Three years ago in October, I was on internship, and we had three deaths in the congregation and therefore, three funerals to prepare for and to lead. My internship supervisor, who was the senior pastor, and the deacon were working on the funeral for one of these parishioners. As one of the readings, the family had requested Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, which is somewhat different from today’s reading in Luke, and is more familiar to most of us. One of the members of the family was going to read the Beatitudes at the funeral. So, as the senior pastor and the deacon were planning the funeral, at one point the senior pastor said, “OK, then, and after that I go up there and read the Beatitudes.” The deacon gently corrected him and said, “No, Pastor, remember, the family member is going to read that.” The senior pastor said, “Oh, yes, right,” and they went on discussing the plans for the funeral. A little bit later, the senior pastor said, “OK, I have to remember to bring my Bible with me so I can read the Beatitudes.” The deacon again gently corrected the pastor and reminded him that the family member was going to do that. The senior pastor again said, “Oh, yes, right,” and went on. Would you believe that this exchange between the senior pastor and the deacon then happened a third time? So, as the deacon was telling me this story, I started laughing and said, “Oh, we have to give him his very own copy of the Beatitudes and have it framed.” I then designed a nice computer printout of the Beatitudes and the deacon brought in a frame. But there was a twist: at the end of the Beatitudes I wrote, “And Jesus added another blessing that was not recorded in Matthew, saying: Blessed are those pastors who love these beatitudes so much that they want to recite them at funerals, even when it is not their responsibility. These have a special reward in heaven, reserved just for them.” When we presented this framed copy of the Beatitudes to him, my internship supervisor was able to laugh at himself, and as far as I know, this little gift is still displayed in his office.
But as much as we like the poetry of the language of the Beatitudes, and as much as any of us may look forward to reading them, if we look at them more closely, we’re going to start asking lots of questions about them. The questions increase as we look at Luke’s version of the Beatitudes in comparison to Matthew’s: Luke’s version is shorter than Matthew’s, leaving out some of what Matthew put in, and besides that, Luke adds woes where Matthew only has blessings. So, let’s wrestle with these blessings and woes for a while today, and see what kind of answers we can come up with.
The first blessing that Jesus speaks is, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” And the first corresponding woe that Jesus speaks is, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” This is why we like Matthew’s version better, for in his gospel, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and there is no corresponding woe upon the rich. Luke’s version makes us squirm, for even we who are not rich by American standards are still rich in comparison with a large portion of the rest of the world. Like many other stories in Luke’s Gospel, we ask if we are really supposed to give away everything we own and become poor in order to be favored by God. And as we look at the other blessings and woes, we wonder if we who are well fed, who laugh, and who are well-spoken of need to find ways to become hungry, to weep, and to be despised in order for God to bless us. I look at this reading and I tremble a little bit inside, because I think that I fit the category of woes that Jesus is pronouncing—that last woe to us when everyone speaks well of us rings especially loudly in my ears when I receive compliments on the sermons that I preach.
In order for us to get a better handle on this, I think it is important for us to look at the context of these blessings and woes. This is the opening of a section of Jesus’ teaching in Luke that is named the Sermon on the Plain. It is similar to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, but Luke has Jesus teaching from a level place instead of from a mountaintop. And these blessings and woes are not prescriptions for how we as Christians are supposed to live. Rather, they are Jesus’ proclamation of the way things are inside the kingdom of God, which began with his preaching in his home town of Nazareth, and which will come to complete fulfillment upon his second coming. The poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, and the hated are favored by God in God’s kingdom—because they are surrounded by others within the kingdom who are able to help them. They are surrounded by the communion of saints—and that’s us, brothers and sisters.
