“Blessings and Woes”
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, February 13, 2022
Reading: Luke 6:17-26
A few years ago, on my first trip to Italy, I had the wonderful opportunity to take a tour of the Vatican, including the famous Sistine Chapel, at a fairly quiet time of the day. Religious art is something I love so much – my Master’s thesis focused on the St. Francis lifecycle frescoes ascribed to Giotto that are in the Basilica in Assisi. This love of art is why I’m looking forward to the upcoming Crossings event in Toronto, that TEMC will be a part of. You’re going to be amazed when you see the artwork that will be installed in front of our church.
In the Sistine Chapel, the most famous work of art, of course, is the ceiling painted by Michelangelo; but what fascinated me most when I stood in that awe-inspiring, historic place was not the ceiling, but the front wall of the chapel. The work of art on the front wall, also by Michelangelo, is called “The Last Judgment,” and it’s this large, wonderful scene depicting the second coming of Christ and the final judgment, with the dead rising or descending to their final destinies, with Christ at the centre surrounded by adoring angels. There are over 300 figures surrounding Christ in this glorious, triumphant scene. It’s absolutely stunning (and less of a strain on the neck than the work on the ceiling), so I spent some time reflecting on the work in front of me.
Juxtaposition - “Christ Triumphant” vs. crucifix on the altar “The crucified Jesus, down here on the ground with us.”
Other tourist: “It’s so blue!”
It’s the Jesus that so touched my heart – the one who is “down here with us,” who has compassion for the needs of the people – that the gospel of Luke often wants to show us.
This morning we’ve jumped ahead from last week’s passage when Jesus first met Simon Peter, James and John and had begun to draw people to hear him teach. Between that passage and today’s, he has gathered a large crowd of followers: from Jerusalem, all over Judea, and as far away as Tyre and Sidon over on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. They came from far and wide to hear him speak and hoping that he will heal them of their diseases or cast out the demons that torment them. They know he is someone who sees their deepest needs.
This passage may sound familiar to you, but we more often hear the version of this event in Jesus’ life from the gospel of Matthew, where “The Beatitudes,” as they’re called, are a part of the Sermon on the Mount. Where the gospels of Matthew and Luke often change some small details about what Jesus said and did – such as his geographical location– it’s usually to make a theological point, and here Luke brings Jesus down from the mountain (which was where he went to be close to God) and places him right here on the ground, “on a level place” amongst the people. As the people are coming from all over and Jesus comes down to the ground to meet them, Luke is trying to say that Jesus’ ministry and message – and his blessings – are given for all people.
What Jesus sees when he comes down to the level place is the great needs of the people around him. I’m quite sure this is not new to him – he had lived on the earth for 30 years by this point, and since he began his ministry he’s had people coming to him with their many needs, looking to him for help. Some of the people, we read, are poor and don’t have enough money to meet their needs and the needs of their family; some are hungry, without the food they need to survive; some, we read, are grieving, and suffering the pain of losing a loved one; some of the people are hated because of their faith, and they’re already beginning to suffer religious persecution for following Jesus. It is these people, Jesus says, who will be blessed by God (and the word translated here as “blessed” can also be translated as “happy”).
Luke does something else that is different from Matthew’s beatitudes. He adds a series of “woes” that will befall some of the listeners, and this is where things become a little uncomfortable: woe to you who are rich; woe to you who are full; woe to you who are laughing; woe to you who are well-liked and socially acceptable. I can see the people in the crowds scratching their heads and looking around at one another as Jesus said this, because these are precisely the people who were considered to be the blessed ones. Jesus seems to be getting things backwards. Rich, full, happy, and well-liked are what we all aspire to be, no? I’m sure it wasn’t much different for them.
The people to whom Jesus directs these woes, though, are not people without needs. They are people who think they have no need of God. Jesus is pointing out that there are some who will refuse to acknowledge their need of God, refuse to acknowledge their dependency on God, and this is more common among those who already have many of their material needs met. Unfortunately, these are the ones who will miss out on true happiness.
All people have needs – a need for money, a need for food, a need for joy, comfort, companionship, and love. We also have a need for meaning and purpose in life – a need for God. These are universal human needs. But when it comes to meeting our needs, we have to ask ourselves: where do we place our faith? Where do we find our sense of purpose – in God or in ourselves? What do we hope for, the blessings of the world, or the blessing that can only come from God?
Jesus points to the fact that comforts and a sense of security obtained without foundation in God are not reliable or lasting; they are not a good basis for our sense of personal security, so if that’s the foundation of our security and our sense of self-worth, it will come crashing down around us; eventually a crisis, an illness, or even death will reveal to us the impermanence of our worldly sense of security.
I can already hear all the hesitations and questions about what Jesus is saying here, because as someone living in the wealthy nation of Canada, I’m pretty sure I have asked them all myself over the years: does Jesus not want us to be well nourished and healthy? Does Jesus not want us to be happy? Does Jesus not want us to feel secure? The answer to these is “yes;” but Jesus wants us to be happy and secure in Him. So, what does that look like?
