NRSV LUKE 6:17-26
17 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. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 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.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “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.
26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
A couple of weeks ago I came clean about something that many of you remind me about often: I am a Yankee. That’s right, born and bred up north, even though both of my parents were born farther south than here.
While I have that admission out there let me share something else with you that will eventually bring us back to Jesus and the Sermon on the Plain; something that seems a bit appropriate since Spring Training began last week. I grew up in a family that was a big – and I mean big – baseball fan. Specifically we loved the New York Giants. When I was seven years old – 1958 – the New York Giants left us for the Gold Coast of California. The Brooklyn Dodgers also left, for Los Angeles, but that didn’t hurt as much. LA could have the Dodgers. But for San Francisco to claim the Giants, our Giants, that was beyond the pale. It was the first grief experience I had ever known, and it hurt.
What was especially galling about it was that we were left with just the hated New York Yankees. The Yankees won every time, every year. We were reduced to rooting for whatever team was playing the Yankees. Not that it did any good. They won anyway, most of the time.
As years have gone by, the New York Mets have taken the Giants’ place as my favorite team, though I still count the Yankees as the team I most like to see lose. But they still win a lot, including one year when they broke the record for most wins by a team in the regular season. It was depressing. When that happened this passage out of Luke came to mind, something like: Woe be to you, you cursed Yankees, for winning now; you have had your easy time. Woe be to you who win all the time; you have had your easy lot.
You would have thought I would have known better. For somebody who chides those who twist the Bible to meet their own private needs, I can be pretty good about doing it myself. There are also all those passages of Scripture about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. Not only that, but among Biblical scholars there is significant doubt that when Jesus uttered those words he was talking about a baseball team two millennia after his time.
Of course these words are not just about baseball. They are about life. These are pointed words, words that demand our attention. I, like most of my preaching colleagues, much prefer nuance, words that can be subject to interpretation. But there is no waffling with Jesus here. Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, in tears now. Woe be to you who are rich, full, laughing now. Blessed are you when people exclude you or defame you; woe be to you when all speak well of you. Or, as a former colleague from the very first church I served told me, “Woe be to you when all speak well of you, for that will show you have no principles.”
Not exactly the way we usually operate. We like to be full, we like to have good things. Who really wants otherwise? But that is Jesus in all of his Messianic glory. Turning our expectations upside down and inside out. So we look for an escape hatch. We might doubt whether we are really the rich or well fed; we know plenty of people who are more well off than we are, many people who spend all their time at swanky restaurants in Richmond or New York. We don’t put ourselves in the rich and well fed crowd. Until we take a look at the rest of the world, and know that, comparatively speaking, we in this country are very rich and very well fed. Anyone who has been to a squalid section in a third world country knows that.
But is that the purpose of this: for Jesus to give us all a harsh judgment by which we will all be condemned? Remember the context: He has selected his top 12 disciples, but there are many more disciples in addition to them. There is also a whole crowd of people who are there, seeking to touch him or to be touched by him. Power came out from him, power to heal. And that power to heal might just also be the power to heal us.
The words that follow are what is called Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. They are words that sound very familiar from that more popular sermon, the one on the Mount. That is found in Matthew’s Gospel. It is more expansive there, covering three whole chapters, words that have been cited by many Biblical scholars as the crux of Jesus’ message. Everything that Jesus says and does revolves around those words. Everything that a follower of Jesus says and does is to revolve around those words. It is no less here in Luke, but there is a significant difference.
Remember the context of those Gospels. Matthew was written for a Hebrew-Christian audience. That title might sound strange in our days, but when Christianity started it was a part of Judaism. Matthew wrote his Gospel to convince his fellow Jews that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, and his gospel is filled with references to Hebrew Scripture justifying that belief. One of the reasons, perhaps, that he places Jesus’ central message on a mountain is because a mountain is where God gives God’s message. God comes in the burning bush to Moses on the mountain; God gives the Ten Commandments on the mountain; God reinforces the message to a dejected Elijah on the mountain. The mountain is where God’s word is in all of its loftiness, so it made sense for Matthew to have Jesus pronounce his message on a mountain.
