Sunday 3 November 2019
All Saints Sunday
The text this morning from Luke is at once familiar and unfamiliar, at once comforting and disturbing, at once affirming and challenging. I was teaching on this text recently, for the Synodically Authorized Minister training through the Oregon Synod, and I asked them if it seemed familiar. They said it was “like the Beatitudes, kind of.” That’s exactly right. It’s like the Beatitudes, but not the version of them that you know.
The familiar version is in the Gospel of Matthew. That is often the case. For whatever reason, and we’re not entirely sure why, the church pretty early developed a preference for the Gospel of Matthew over the Gospels of Mark and Luke. If there is a story that is included in two or three of these gospels, chances are that the version that you have rattling around in your head is the version from Matthew.
And so everyone has heard about the Matthean version of this text. Everyone knows about the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew, chapters 5-7, Jesus comes down from the mountain, just like Moses, in order to give a new and updated law to the people. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” And it goes on from there. You know those words, right? They are familiar. As Ken could tell you, in the Mennonite tradition, and many other traditions, the Sermon on the Mount is the most important part of the bible. It is the canon within the canon. It is the lens through which every other part of the bible is interpreted.
The words of the Sermon on the Mount are so popular, in fact, that hardly anyone remembers Luke’s version of the same material. Matthew’s Jesus stands on the hill while he talks to the people who are assembled below, but in Luke Jesus comes down from the mountain onto a level place in order to address the crowds, and so, while Matthew’s version is called the Sermon on the Mount, Luke’s version is called the Sermon on the Plain.
Both sermons start with beatitudes. Beatitude just means blessing. Both sermons start with blessings. But they’re not quite the same, are they? For one things, Matthew has a much expanded version compared to the version found in Luke. Luke doesn’t say “Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers.” Those are things that Luke just doesn’t include.
Luke’s beatitudes are much simpler and much more pointed. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep, for you will laugh.” It covers some of the same ground as Matthew’s version, but even where they agree, they don’t really agree.
We say that Matthew has a more spiritualized version. Luke says, “Blessed are you who are poor.” But Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke talks about the actual poor, but Matthew doesn’t. Matthew talks about the poor in spirit, whatever that means. Luke says, “Blessed are you who are hungry.” But Matthew says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Luke talks about people who are actually hungry, but Matthew doesn’t. Matthew talks about people who hunger and thirst for righteousness, whatever that means. You see what we mean by spiritualized? Luke talks about real, material concerns, but Matthew talks about something much more vague, much more immaterial, much more spiritualized.
Only the actual poor can claim a blessing for the poor, but just about anyone can claim a blessing for the poor in spirit. Do you ever feel less spiritual than you could be; well, then you can claim that blessing. Only the actually hungry can claim a blessing for the hungry, but just about anyone can claim a blessing for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Do you ever wish that the world was more just than it is; well, then you can claim that blessing.
And Luke doubles down on this materiality. Unlike Matthew, Luke pairs the blessings with curses. “Woe to you that are rich, for you have already received your reward. Woe to you who are full, for you will hunger.” It’s very real.
Which means that we end up with two very different messages from these two remixes of the same basic words. Matthew presents us with a number of ideals to which everyone should strive. We should try to hunger and thirst for righteousness. We should all strive to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers. In Luke, though, Jesus addresses the real conditions of suffering on the ground. Jesus makes clear that God is on the side of the poor, that God is on the side of the hungry, that God is on the side of the oppressed. It highlights God’s preferential option for the poor, God’s preferential option for the oppressed.
And that can be a harder message to swallow, especially for those of us who live relatively comfortable lives. Because we are used to having the bible be good news for us, personally. The gospel offers me forgiveness for my sins. The gospel offers me healing for my hurting. The gospel offers me comfort for my grief. If the grace of the gospel isn’t for me personally, then is it even grace at all?
And yet the gospel recognizes that some people have greater need than others. The gospel recognizes that the wellbeing of some is sometimes jeopardized by the privilege of others. Whether we intend it or not, sometimes one person’s bounty contributes to the poverty of others.
And in response to that, sometimes God takes sides. Sometimes God takes sides and fights on behalf of the weak and the oppressed. God takes the side of Hebrew slaves over their Egyptian slave-masters and leads them through the Red Sea into freedom. God takes the side of widows, orphans, and immigrants and insists on laws that give them special protection. God takes the side of peasants over big landowners to make sure that they are paid and treated fairly. God takes the side of debtors over creditors to make sure that no one is held under crippling debt. God takes the side of the weak over the strong. God takes the side of the oppressed over the oppressor. God takes the side of the hurting over the comfortable. God takes the side of the people over their leaders.
And if we don’t believe that message as it comes through the law and the prophets, then we can believe it because of Jesus. Jesus is always looking for those who are lost, last, and least. Jesus is always seeking to turn the tables of society, to bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly.
And if we don’t believe his words and actions, then we can believe his incarnation. Jesus left the heights of heaven to become human. But he did not become human as a powerful king or emperor. He did not become human as a wealthy landowner. He did not become human as a holy priest. No, he became human in a poor family, born to an unwed mother, the Galilean minority of the Jewish minority, a homeless itinerant preacher in a backwater province on the edge of the Roman Empire. And it is as that kind of nobody that God takes sides against the most powerful man in the world, the man calls himself the son of god, the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar.
Sometimes God takes sides. And sometimes, it’s not for our benefit. Sometimes it’s not for my benefit. And that can be very hard to hear.
I want to make clear, though, that God’s love and grace is for everyone. As the theologians would say, God’s grace is universal. God reaches out in grace to each and every one of us before we even know to look for God’s grace. God meets each and every one of us with in the depths of our sorrow and the valley of our sin. God promises to walk with each and every one of us, to sanctify us in our journey of faith. There is absolutely nothing that can place us outside the bounds of God’s grace. There is nowhere we can go to hide from God’s love. As the apostle Paul writes in Romans 8, “I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ our lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” Nothing can separate us from God’s love. God’s love is universal.
But that does not mean that God never shows a preference. And from all we know about God, we know that God shows a preference for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. And God asks us to do the same. God asks us to pay special attention to the needs of the poor and the hungry. God asks us to pay special attention to the needs of immigrants. God asks us to pay special attention to those who have been marginalized on account of gender or race or ethnicity or disability or sexual orientation or health or nationality or class or any other factor that might unfairly disadvantage a person or a community. That is part of the good news of the gospel: that God does take sides. While God loves and cares for all, God takes sides for the sake of justice. Thanks be to God.