Location, location, location

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Pick up the Bible in your pew. Open it up about three quarters of the way through. Find the Gospel According to Matthew and turn it to chapter five. If you hit Mark, Luke, or John, you’ve gone too far. Matthew’s fifth chapter, along with the sixth and seventh are what is known as the “Sermon on the Mount.”

In the Sermon on the Mount we find great Jesus hits like:

  • “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.”
  • “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’
  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

We also find the Beatitudes, which make a lovely subject for the cross-stitchers among us. You know them:

  • “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
  • “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
  • “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

If you are looking for guidance this week, you may want to turn to Matthew chapters five through seven. For now, you can ignore Matthew, because today we are talking about Luke’s version of our savior’s stump speech.

Luke’s version of the sermon is much shorter and quite a bit different. First, the beatitudes change completely, removing qualifiers like “poor in spirit” and “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Luke gives us only four blessings (as opposed to Matthew’s nine), and the scene is much more chaotic in Luke’s than in Matthew’s account.

Throughout Matthew, Jesus is depicted as a great teacher, and everyone seems to be attentive to Jesus’ every word and syllable, waiting for the great teacher to unleash his wisdom upon them.

In Luke, Jesus is veryhuman. His birth story is elaborate, we meet him as a child only in Luke, and he is always on our level. For Luke, Jesus was a lot like us.

In this scene, the crowds come to hear Jesus, be they also are trying to get close enough to touch him. They believe that he has some magic, and they want as much of it as they can get. They’re suffering, they are searching for relief, and Jesus has what they want.

But what Jesus gives them is not exactly what they were looking for. In the midst of this chaos, Jesus looks up at his students and says,

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you [even] when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of [me and my words].”

“None of this is true, of course,” they all must be thinking. I mean come on Jesus! People don’t share pictures of their poverty and caption them #blessed. People facing food insecurity don’t watch their bodies deteriorate from a lack of nutrition and think about their starvation as a gift from God. People don’t grieve lost loved ones or sit on the margins of their communities and think, “Gosh, I am so blessed because of these sufferings.”

We typically think that being blessed means being lucky or happy. Rolf Jacobson points out that the word in this context actually means being unburdened or being at peace.

If being blessed is about being unburdened by something or at peace, we can see how the poor, hungry, sorrowful, and reviled could be blessed amid their challenging situations. But what they want to hear is that God will magically remove the challenges themselves.

Then Jesus turns toward the others in the crowd.

“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. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

I see what Jesus is trying to say, and I don’t think I like it.

“Woe” means “warning;” Jesus is warning the rich, the full, the boastful, and the popular. And I don’t know about you, but I would place myself more in the “woe” group than the “blessed” group.

This is not the feel-good message I was looking for on a luxuriously-long weekend. I am certain that this is not the message those surrounding Jesus were looking for either—the rich OR the poor. Isn’t there a way forward where we all get some good news, the rich and poor alike?

I mentioned that Matthew’s version of the story puts Jesus and his students on a mount, above the Sea of Galilee with a beautiful view of neighboring towns and fishing boats and rolling fields of tall grass and olive trees.

In Luke, Jesus comes downwith his students and stands on a level place among the people—no higher, no lower. Thus, Luke’s version of the “Sermon on the Mount” is referred to as the “Sermon on the Plain.”

Location plays an important role in Luke’s narrative—whereJesus talks is almost as important as whathe is talking about. Luke uses location as a storytelling device, so before we hear what a character says, we know to whom they are and are not talking to—we might even guess what kind of message they will share.

Do you remember what John the Baptist said just a few chapters and a few weeks ago? Remember how John was out in the wilderness, preaching a message that eventually got him arrested and killed by those with all the power and money and authority? John quote the Prophet Isaiah and said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low…’”

From the inception of Jesus’ public ministry, location has set the tone for what he is all about. Jesus is the way of God, the Word of God who makes the path of a joy-filled life straight by filling in the valleys that keep some people down while leveling the mountains that prop far fewer people up. Jesus speaks to rich and poor alike, and while the message is hard for both groups and all people to hear, it is exactly the message they need.

This is exactly the message we need.

We need to hear that finding joy in life is not about getting what we want or keeping what we’ve got. We’re told from childhood to be consumers, and we are trained to believe that our lives are only as valuable as our material wealth, as our popularity, or as our power. We may not believe this at the deepest level of our soul, but we certainly act like we do, and it’s all a lie.

It’s the great lie, really—it’s the lie present in the story of the Garden of Eden, it’s the lie that leads the people of Israel astray so many times, and it’s the lie that makes the Herods of Jesus’ world react to his message of a more just and equitable kind of joy-filled existence with fear and lethal violence.

It’s the lie of those who run for office claiming that they alone are the ones who will solve our problems. It’s the lie of a culture that says that looking a certain way will make your life complete. And unfortunately, it is the lie we even tell ourselves every time we think that we are not enough—that we need to earn our way into being lovable.

It’s this lie that is responsible for so much of the terrible stuff we see in our world today—war, violence, abject poverty, racism, sexism, and all kinds of trends that trick us into picking sides, building up mountains of our own, and dividing our communities. Because this lie has sunken in deep, we sometimes have trouble believing that there might be a way to subvert the lie that keeps us burdened by invisible chains.

“But I say to you that listen,” Jesus says immediately after the blessings and woes, “Loveyour enemies,” he says, “do goodto those who hate you, blessthose who curse you, prayfor those who abuse you.”

Wow. I mean, “love your neighbor as yourself” is wisdom that has always existed and is not unique to Jesus, but Jesus goes to a whole other level when he tells us not only to work with him to level the playing field but also to lean into the discomfort of being with those we cannot stand, loving them and praying for them and blessing them.

According to Jesus, we are all poised to lose something in this world or kingdomthat God is building. The rich, the poor, and everyone in between—we all must sacrifice something material or metaphorical in order to find God by finding each other. Jesus’ message is one of economics and Jesus’ message is one of the heart because being a part of God’s kingdom means exchanging the great lie of wealth and power and control with the joy-filled life of boundary-shattering, valley-filling, mountain crumbling love.

Love is the way of Jesus and following this way will make many of our burdens seem lighter, we may even find peace amidst chaos. If we lean into the discomfort of loving one another and sink our roots into the nourishing life of God, we too fill find joy and blessing.