So, this past Sunday we heard Luke’s version of a scripture that’s often called the Beatitudes (a lengthier version is in Matthew; if you like comparative bible study, check out the beginning of Matthew chapter 5 and stack it up next to Luke’s version). Here in this passage, Jesus gives a series of counterintuitive, paradoxical statements:
‘Blessings on the poor: God’s reign belongs to you!
‘Blessings on those who are hungry today: you’ll have a feast!
‘Blessings on those who weep today: you’ll be laughing!
‘Blessings on you, when people hate you, and shut you out, when they slander you and reject your name as if it was evil, because of the chosen one. Celebrate on that day! Jump for joy! Don’t you see: in heaven there is a great reward for you! That’s what their ancestors did to the prophets.
‘But woe betide you rich: you’ve had your comfort!
‘Woe betide you if you’re full today: you’ll go hungry!
‘Woe betide you if you’re laughing today: you’ll be mourning and weeping!
‘Woe betide you when everyone speaks well of you: that’s what their ancestors did to the false prophets.’ (Luke 6:20-26)
Never the easiest passage to approach, that’s for sure. I know I get nervous just reading it. My discomfort radar goes off and I’m like, “Woah, Jesus, you’re being really intense right now. I think I’ll just shut my bible, watch Batman, and think about all this existential-crisis-inducing material later.” And then I don’t. This technique, however, is not without flaws. We can’t hide from Jesus forever. He keeps popping up, in the church, on the streets… pretty much anywhere there’s people. There Christ is, hiding in plain sight.
When I slow down, face forward, and let myself hear it, this passage speaks to me about the cost of discipleship. Let me explain. The weird thing about Christianity is that, as a religion, it is both radically universal and profoundly exclusive at the same time. Anyone can be a Christian. No matter who you are or where you come from or what you’ve done. No matter who you love or how you identify or what sort of education you’ve had or not had. All people are created in God’s Image, and any person under the sun can profess Christ and Christ’s way. But then, then there’s the cost of discipleship. Christ demands nothing less than our entire person. Each and every moment of our lives, each and every decision, all aspects of who we are down to the bedrock of our identity. Christ demands everything. In that way, Christianity is a narrow path. There’s no such thing as being “sorta kinda Christian.” Christ has not left that option open for us. The moral call of this way of being is the demand to love God above all else, to love even your enemies, to be ready to give anything and everything up at any moment for God’s purpose. Christianity is a difficult and serious business.
And the thing about being completely comfortable in our circumstances, about being rich and warm and seemingly satisfied in this life just as we are, is that those conditions can make it extremely difficult to recognize our need for God. And so we do not surrender our whole self to Christ. We do not let God heal us and finally satisfy our true spiritual need. Instead, we remain creatures of an unjust world, cogs in a machine of domination and oppression. We spend our days stacking up treasures on earth, loving our friends but hating our enemies, trying not to directly hurt people if we can avoid it, but certainly ignoring them if we’re allowed to. We fill pity for the poor, but a real relationship with someone who is poor makes us terribly uncomfortable and maybe even guilty for our resources, and so we stay away. We chase after status, security, romance, pleasure, friendship, ambition, success. Between the madness of the days and the bills that keep coming, we squeeze in time for our family if possible. Then we die, never having looked up.
The Beatitudes are Jesus trying to shake us awake. “Look up!” he says. “Look at your life and what matters. Do not live this thing in vain.” He pleads with us. “Do not be content with earthly riches, or a good reputation among people. Do not ignore my beloved, the poor. Do not uphold their oppression.” The Beatitudes aren’t subtle. They’re striking and just a little bit scary for a reason. God is doing everything God can to make us listen. Jesus’s words are sometimes like salt in a wound. They sting, to be sure. But they will heal us, too, if we let them.