Sometimes the Scriptures are hard to figure out. Take Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading for this Sunday. You could stop with His famous words of blessing, named “The Beatitudes,” and you’d have a lovely, sweet message. Why not end there, Jesus? Why not finish on a note that builds up and lifts up? He doesn’t. Part One of Jesus’ sermon that we read today ends not with heavenly Gospel, but with hellfire Law: “Woe to you [or as we find it elsewhere in the Scriptures, “Cursed…” e.g., Jeremiah 17:5] who are rich!” Jesus knows what we’d rather not always like to admit: There were times when His listeners then—and there are times when the people of God now—prefer(ed) the church to be more like a cruise ship and less like a combat vessel. Jesus is reflecting what has always been true about God’s modus operandi for bringing life: before He is creative, He is often “disruptive and dangerous.” In this inauguration address, Jesus is not inviting those joining Him to hang out on a pool deck. He is rather declaring war, “announcing an invasion related to a whole new world” (emphasis mine; cf. William Willimon, “Damn Preacher,” Christian Century, 121/3, p. 18) and preparing His followers for battle.
When I really stop to think about it, I know I belong to the well-off, well-fed, enjoy-a-good-joke, people-of-good-reputation who seem to be the targets of Jesus’ famous “woe”s. I make a decent salary so that I don’t have to live paycheck-to-paycheck. I always eat as much as I want. If anything, OVER-indulging is the bigger challenge. I enjoy the endorphins of laughing with people I know when we watch our favorite TV comedies or share videos of our favorite comedians, silly animals, or babies that interrupt our day on social media. And (so far as I can tell), while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “all people” who know me speak well of me, I have a good enough reputation, overall. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus is pronouncing woe on me and others like me. If His purpose was to get my attention because we’re at war, then He’s got it.
The point, however, is not that I will somehow succeed once I’ve adequately fed the poor and clothed the naked. Neither is it that God will love me more if I sell all I have and go hungry to get His attention. The point is rather that true blessing is found in the One who “though he was rich, for [our] sake…became poor, so that we by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). The point is that true blessing is found not in riches or laughter or good reputation but in Christ alone. It’s that my heart of service for those in need will be fed and ultimately satisfied only by the blessing Jesus brings. If we are indeed at war, then the victory will be up to Him. As a child, I remember hearing the old version of the Sanctus that was sung before the grown ups received the body/bread and blood/wine of Holy Communion (page 26 of The Lutheran Hymnal): “Blessed is He! Blessed is He! Blessed is He who cometh in the Name of the Lord!” When I was really little I used to wonder if those words referred to all the people who I knew had come to Holy Communion in God’s name or to someone else. They refer, of course, to Jesus. But in my childish wonder I wasn’t really very far away from the profound mystery of the Lord’s Supper: in this meal, those who are poor are enriched; those who are hungry are fed…those who receive Jesus are blessed.
Yes, a battle is raging and my attention to all of the woe-producing shiny objects in my life will continue to be distracted. But the victory has been won and my living Redeemer has declared me, His woebegone child, blessed. Let’s all live with that confidence and share our abundance as God gives us opportunity, this week.