But Luke wrote for a different audience. Luke was writing to Greek Christians. There were not many of his audience who were Jews, who knew the story of the covenant community, of the commandments and the law and the prophets. Luke wrote his gospel with a different agenda, with a different audience – those who were outsiders, Gentiles. And his Gospel reflects the needs of that community.
The Greek understanding of a level place was much different from that of the Jewish notion of a mount. For the Greeks, a level place was not a place of great holiness but a place of great suffering; the place of corpses, disgrace, idolatry; the place of brokenness, misery, hunger, annihilation, mourning. A level place is the place where humanity lives in its deepest form, the place of anguish and alienation. It is the place where we all live when life threatens to unravel, when death is a cold and hard reality, when hope is fragile and despair is all around us. A level place is where we are most human, because a level place is where our humanity confronts us with death as well as life.
A mountain is where you are up above, looking down; looking down on others, perhaps, looking down from a distance, unconnected, untouched by the suffering. A level place is where you are in the midst of everything. In a level place you have to stand on tip toe to see, or to move around so you can get a good view of what is going on. I’m not looking forward to retirement. That means I have to go back to sitting in a pew. I know how it is; more often than not you have to look around someone to see what is going on. You don’t always get an unobstructed view. A level place means everyone is on the same level. But that doesn’t mean that everyone is happy or content being on the same level. There may be those with whom we do not want to be on the same level, because we will have to deal with them in some way.
But these broken ones are the ones who may have the most to teach us about life, death and where God is when you feel that you are in a level place. The hungry, the empty, the oppressed are those who cannot lean on anyone else except God; those who are full of good things and always have a joke to tell are making it just fine on their own devices. This is just the way things are. As Barbara Brown Taylor noted, the sermon on the plain, “is not advice at all. It is not even judgment. It is simply the truth about the way things work, pronounced by someone who loves everyone.”
Another writer, Debi Thomas, noted: “I think what Jesus is saying in this Gospel is that I have something to learn about discipleship that my life circumstances will not teach me. Something to grasp about the beauty, glory, and freedom of the Christian life that I will never grasp until God becomes my everything, my all, my go-to, my starting place, and my ending place. Something to humbly admit about the limitations of my privilege. Something to recognize about the radical counter-intuitiveness of God’s priorities and promises. Something to notice about the obfuscating power of plenty to blind me to my own emptiness. Something to gain from the humility that says, ‘Those people I think I’m superior to in every way? They have everything to teach me. Maybe it’s time to shut up and pay attention.’”
When we pay attention maybe the most important thing that these pointed words of Jesus have to teach us is that we are not called to point the finger at someone who wins all the time or who lives on the fat of the land. Neither are we to berate ourselves because we had a great breakfast this morning. We need to look at this teaching of Jesus not as an either/or proposition. We are not always full, we are not always empty, we are not always hungry, we are not always well fed. Truth is, we are all of these; we eat well, and we are often hungry spiritually; we have a lot of stuff but then find ourselves devoid of what really matters. There are times when people speak well of us, and times when it seems that everything that comes out of our mouth is met with opposition. We are all of that, brothers and sisters.
What I think Jesus is saying here is that when we are well off, well fed, when we realize how rich we are, it is time to check out where God is in all of that. All of those things can be blessings but not when they take our attention away from what God has to teach us. It can also be a lesson in paying attention to those who have little, those who need, those who live in the level places of life all the time. There are also times when we feel hungry, poor, mistreated, and we find ourselves begging at the door of grace. In all of those times, in plenty and in want, we can learn what it means to live by the grace of God, and how we can share good news with others that Jesus never gives up on any of us.
The Yankees are loaded again and they will probably win a lot, and I will get angry. But maybe it’s better to get angry that people are not well fed; that some have no place to sleep; that racism still grips our country. Maybe what we need to do is not to point the finger at someone else but open our minds to what God is teaching about ways that we can be a blessing to others in their own level place. Amen.