Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Blessing and Woe” Luke 6:17-26
They weren’t sure what to do with a female minister, so it was decided that I could make some pastoral calls. My first visit was to the oldest couple in the village of El Estor. “Just how old are they?” I wanted to know. My interpreter shrugged. She looked at her hands as if considering counting the years, but gave up. “Old” she said, “At least 100. Maybe more.”
Their home was tiny, a 10- by 15-foot wooden frame. Dried cornstalks had been woven into mats for the exterior walls. The roof was a thatch of palm fronds, grass, and more corn stalks. Blue sky shone through in spots. There was no door, no glass for windows, no electricity, no bathroom, no kitchen. The only furnishings were two plastic mesh hammocks, where my hosts clearly spent their nights, and two plastic chairs, the cheap patio kind, where they clearly spent their days. A round plastic wall clock with a long-dead battery proclaimed that it was always 11:15. A few long-outdated calendars with bright pictures of kittens and flowers adorned the walls.
My hosts were white haired and wizened. When they smiled, which was pretty much all the time, I could see they had about three teeth between the two of them. I thought my visit was going to be bleak, but they regaled me with an hour’s-worth of stories about how God had blessed them with children and grandchildren, a home of their own, and long life. When I offered to pray with them as I prepared to leave, they asked if they could pray for me.
My next stop was a fifteen-minute walk away, down a rutted dirt road. Pigs and hens rooted and scratched in the yard. Children in various states of cleanliness and clothedness spied from the edge of the wood. A naked toddler squatted to relieve herself in the dust. This house had a kitchen. In the middle of the single room, an earthen platform smoldered with the remains of the morning cookfire. Overhead, a big hole in the thatch allowed smoke to escape.
My host, a stick-thin man of indeterminate age, could barely walk, due to neuropathy in his feet from uncontrolled diabetes. His vision was failing, so he came up close to greet me and peer into my face. He had been widowed about a year ago and in that macho culture was still trying to figure out how to be mother and father to his children. I expected to hear the lamentation of mourning and the heavy burdens of failing health and single parenting, but that isn’t what I heard. I learned what was special about each of his children. I discovered how generous and kind his equally impoverished neighbors were. I heard about the promised miracle of healing with the help of medication that the pastor had procured. He felt blessed.
In our reading from Luke’s gospel, Jesus challenges us to see the blessedness of those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted. Jesus paired those four blessings with four woes, four matching statements of prophetic judgment, that targeted the rich, the satisfied, the laughing, and those who are the object of public admiration. Jesus’s words are hard for us to hear because, let’s face it, compared to places like El Estor, Guatemala, even the poorest people among us are comfortable and well-fed. We have plenty to laugh about. We receive our “atta’ boys” and accolades. We can congratulate ourselves on our accomplishments and thank God for life’s sweetness.
Jesus’s uncomfortable statements of blessing and woe were just as disturbing for his first audience as they are for us. In Jesus’s day, suffering and affliction were often seen as a sign of God’s punishment. To be poor, hungry, mourning, and persecuted suggested that something had gone terribly wrong in your relationship with God. Remember when Jesus healed the blind man outside the Temple (John 9)? The disciples wanted to know who had sinned to cause that blindness in the first place—the man or his parents. Likewise, material wealth was seen as a sign of divine favor. That’s why it was so scandalous of Jesus to praise the miniscule offering that a poor widow brought to the Temple, just a couple of small copper coins (Matt. 12:41-44). Those people in the crowd who came to Jesus for healing, they were the most marginal, vulnerable neighbors in the Galilee. The disciples, who were right there watching Jesus at work, might have thought a lot of things about that crowd, but they would not have called them blessed as Jesus did.
When New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan teaches about Luke’s beatitudes, he likes to point out who the “poor” are. Jesus used the Greek word ptoxoi. The ptoxoi are those who are reduced to begging because they have no other resources. The ptoxoi are the lepers, the lame, the childless widows who must either sell themselves or beg. In Crossan’s words, the ptoxoi are “the utterly reviled and expendable of the human family, the wretched of the earth.”
In today’s parlance, the ptoxoi are persecuted Rohingya refugees, who languish in the no-mans-land of camps, hoping for a home. The ptoxoi are the starving people of drought-stricken Somalia, with the bloated bellies, ashy skin, and dull hair of malnutrition. The ptoxoi are unaccompanied child migrants, maimed, molested, and enslaved by traffickers. The ptoxoi are the people of El Estor. The ptoxoi are blessed because they see things as they truly are. The abject, destitute poor know they are utterly reliant upon God. To be the blessed of God is to accept the stark reality that in the end we have absolutely nothing but God. This is the hard truth, whether we come from El Estor, Guatemala or Saranac Lake, New York.
