Blessings and Woes – Sun Feb 17, 2019
Luke 6:17-26; Psalm 1; Jeremiah 17:5-10
Happiness and woe. Curses and blessings. Our scriptures today are full of them both. What does “woe” mean? What makes us happy or blessed?
I learned this week that if you google “beatitude,” or just ask Wikipedia, what comes up are “The Beatitudes” that begin Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. The Lukan beatitudes we hear today might get mentioned too, but mostly in contrast to Matthew’s more well known ones. What doesn’t get mentioned, and what is much harder to find, is an explanation of “beatitude” as a wisdom formula that goes back much before Jesus. And yet wisdom writers have used the formula: “Blessed are you…” to teach the ways of God for millennia, often contrasted by curses or woes as we hear in both our Old Testament passages today. Each has something to say about what blessing and woe might mean, and together with the Gospel, we get a fuller, clearer picture.
We begin with Jesus’ so-called “sermon on the plain” from the Gospel according to Luke. Like its more famous cousin from Matthew, Jesus begins with descriptions of blessedness. Unlike Matthew, however, who uses language of spirit and righteousness, writing “blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke’s beatitudes are unabashedly concrete: “blessed are you who are poor… blessed are you who are hungry now… blessed are you who weep now… blessed are you when people hate you…” Jesus’ wisdom today keeps us in our world, now, and in our bodies, not to be spiritualized away. Also different, instead of the 8 beautiful statements we hear in Matthew, those named “The Beatitudes,” in Luke Jesus utters only 4 beatitudes, followed by 4 matching statements of warning: “woe to you who are rich… woe to you who are full now… woe to you who are laughing now… woe to you when all speak well of you…” This teaching from Jesus is confounding. It turns our world upside down. Besides which, we are who we are… poor or rich, hungry or satisfied, laughing or weeping, excluded or acclaimed. What are we to do with the “woes”? How can we know blessing? Perhaps a broader exploration can help us.
Psalm 1 also begins with a beatitude, though used in an unusual way: “Blessed are those who do not…” it says, followed by 3 injunctions: do not follow the advice of the wicked; do not take the path that sinners tread; do not sit in the seat of scoffers. This psalm sets up an important theme for the entire Book of Psalms of covenant faithfulness, following God’s instructions, as the key to happiness. The interweaving of positive and negative commands, like in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain today, can rub us the wrong way. The sharp dichotomy between what is right, and what is not, smacks of all that seems wrong with religion. We don’t want to be told what we can and cannot do, by God or anyone else. We prefer to live in the muddy middle. It’s much more comfortable to live in ambiguities, to never land anywhere, at least not for long. It’s easy not to take a side. Ironically, such is the very way of being against which Psalm 1 speaks: “The wicked…” it describes, “are like chaff that the wind drives away.” The ways of the wicked are flighty. The blessed, on the other hand, are like trees planted by streams of water, who flourish.
One of the striking sights in the Moroccan desert is the presence of oases. Ask me later and I’ll show you pictures. Oases exists in many deserts but I’ve seen it most recently in Morocco, in the desert leading into the sandy barrenness of the Sahara. The dry, rocky scenery is punctuated with shrub bushes at times, sometimes literally blowing in the wind. They’re scrawny and light and just the look of them speaks to a struggle for survival. But every now and again, after hours of driving through the barrenness, you come across patches of brilliant green. It’s often in a little valley, of sorts, and always surrounded by houses. In modern Morocco you know where to find oases based on the towns marked on a map. But still, the sight of an oasis in the desert is both stunning and odd. The green of the trees and the flourishing agriculture tells us there is water somewhere nearby. We might see a small river running through, but mostly the water comes from below, deep under the earth. Green trees and other vegetation in the midst of a dry desert means there is water from a source not reliant on rain or dew. It comes from a source hidden beneath what we can see.
The prophet Jeremiah uses the metaphor of shrubs and trees in the desert to describe cursedness and blessedness to a people in exile. To be cursed is to “trust in mere mortals and [to] make mere flesh their strength…” To be cursed is to “be like a shrub in the desert…” blown about by the vagarities of wind and rain in parched places. Trusting in God, on the other hand, is what it means to be blessed. To be blessed is like being “a tree planted by water…” Such a tree has its strength, indeed its very life, rooted in deep flowing streams of water. This tree need not be anxious or fearful about the changes and chances of life, drought or heat. Such a tree can thrive in many circumstances because its strength comes from a deeper source of life… trusting in God and God’s ways.
Jeremiah and Psalm 1 help us to understand Luke’s blessings and woes. Luke leaves behind the desert metaphor while still taking up the spirituality of trust in God, rather than in mere mortals or our own strength. Blessed are you when you are rooted in God’s very being, rather than in benefits conferred by God… benefits like wealth and comfort, laughter and prestige. Jesus speaks “woes,” words of warning to the rich, the satisfied, the jovial and the acclaimed, because in such circumstances, we can so easily be lulled into believing that the comforts, and good things, are the ultimate source of security and good feelings. Jesus warns that those things that seem like gifts, that are gifts, can also trap us in their illusion of security and strength. Those good things that we attribute to God’s favour can actually deal us death, by blinding us to God’s presence in our lives. The state of blessedness, on the other hand, is about a happiness not dependent on life’s circumstances.
Being blessed means being planted near streams of living water. We miss the mark anytime we cling to something shallower or put anything else in the place of God. God’s teaching, God’s law, is important. It is the way to know how God wants us to live. But God’s law is not God. Our liturgy, traditional and contemporary alike, is important. It is the way we express our prayer and praise, our hope and our faith, as worked out by faithful people throughout the years. But our liturgy is not God. The Bible is important. It matters, so much, for our understanding of who we are, where we have come from and how our ancestors in faith have experienced God throughout the generations. But the bible is not God. We run into trouble anytime we put anything else in the place of God… something lesser or lighter, something that can be blown around in the wind.
God is the very source of life, like a stream running deep in our souls, a steady presence through all the changes and chances of life. Blessedness is about the peace and security of knowing our well-being is found not in the comforts of life, but in our connection to God. Blessedness is about being satisfied, unburdened, and at peace, regardless of our circumstances.
Where does your trust lie? Is it like chaff that can be blown away, or is it deeply rooted in the Water of Life?
Woe to you who live in illusion, for it will one day be broken.
Blessed are you when you trust in God rather than in the gifts God gives, for you will never be shaken.