Here is what I mean by that. The ELCA tagline is “God’s Work—Our Hands”. Each of us is already a saint, and each of us is equipped with something, some gift, that we can use to help those around us who are in need. Here is an example: This fall, as the harvest came in, I saw many of you with gardens and fruit trees that were producing abundantly try to give the extra away to your friends here within the congregation. I was amazed—it was almost like a sport. Who can give away the most of their unneeded produce to someone else, who is also trying to give away their unneeded produce to someone else, etc.? But, towards the end of the harvest, I saw an article in the paper that Loaves and Fishes was going to discontinue giving away coupons for people to buy meat and produce at the grocery store because they had run out of money to offer them. I know that we all know how expensive fresh fruit and vegetables can be. I have personally experienced times where I didn’t have a lot of money, and buying fresh fruit was outside of my budget, so I had to buy less healthy options. So, we have almost a year now before the next harvest comes in. I would like us to think, as a congregation, of some way that, instead of giving our extra produce to our friends who may not really want it, we can get that abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables to those in our community who need it but who can’t afford it. We are blessed with abundance so that we can be a blessing to others in need.
But besides the blessings and woes in today’s Gospel reading, we have the teaching to love our enemies. Now, it might seem that this was tacked on to the blessings and woes by the lectionary committee because the blessings and woes by themselves were not long enough of a Gospel reading. But, I actually don’t think so. Think of the blessings and woes as Jesus’ thesis statement of his Sermon on the Plain and the teaching to love our enemies as one of several sermon illustrations. Those of us who are well-off could very well view those who are not as our enemies. Oh, we would never say such a thing out loud, because that would be insensitive of us. But, those who are poor are always with us, nagging at our conscience and preventing us from spending all of our money the way we would like. On the government level, with the cuts in funding to the food stamp program passed by Congress, the government has declared war on the poor. We all hear the rhetoric: the poor are lazy and they don’t actively look for jobs; they are mooching off of the taxpayers; the food stamp program is inefficient and has waste in it, therefore we shouldn’t fund it. But those who avail themselves of food stamps would beg to differ from that rhetoric. Do a Google search for the blog post entitled “Those People” and read about the woman who was divorced and who initially did not receive child support payments from her ex-husband, and how she had to overcome her embarrassment at admitting she needed help and avail herself of the resources at a local food pantry–and then read about the rigmarole the food pantry put her through before she was able to get food for her children. The poor are the students at our ELCA seminaries preparing to become pastors, many of whom rely on food stamps to help make ends meet. They would never consider themselves “lazy” or as “mooching off of the taxpayers” but simply know that they are poor enough to need that aid because without it, they might not eat. The poor are those young adults—yes, that elusive group of people that we always wonder how we can get back into the church—who have to work two or three low-paying jobs just to make enough money to make ends meet. Those who are poor are not always the homeless people we see on the streets who we think “just want money for booze”—and many even of those homeless people have stories of how they ended up there when they never thought they would. Those who are poor could very well be our next-door neighbors who are struggling to make ends meet.
And so Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Of course, enemies can mean other people as well. I have stories of those who have been my enemy for one reason or another at different points in my life, whom I have struggled to love and have not always succeeded. But the point is, whether our enemy is “the faceless poor” or someone much more personal to us, Jesus tells us that we are to treat that person just as we would treat someone within our communion of saints. That enemy should experience the love of God through our loving actions toward him or her, even if that person does not receive our efforts and spits on us. It’s a difficult task to fulfill and we will not always be successful at it. But, each of us as saints experiences the blessing of those around us in our times of need, and so we also should be a blessing to others, both those in the communion of saints and those who are outside of that communion.
All Saints’ Day is a time to remember our loved ones who have gone before us and who are now resting in the Lord. These saints did not have everything perfectly figured out while here on earth. Some of those saints whose stories the church tells started out as some pretty sinful figures. Likewise, here on earth we saints are also not going to have everything figured out perfectly. We are going to make mistakes. Jesus’ words to us today, though, remind us of how we are blessed to be a blessing to others so that we can become a community of saints in the kingdom of God, helping one another as we journey through life on earth. Let us look forward to the day when Jesus will come again, making things new and right, so that not only will we be reunited with our loved ones, but that there will no longer be rich and poor, but all will have enough. Amen.