The trouble with our affluence, the trouble with our plenty, the trouble with our non-stop laughter, the trouble with our playing for the court of public opinion is that we can lose all perspective. Instead of acknowledging our utter dependence upon God, we trust in our bank accounts, our stockpile of possessions, and all that good press we get. Woe to us when we believe money or things can solve all our problems. Woe to us when we laugh while the world wails. Woe to us when we find ourselves saying and doing unconscionable things to please the court of public opinion.
Back in Guatemala, I worshipped that evening with my new friends in their cinderblock church. It was floored with a slab of unfinished concrete and topped with corrugated tin. There were no stained-glass windows, just open holes where the wind blew through. In place of pews, we sat on simple benches. The walls were painted a bright, watery, turquoise blue. A primitive mural of Noah, his ark, the dove, and the rainbow spanned the chancel. There was no pipe organ, no choir. Instead, a small praise band, powered by a noisy generator, played hymns at ear-ringing volume on well-weathered instruments. Worshippers sang along with a wholehearted joy that I have never seen in any American Presbyterian church—and they did that whether they could or couldn’t carry a tune.
Next to me in worship, a young mother in flipflops, threadbare jeans, and a brightly embroidered huipil sang her heart out. The little boy bouncing on her hip, flirted with me, batting his big brown eyes and then shyly hiding his face in his mother’s neck. When I was invited forward to lead the church in prayer, every head bowed in humility and every voice echoed my words with the utter conviction that God was listening and Jesus was right there among us. Those people were dirt poor, but as they lived and worshipped with such fervent, heartfelt faith, I saw they were blessed in ways that my affluent congregation at the time, back in Wilmington, Delaware, probably couldn’t imagine.
After worship, my supervising pastor, the mission team, and I were invited to share a celebratory meal. The table was decked with more food than most of our hosts saw in a month: whole fish cooked on a charcoal fire, freshly made corn tortillas, a scrawny chicken stewed with savory spices, a salad of shredded lettuce, tomatoes, and onions dressed with lemon juice, sticky-sweet mangoes split with a machete; cups of syrupy sweet home-made lemonade. Our translator told us not to eat it, cautioning that the food would make us sick. Most of my fellow travelers looked panicked and just pushed the food around their plates.
After dinner, we visited with our hosts and asked how we could grow the partnership between the El Estor Church and our home church in Delaware. We were ready to write a big check. But our new friends surprised us. “Come be with us,” they said. “Move to El Estor for a little while. Be our neighbor. Worship with us. Know us.” It was a surprising invitation. We needed time to think about it. We said our goodnights and wandered back to our inn.
We talked about it a lot. We imagined what it would be like to live there, to rough it without reliable electricity, without internet, without hot showers, without Starbucks. We wondered which one of us would be the best to stay—a teenager taking a gap year before college, a pastor to minister to the spiritual needs, a nurse to tend their everyday illnesses? In the end, it felt impossible. We were too important, too responsible, too committed. Their request, it was too hard, too much to ask. No one stayed.
Woe to us.
Gay L. Byron. “Exegetical Perspective on Luke 4:21-30” in Feasting on the Word, Year C. vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Peter Eaton. “Homiletical Perspective on Luke 4:21-30” in Feasting on the Word, Year C. vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Howard K. Gregory. “Pastoral Perspective on Luke 4:21-30” in Feasting on the Word, Year C. vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
17 After coming down with them, He stood on a level place with a large crowd of His disciples and a great number of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They came to hear Him and to be healed of their diseases; and those tormented by unclean spirits were made well. 19 The whole crowd was trying to touch Him, because power was coming out from Him and healing them all.
20 Then looking up at His disciples, He said:
You who are poor are blessed,
because the kingdom of God is yours.
21 You who are now hungry are blessed,
because you will be filled.
You who now weep are blessed,
because you will laugh.
22 You are blessed when people hate you,
when they exclude you, insult you,
and slander your name as evil
because of the Son of Man.
23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy! Take note—your reward is great in heaven, for this is the way their ancestors used to treat the prophets.
24 But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are now full,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are now laughing,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you
when all people speak well of you,
for this is the way their ancestors
used to treat the false prophets.