Luke 6:17-26 (NRSV)
Jesus Teaches and Heals
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.
Blessings and Woes
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.
For those of you who read one of past blog posts where I collaborated with some of my pupils, you may be glad to hear that I called on my 5th years to help me reflect on the Gospel reading again this week. We read through the passage in class twice and then went around the room to see what struck people the most. Some were encouraged to see that Jesus used his power for other people’s benefit. Some were encouraged by the various blessings promised to those who suffer. Others questioned the meaning of “woes”. We talked our way through them for a while, but the most interesting problem that we kept coming back to was the problematic picture of justice Jesus paints in this speech.
On the surface, there’s a nice structure to it. People who have a hard time in life, end up getting a reward, while the well-off people get their comeuppance. It cannot be so simple as that, can it? On an emotional and personal level, many of us immediately reject this understanding because we recognise that of the two categories of people, we seem to fall into the “bad people” one, if we have been blessed with nice, happy lives. Does this mean we have to suffer to be a people comforted and loved by God? Surely the scriptures speak of how God at times blesses and rewards the people who please him?
My pupils were also troubled by the fact that this kind of vision did not fit in with what they knew about Christianity and its teaching on judgement and sin. The picture Jesus paints of sad, suffering people being entitled to a nice reward, while the privileged people are punished sounds more like the teaching of Karma in the Eastern religions. There is judgement in Christianity too, but this is based on your acceptance or rejection of a relationship with God – the success of which depends on Jesus’s death and resurrection, and not on how much you have suffered in life. I’ve written about this before; the Christian concept of grace is related to justice but it doesn’t have much to do with fairness.
The pupils were all agreed that this speech was not meant in a simplistic, literal way. Jesus was trying to convey some deeper meaning that would disturb and challenge the mind and soul. With regard to the “woes”, we decided that while Jesus might not be pronouncing eternal damnation for people whose lives are nice, he wanted to shake them out of complacency. He sought to spur them on and challenged them to take greater responsibility for their good fortune and for the misfortune of others. He wanted to warn them of the possible dangers and sad consequences that would come from getting too wrapped up in their successful lives.
With regard to all the blessings he spoke of, we might say that if it’s a challenge for happy people to fend off the beast of complacency, perhaps a greater challenge still is for sorrowing people to remain hopeful in the face of suffering and sadness. Suffering in this life alone does not guarantee a place in heaven. While this passage alone would seem to infer this notion, that would be a wrong theological conclusion to come to when we take into consideration the many other passages in the Scripture that teach about judgement and salvation. However, Christians believe that for those who put their faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, this vision of a place of joy, rest and wholeness will become a reality. It is important not to lose our hold on that even when experiences of suffering will challenge that belief. In this speech Jesus reminds the hearers that their present suffering will make that joy all the sweeter by comparison.
Examining the ideas behind each of the individual blessings and woes would provide fodder for a whole system of sermons, but let us leave you with this thought for now:
Suffering won’t get us a free pass into heaven, and having a pleasant life won’t necessarily keep us out either. However, suffering might cause us to lose faith in it and a nice earthly life might make us simply forget. Jesus foresaw these pitfalls and offered this challenging sermon so that we would not fall victim to the most insidious of sins: losing hope or getting lost in complacency.
Emma Rothwell works at Wilson’s Hospital School where she is the School Chaplain. She lives in a 250 year old cottage on campus, and probably cares too much about the tiny flower bed she made at the front of it. Emmas recently stepped down from the post of Diocesan Youth and Children's Officer for the Dioceses of Meath and Kildare. Before that, she was a secondary school teacher of Religious Education and English. She loves British panel show comedy, reading, thinking on really long walks, dancing at weddings and talking to you about things you really care about.