being excluded and experiencing hate are in need of extra care and attention – and maybe some blessings that offer hope – and they need it right now.
Toward the end of her book, Michelle Obama explained:
“Sitting on the inaugural stage in front of the U.S. Capital for the third time, I worked to contain my emotions. The vibrant diversity of the two previous inaugurations was gone, replaced by what felt like a dispiriting uniformity, the kind of overwhelmingly white and male tableaus I’d encountered so many times in my life – especially in the more privileged spaces, the various corridors of power I’d somehow found my way into since leaving my childhood home. What I knew from working in professional environments – from recruiting new lawyers for Sidley and Austin to hiring staff at the White House – is that sameness breeds more sameness, until you make a thoughtful effort to counteract it.”
Sameness breeds more sameness, until you make a thoughtful effort to counteract it.
This – I believe – is what Jesus is doing in Luke this morning.
He is making a thoughtful effort to counteract the sameness that harms and oppresses those who do not fit into the boxes that society uplifts.
And as he looks up at his disciples when he offers his blessings and woes, he is also looking up at us, calling us to follow him in counteracting this harmful sameness, as well.
Through Jesus’ woes, he commissions us through some warnings. And he makes clear that those of us who have more than enough, who are in power, who are privileged, or whose lives are going well at this particular time must not worship our worldly power, wealth, and status. And we must not hold tight to our current situation and our privilege while ignoring those around us who are suffering and vulnerable.
This means that those of us who are on top and have been centered have to come down from the mountain and step backwards, allowing others who have been lowered into the margins to be uplifted and centered. It means that those of us who have excess need to give up some of what we have and share with others who are in need.
It means that those of us who are joyful and doing well right now must not be so consumed with our own lives that we fail to see the needs of others around us.
It means that we don’t just sit around watching the firefighters put out the fire in our neighbor’s house. We actually join them in offering our neighbor the care and attention that they need.
You see, here on this level plain at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus has dared to start telling the story differently.
So may we choose to follow him in this holy work.