Blessings and woes – our response to God

Epiphany  6 – 2010
Luke 6:17-26
Marian Free

In the name of God who desires that all people know freedom, peace and justice. Amen.

All things bright and beautiful,
all things great small,
all things wise and wonderful
the Lord God made them all.

The rich man in his castle,
the poor man at his gate,
God made them high or lowly
and order’d their estate.        Frances Cecil Alexander

God made them high and lowly. It is hard to believe that less that forty years ago, we sang those lines with gusto and impunity! Does this mean that God not only condones, but that God created situations in which some (in fact a majority) of this world’s people spend their lives in poverty and misery while others live in comfort and contentment? Does this mean that God not only looks contently on while women and children are sold into slavery and men risk their lives to provide a meager living for their family, but that God ordained that it be so? Does it mean not only that God is satisfied with, but actually intended that the largest proportion of people live on less than $2 a day, and a child dies of hunger every three seconds?

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. The author of that most beloved hymn was a product of her age. Victorian Christians really did believe that God had ordered the world as it is and that while one might do something to alleviate the plight of the poor, there was no reason to examine the causes of poverty or to create a more equitable or just society. That generation apparently saw no contradiction between an inequitable God and a just God and could see no reason to question the way things had always been.

“Blessed are you who are the poor for yours is the kingdom of God”. Unlike Matthew, Luke does not spiritualise the beatitude, “blessed are the poor in spirit”, but leaves it as a bald statement. Taken alone, it would seem to support the Victorian world view and allows those who are comfortably off to complacently accept the status quo – the poor are blessed, that makes everything alright. However, that Luke has a different intention becomes quite clear when we read on: “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” This is a far less comfortable world view. Those who have had the misfortune to be born to poverty are assured that their situation will be reversed – which is good – but those whose birth has endowed them with comfort will find a reversal of their position quite discomforting.

Luke’s vision is quite clear. From the beginning he has indicated that he believes that Jesus’ coming will turn the social order upside down, that God favours the poor over the rich and the vulnerable over the strong. Mary’s song indicates that there will be a radical re-ordering of the world: “God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth is equally confronting: “I have come to bring good news to the poor and to let the oppressed go free.” It is only in Luke’s gospel that the disciples “leave everything and follow Jesus” and Jesus actually says: “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions”. In his second book, Acts, Luke reports that in the earliest communities property was shared equally among the believers and there were fatal consequences for those who withheld their worldly goods.

So what do we make of all of this? Luke’s gospel is compelling and leaves no room for doubt about the expectations for discipleship and about God’s preference for the poor. The problem in our age is that most of the issues are too big to comprehend let alone solve. Poverty and disease are global issues that we as individuals simply cannot resolve. The solutions to many problems are political and geographical and therefore beyond our reach. We can make donations to the earthquake relief in Haiti, but on our own we will be unable to solve the poverty and lack of resources which has intensified the fallout of the disaster. We can pray for the people of Burma but we cannot do anything about a political situation which refuses our aid when disaster strikes. Even our good intentions can have unintended results. High quality grain provided by aid programmes in the past has reduced the variety which ensured some sort of crop whether the season was good or bad. Now a good season means a good crop but a bad season means no crop at all.

Does this mean that we who have had the misfortune to be born in or migrated to the Lucky Country are destined at some time to have everything taken away from us? Do we have to give everything away in order to be followers of Christ? Or is it possible to wiggle our way out of the dilemma by finding a spiritual meaning to the teaching?

I have to confess that I do not have the sort of clarity and certainty to answer these questions for you. However, I believe that the questions raised by Luke’s beatitudes are serious questions which have the potential to affect our salvation and I believe that all of us must all prayerfully struggle to find answers. At this stage of my Christian journey I believe that it is important for us to recognise how blessed we are to live at this time, in this part of the world. I believe it is important that we determine to give a portion of our income, not only so that others might benefit, but so that we learn to be happy with less. I believe that we must live in such a way that our lifestyles and our actions cause no one to be hurt, treated unjustly or oppressed by what we do. Above all, I believe that we are called to place our trust entirely in God and God’s future and not to depend on worldly things which will not last forever.

We are going to spend a whole year with Luke and will continue to be challenged and confronted by Luke’s view of the gospel and of the world. We have a good opportunity, as we enter the season of Lent, to examine once again where we stand, to ask ourselves how much we trust God with our present and our future, and how willing we are to work with God to create a world in which all have enough to eat, meaningful employment, shelter from the elements and the ability to build a future for themselves and for their children.

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