So what’s wrong with being rich, full and not hungry, laughing, and having people speak well of you? After all, God told us to go forth and fill the earth and subdue it, so attaining riches is really just the realization of that, right? And constantly being hungry is unpleasant, and even unhealthy. Speaking of health, experts speak often about the healing properties of laughter. And as for having people speak well of you, isn’t that just an acknowledgement that we’re doing what we are supposed to be doing?
And while we are on the subject, what’s great about being poor, hungry, weeping and hated? Doesn’t that just make you a failure, and a hard person to be around? What possible good can people like that do for the community? Why would anyone choose to live like that?
So that’s the premise of today’s Gospel passage. But, as often the Gospels do for us, we are in for quite a surprise as we roll up our sleeves and delve into the meaning of the scriptures today. The surprise, actually, comes fairly early in the Gospel passage and you’d definitely miss it with just a quick reading, because we’re more inclined to notice the variation on the Beatitudes instead. The surprise comes in the first sentence: “Jesus came down with the Twelve and stood on a patch of level ground…”
So Jesus has been up a mountain to pray, and has chosen the Twelve apostles, and coming down he sees a big crowd of people from basically all of Israel gathered. When it says that he stood on a stretch of level ground, this signifies not just where Jesus was standing when he gave the Beatitudes and woes, but more importantly signifies a change, a reversal, of peoples’ perceptions about God and what he wanted to do in the world. So if our perception of God is One who is beyond us and above us, higher than the heavens, and transcendent in nature, well, yes, we are right about that. But he’s not beyond, above, and transcendent in a way that separates us from him. Standing on level ground, Jesus, who is God, is also one who is with us, and among us, and in us, and for us. And the Beatitudes and woes just serve to underscore that.
So we have to see God in the poor, the hungry, the grieving, and the outcasts. Because God is with them and knows they were created with dignity and gifted with grace. At the same time, we have to realize that if we find ourselves in the reverse, that is rich, with plenty of food on the table, laughing and joking and without a care in the world, and always courting the favor of others, we need to see where that’s coming from. Are we not using what we have to lighten the load of others? Are we primarily concerned about our own needs and ignoring the plight of others? Is our joy at the expense of the sadness of others? Are we constantly looking for people to build up our egos? Do we seek what is best for us and accept good fortune and gifts and not use them for the betterment of others and the community? If so, woe to us.
Jesus came to point the way to the kingdom of God. But he didn’t do that by pointing up; instead he did that on level ground, pointing to the ones in need among us. He wasn’t speaking of a far-off time and place, instead one that was near and now and urgent. And he makes it very clear that this is not a new message, but one that the prophets proclaimed and people ignored. Because it was the prophets who were hated and excluded and insulted and denounced, while the false prophets were spoken well of. The prophets and those who follow their teaching can look for reward in heaven, those false prophets who tell well-off people what they want to hear and court their favor have already received their reward and can hope for nothing more.
So Jesus preached complete reversal. It’s not the giddy-happy people without a care in the world that are blessed, rather those who suffer and unite that suffering to Christ that find blessing. Those who depend on God are blessed, while those who depend on themselves and on those who appear influential find woe. The kingdom is not to be found far-off and far-away, but rather here in our midst. God is not removed from us in his transcendence, but rather is Emmanuel, God-with-us, here with us on level ground. We are still in the early part of Luke’s Gospel and the early part of Jesus’ ministry. But Luke points out at the outset that it’s going to be a bumpy ride! We need to look for the unexpected, to know that if something in the message makes us feel uncomfortable or uneasy, it may be that God is telling us to pay attention to something important. When we engage the reversal and enjoy finding God in unexpected places among unexpected people, we can rejoice and be glad, for our reward will be great in heaven.