This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Becoming Poor.

Luke 6:17-36

            Having appointed 12 disciples as apostles, Jesus leads them back down the mountain to the lowlands which symbolize the mundane, ordinary existence we all lead, contrasted with the exalted, mountaintop where transcendent, mystical, unitive experiences happen.  Luke repeats his point about how God, in Jesus, comes down to us, to our level, into our experience.  The real action is down here in everyday life with everyday people who have everyday problems.
            Down here in the lowlands is a world of need and hurt and bondage.  Jesus is now attracting broken people from miles around, both to hear him and be healed by him.  These visible and tangible demonstrations of healing and exorcism continually authenticate and validate Jesus’ identity as the Messiah.  What Jesus does in bringing peace and freedom to people in their minds and bodies, is almost like a credentialing device, giving backing to what he will say in words.  Jesus Christ is not a mere preacher; he is a doer of the Word even before he is a speaker of it.
            Luke flatly tells us that Jesus heals them all.  No exceptions.  It is a characteristic of Jesus’ approach that if you came to him you got healed.  The only thing that matters to Jesus is that people are hurting.  Other than that, he heals unconditionally.  Nothing else matters.  The race, sex, nationality, language, citizenship, line of work or employment status, religion, theology, politics, economic or social level of someone who comes to him for healing doesn’t matter to Jesus.  Neither does their moral life or how they happened to get sick.  Most of them trust him, but sometimes it’s other people’s trust in him that is enough.  Jesus doesn’t ask any questions beyond something like, “Do you want to be made well?”
            When he has healed as many as are there, he sits down to teach.  He looks “up” at his disciples and begins speaking.
            “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.”  In addressing his disciples he is addressing people who were “poor” on two accounts.  First, most of them were peasants to begin with, people scraping a subsistence living out of the soil or hauling fish out of the lake.  They had no political power and were mostly in debt their whole lives.  Second, they had all given up what little they had in order to follow Jesus.
            Now, it is easy for some of us affluent suburbanites to have an overly romantic and sentimental view of “the poor,” especially when we are so insulated that our primary experience of poor people is when Jesus talks about them in the Bible.  But in real life not only are poor people subject to all the sins of humanity, but the crushing oppression of actual poverty can add bitterness, anger, defeatism, cynicism, selfishness, duplicity, criminality, violence, and a lot of other bad qualities to people.
            Therefore many commentators over the centuries have insisted that Jesus can’t mean that one’s economic status alone is a free ticket to God’s Kingdom.  Surely Jesus can’t mean that bad poor people get in and good rich people don’t.

            And yet, Jesus says what he says.  The poor, the hungry, the weeping, the excluded and defamed, he blesses.  The rich, the satiated, those who laugh now, and those with good reputations he curses.  So his conditions and prerequisites for entry into God’s Kingdom appear to be the same as for healing: there are none except need.  The Kingdom of God is apparently not a reward for good behavior.  It is a simple turning upside-down of the social order.  The first will be last and the last will be first.  He makes no mention of any other moral evaluation.
            This might be somewhat disturbing, especially for those of us who believe that the well-being of society requires us to incentivize good behavior.  Because here it appears that our actions, good or bad, don’t matter.  What matters is how much stuff we have.
            But who is Jesus addressing here?  Luke says he is speaking to “his disciples.”  When he says “you who are poor,” he is not talking to the whole crowd, but to those who have become his followers.  So it could be argued that it is not all the economically challenged people in the world who receive this blessing; but Jesus is addressing his disciples.  They are the ones who are “poor,” “hungry,” weeping, and ostracized.  They are the ones warned against gaining riches and popularity.
            This message of reversal should not come as a complete surprise to us at this point.  Luke has been telling us all along that this is what Jesus’ ministry is going to be about, starting from his mother’s hymn when he is in the womb.  He announces it in Nazareth, too. 
            In fact all his healings have witnessed to this same agenda: the weak are made strong, the blind see, the lame walk, the sick are made well, the possessed are released, the lepers are cleansed.  Should we be shocked that Jesus means this economically, emotionally, and socially as well?  The hungry are filled, the weeping laugh, and vice-versa?  The poor receive a kingdom?
            Should we be surprised that Jesus goes on to say that this reversal applies as well to how we react to stresses and demands and opportunities?  That he would have people doing exactly the opposite of what was normal and expected?  Exactly the opposite of what standard acquisitive, extractive, self-centeredness always requires?  Loving enemies, turning the other cheek, giving to those who ask and not resisting even theft?  Making a point of lending to those least likely to repay?

