A Provocation: All Saints Sunday (November 6, 2016): Luke 6:20-31

Luke 6:20-31
6:20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

6:21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

6:22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

6:23 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.

6:24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

6:25 “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.

6:26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

6:27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,

6:28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

6:29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

6:30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

6:31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

A Question or Two:

  • Which would get you in more trouble: preaching on v. 20 (Blessed are the poor), or preaching on v. 24 (Woe to the rich)?
  • Why?
  • Is your answer different if I ask the question this way: Which sermon title would get you in more trouble: Poor Lives Matter, or Rich Lives Matter?
  • If the answer is different, why?

Some Longer Reflections:

Quick, before you read this, follow this link:

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1851

A few years ago I wrote this piece for Working Preacher.  It’s a good place to start thinking about the way Luke’s storyteller performs the blessings and woes from Jesus’ sermon.  Perhaps most important is the way “the poor” are imagined in the original Greek.  People who are poor scurry around hoping to pick up the crumbs that other people scatter idly in the public square.  People who are poor learn to expect sudden changes of heart: having started the morning as the “deserving poor,” they know that by evening someone will sic their dog on them, laughing as people take flight and scatter, all because the mood has changed and now people without a roof or a meal are somehow an offense against capitalism and an energetic work ethic.  Not to mention patriotism and the American way.  People who are poor also get used to being spat upon.

Read the longer version at http://www.WorkingPreacher.org.  I’m going to move on to other matters in this Provocation.

This little scene is filled with blessings that are at least ironic.

Perhaps they are sarcastic.  Perhaps they are, in fact,  apocalyptic.  This last possibility seems most likely, especially if we are blessing people who are penniless.  The blessing is either cruel, or it looks ahead to an apocalyptic change in the order of things.

The blessings are also paired with woes.

Each of them is.

I want to think about the woes.

The word in Greek is odd because it is not a word: οὐαὶ (“woe”).  It is a sound.  A cry.  A noise.  It is the involuntary sound that catastrophe squeezes from you before you knew you were making a noise.  The sound is simple, and it take s two syllables: οὐαὶ.  It is a groan, but it is also the sound of unbidden mourning, a sound that is now prescribed for people who are rich, or well-fed, or laughing, or well-regarded.

Jesus prescribes cries of mourning for those fortunate enough not to need to mourn.

Why?

It is a good question.

The last items in the chain are simple reversals of current fortune.  If you are full, you will be empty.  Laughing?  You will mourn.  The reversals may very well call out the groan of woe.

But the first saying in the string is different.  The woe is pronounced upon those who are rich, but the second half of the saying is not a reversal; it does not pronounce woe on the rich because they will become poor.  Instead, the second half of the saying simply justifies the attack on rich people.  Woe to people who are rich because they have already received comfort.  This is strange.

The words of the sentence are themselves strange.

First of all, the verb translated as “received” is an odd verb.  The verb is ἀπέχετε.  Mostly it means to separate, to hold back, to detach oneself, none of which has anything to do with “receiving.”  There are instances (outside the Bible) in which the verb is translated as “received,” and I suppose I can see how the verb could mean this.  But this is an odd verb, and it mostly does not mean “received.”  That is odd.  Anytime a word strains against itself, something is going on.  But this time, I do not know what that might be.

The word translated as “consolation” also needs attention. The word is παράκλησιν.  Biblical lexicons always include “consolation” potential meaning for the word, if only so as to have something to say about comfort in this scene and in the story of the poor man, Lazarus.  But the word παράκλησιν does not normally mean “comfort” in the American soft soap tradition.  The word ought rather to be translated as “exhorted,” or “encouraged,” or “called upon to perform.”  Exhortation is not much like comfort.  What would it mean to say that rich people have already been exhorted?  I can’t figure that one out, either.

But in many settings, παράκλησιν means to be called upon to testify in court.

That is how I translate it in he Lazarus-in-the-lap-of-Abraham story.  Lazarus is indeed comforted, but the rich man who ignored him is in torment because Lazarus’ testimony is heard in heaven.

So, at least for today, I will attempt to read it the same way here.  Jesus says to the rich people in his attentive audience that it does not matter that they want to assert that “Rich Lives Matter.”  It does not matter that they are feeling ignored, or that they have the sense that it’s their turn to be listened to for a while (never mind that they have been speaking freely for generations).  Jesus says, “You had your turn to talk.  And talk.  And endlessly talk.  Now the situation is changed.”

Now it is time to hear voices that usually speak to each other in accented English or in “substandard” dialects, and usually do it below stairs or in back rooms or on streets not usually frequented by the privileged, except when they are after drugs or sex.

Now is the time to discover that God hears and speaks the same language.  God has the same accent.

Of course you have to be careful about saying such things.

Such ridiculous ideas will drive people away from church.  Such ideas are too political, or too radical, or too “black-lives-matter-y” to be palatable.

The people who worry about such things are probably correct.  Jesus’ little sermon will cause trouble.  Jesus is listening to those nonstandard voices, and only those voices, in this scene.  This will offend people.

Why does Jesus want to offend people?

Be careful how you answer.  If you dislike what Jesus has said, your answer about the offense will be awkward.  Either you will have to discover that Jesus does not mean what he says, or you will have to admit that Jesus disagrees with you.  That can be uncomfortable.

But I think the situation can be even more troublesome if you decide that Jesus agrees with you.  If your answer comes down to an assertion that Jesus is revealed, fully and finally, to agree with your ideology, you should expect nothing but unproductive trouble.  You are not that smart.  Neither am I.  No one is.

Such smug ideological certainty is another way to be rich and full of yourself.  To all such smugness, Jesus says, “we’ve heard enough from you for now.”  Jesus’ sermon unsettles everyone, including the people who are poor who were pronounced blessed a few verses ago.

Yes, the rich and powerful have received as much consolation as anyone needs, and they have complained they needed even more consoling.  But Jesus’ point would appear to be that God’s entire Creation is worn out from hearing from the people who have to be in charge of everything.  It is time for the rich, powerful, and privileged to be quiet.  It is time for smug certainty also to silence itself.  It is past time for the rest of Creation to speak freely.

What if that actually happened?  What if we committed ourselves to listening to the voices we do not know how to hear?

That, finally, is the point of Jesus’ sermon, delivered not on a mountain but on level ground on which no one stands above anyone else.

It might be the beginning of turning the world right side up.  But that will be awkward.

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