Well, what being happy and secure in Christ doesn’t look like is what we’ve been conditioned by our culture ever since we were small to think it looks like. Haven’t we all been taught that to be happy, successful, and fulfilled in life we need to set big, lofty goals that we then devote our lives to achieving? Then we visualise our success, plan our steps, set timelines and incentives. Work hard, and never stray from the path: that is the key to achieving success and fulfillment in life.
There was a report on the BBC a couple of years ago that showed the results of a very interesting study: that driven, goal-oriented outlook, according to a growing number of academic researchers and career coaches, isn’t only flawed; it may also, ironically, prevent us from achieving success.
One respected business advisor put it this way: “We get so emotionally attached to a goal that we set ourselves up for failure and disappointment. The key for success is, if you have somewhere you’d like to be in five years, don’t be so attached to it that it drives everything you do.” It’s true that goals can get you to work harder, focus more and perform better. But the study shows that, sadly, it can also kill your creativity, make you more likely to cheat, and less likely to thrive. That is, the more we focus on setting and achieving our own personal goals, the farther we are likely to stray from the path of God, and that, as Luke says, leads to woe, sadness, or hopelessness.
Jesus said, “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” Yes, Jesus wants us to thrive, and be successful, and be happy. But if we lose our creativity, if we lose our connection to those things that make us deeply and uniquely human, if we stray from the path of God, we cannot thrive no matter how financially secure or successful we may become.
Why would Luke suggest that we might find greater happiness in NOT achieving the highest levels of worldly success and accomplishments? Well, in this Luke is consistent with what Matthew includes in his version of Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount (chapter 6) where Jesus tells his followers: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
In God’s kingdom, all the needs of all people are perfectly met, including our needs, the needs of our loved ones, and the needs of all people throughout the world. If we focus on satisfying only our own material needs, we continue to live in a world where many are left in want while a few are obsessed with hoarding what they have. When we wait on God to meet our needs, we receive all that God wants to give us – and some of that is material, but a lot of it is not, and has more to do with character and spiritual growth, the things that give us peace and joy.
No matter how financially secure or successful we become, there are needs that we have that can never be satisfied outside of God; and what God promises is that when we seek to satisfy those needs that only He can meet, then our perspective changes so that whether we are hungry or full, rich or poor, we are blessed with true joy, true comfort, true success, and true security. They are true because they are eternal and cannot be taken away from us no matter our external, material, or worldly circumstances.
Where we find God’s richest blessings in our lives, is when we come down off our own little mountains that we’ve built for ourselves to be amongst other people and their needs, because that’s where Jesus is, and that’s where we’ll find happiness.
One of my favourite life stories that exemplifies this is one that is shared as part of the Alpha course; it’s the story of a man named Scott Harrison. At the age of 18 Scott had left his parent’s Christian home to work as a nightclub and party promoter in the heart of Manhattan. He was very good at it, he worked hard, and quickly became incredibly successful. He spent the next 10 years of his life organizing parties and galas for glamorous, high-profile clients like MTV, Bacardi and Elle Magazine. He was living the high life and had all the outward signs of success that any young man in his 20s might hope for.
At the age of 28, though, he had a moment of clarity that shook him to his core. During a New Year’s Eve vacation in South America, he was surrounded by beautiful people in a luxurious compound with flowing champagne, and he recalls thinking to himself, “There will never be enough. Even though I drive a nice car, have an expensive watch and a model girlfriend, I am the worst person that I know.” In the midst of all this success, he had lost touch with his faith, and he realized that this kind of worldly success did not give his life any sense of meaning.
That's when he rediscovered his faith and decided to spend his life serving others. He walked away from all his success and joined Mercy Ships, a non-profit organization that operates floating hospitals and offers health care to communities in need. With Mercy Ships he travelled to war-torn Liberia and ended up spending two years in West Africa as a photojournalist, documenting the work of the organization's medical staff in the field.
"I would go into the villages and see kids drinking out of swamps,” he said. “…children would leave their homes with these buckets, or these jerrycans and they would fill them up,” he recalled, “and I would watch kids drink water that I wouldn't have let my dog drink."
During this time, Harrison met a doctor who inspired him to found a non-profit he called “charity: water,” which to this day (more than 15 years later) brings clean water to millions of people in developing nations. In this way, he found a true sense of success, happiness, and purpose in his life by following Jesus. He says, “My theology around clean water is very simple: I believe that God does not want any women or children to die from drinking muddy water, and that when a well is put in a village and a woman stops walking five hours a day, when a kid starts drinking clean water, God smiles, and that is bringing His Kingdom a little closer.”
Now in his 40s he says what makes him happy is living out his personal faith and values every day through his work of serving others. Asked what advice he would give to fellow believers, he says: “Integrity and generosity are some of the most important Christian values to live by, and they inform the work that I do every single day. I believe in the transformative power of radical generosity. When we step outside of ourselves, and use our time, talent, and money to serve others, it changes us for the better. It frees us.”
Harrison found God’s greatest blessing, not in personal riches or worldly success, but in renouncing all of that and being down here on the ground with those who are poor, those who are hungry, those who mourn, and those who are forgotten by the world. May we also have the courage to seek God’s purpose and will for our lives, and in that way find God’s richest blessings and happiness in our own lives. Amen.