            It appears that he wants his disciples to witness to a reversed and upside-down contrarian lifestyle.  He wants them to live in a kind of “opposite-land” in which people deliberately go radically against the grain of normality and expectations.  Some would say it is practically a kind of suicide cult in which people deliberately live in a way that is likely to get them killed.  Any society that tried to live this way would collapse, they say.  And of course, Jesus did get killed, so they rest their case.
            One of the problems in interpreting passages like this is that terms like “poor” and “rich,” “hungry” and “full” are somewhat relative.  Compared to a CEO of a major corporation, or a Hedge Fund Manager, I am poor.  Compared to the rest of the people on the planet, 5 billion or so of whom languish in deep poverty, I am wildly wealthy.  Plus, our situations change over time; a wealthy person today might lose it all tomorrow.  And we present ourselves as poor or rich depending on whether we are trying to qualify for a loan, or for some kind of financial aid.
            In order to cut through the relativity, we understand that we don’t compare ourselves to each other.  If we compare ourselves to God, to whom the whole creation belongs, we are unimaginably poor.  But the way we know God is through Jesus Christ, who made a point of owning practically nothing.  Compared to him we’re all rich.
            But look at that for a minute.  The whole world belongs to God, yet when God comes into human life, it happens to a homeless couple in a barn.  Remember Paul’s famous hymn in Philippians: “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”  In Jesus Christ, God takes on poverty intentionally.  God renounces the wealth, power, and majesty, and instead becomes poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled.
            But he doesn’t empty himself into nothing.  Rather, his poverty makes others rich in the sense that God’s power flows through him into the world.  In Christ, God empties God’s self into the world.  We see this in the healings, the exorcisms, and in Jesus’ empowerment of people who had been powerless. 
            So Jesus is not poor because he has nothing; he is God, he has everything!  He is poor because what he has he makes a point of giving away. 

            All of us are both poor and rich, depending on the perspective, context, and timing.  God has made us rich by giving us such awesome resources and gifts, this whole amazing, abundant planet; all the nearly infinite value of having minds and hearts and bodies; friendship, beauty, love…. 
            If Jesus is our example, though, we only truly have those riches when we give them away.  Jesus appears to be poor because the fullness of God’s grace is flowing through him so perfectly, none of it does he keep for himself.  He doesn’t keep back even what would be required to have a better garment, or a decent house.  He keeps almost nothing back; through him God’s grace pours into the world like sunlight.  Uninhibited.  Unconstricted.  Unblocked and unhindered.  Unconditionally. 
            But when we try and hoard, store up, save, own, and keep for ourselves these riches, that is when we bring upon ourselves God’s condemnation, these ominous “woes” that Jesus pronounces.  When we attach self-serving conditions to the receipt of God’s gifts, when we devise economies that intentionally richly reward some and take away what little others have, then, well, woe to you.
            And woe to us, because this is exactly the world we have concocted.  Does God intend for 300 people in Europe and North America to have the same income as the bottom 4.7 billion people on the earth?  Does God intend for 22.4% of children in America to go to bed hungry?  Does God intend 1% of the people in this country to control 43% of its wealth?  No.  We intend that.  Trickle down?  I don’t think so.
            There is more than enough for everyone to have what they need and more.  But it has to flow.  It has to be shared.  Jesus’ example is if you need something you get it.  It’s very simple and uncomplicated.  And it’s the hardest thing in the world.  It requires us to be selfless.  It requires us to empty ourselves of ourselves, and instead start thinking about the good of all. 
            It means thinking and acting in God’s upside-down way, where what we seek is the balance and equality that God intends in the system (which we heard about from Deuteronomy 15 earlier and which is even more strikingly spelled out in Leviticus 25… I’m just saying).  According to God’s way we pour the resources into where the need is, instead of where we will get the most return.  Jesus reminds us that even sinners know how to make a profit for themselves.  What earthly good is that?    
            Jesus puts it succinctly when he says it’s about doing to others who are in need as we would have others do for us, when we are in need.  All of his examples are about how to get resources from people who have them to people who don’t. 

            And remember that he is talking to his disciples, people who had given up what little they had, and have chosen to trust in him instead.  In chapter 14 Jesus will flatly state: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
            That’s to whom the Kingdom of God belongs.  Those who have made themselves empty, clear conduits through whom God’s grace in all its forms can freely pass.  As soon as they start collecting some of it for themselves, they’re out.  But theirs is the Kingdom of God who say: I must become and even have nothing, so that God’s love in Jesus Christ may flow through me to where it is most needed.
            Jesus sums up the first half of his sermon with the injunction to “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  By “your Father,” of course, he means God.  The fact that we are alive at all is because of God’s mercy.  God is continually holding off the consequences of our actions, and God does this for as long as possible.  And Jesus Christ perfectly expresses God’s mercy in his unconditional grace to all of us, especially those at the bottom.
            In the end, there is a direct relationship between those who receive mercy and those who show mercy to others.  They are the same.  God gives mercy to all; but only those who pass it on to others receive it themselves.  Those who do not, like the rich man in chapter 12 who had his barns full of stored grain, or like yet another rich man in chapter 16 who stepped over a poor man every day without helping him, have cut themselves off from God’s mercy.  Hence the woes.
            The Kingdom of God belongs to the poor.  Those who know they have nothing, have lots of room for God.  Disciples of Jesus Christ are those who seek to have, possess, or own nothing that will get in the way of the flow of God’s blessings into the world through them.  They are forgiven, that is to say, they have been released from what held them down, and they are about releasing others as well.
            We need to be the people Jesus is addressing here.  We need at least to be on the journey of becoming the people Jesus is addressing here.  May we have the openness, the freedom, the hunger, the longing, and even the poverty that we may not get in the way of the tremendous blessing and abundance that God is bringing into the world.  May we have nothing that prevents us from living according to Jesus’ values of reversal.  And may we know God’s infinite mercy because that mercy flows through is in the mercy, the healing, the liberation, the welcome we show to everyone.


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