February 15, 2004
Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, Illinois
Sermon by Cynthia Campbell
President, McCormick Theological Seminary
“Blessed are you . . .”
Luke 6:20 (NRSV)
I see him most days because he works at the garage where I park my car. He is an elderly man with a ready smile and a strong voice. “How are you this morning?” I ask. “Oh, I’m blessed” is his unfailing reply. “Blessed,” I think as I drive away. How is it that he, well passed retirement age and parking cars for a living, thinks of himself as blessed?
Most of the time we use the word to mean some special benefit that a person enjoys: “She is blessed with good health” or “He is blessed with musical ability and athletic skill.” Since I began working on this sermon, the old Bing Crosby-Rosemary Clooney song has been rumbling around in my head: “When you’re worried and you can’t sleep, just count your blessings instead of sheep. And you’ll fall asleep counting your blessings.” Blessings in this sense are things that bring us pleasure or joy, that make life good or secure. “Count your blessings,” we say to one who has come through a tough time. Think about the good things, the privileges, the benefits of life. Blessings in this sense are things we “have” and enjoy, even if they are intangible rather than material.
But, then we read, “Blessed are you poor . . . blessed are you who are hungry now . . . blessed are you who weep now . . . blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you . . . blessed.” How could you count any of these as blessings? No one wants to be poor. No one wants to be hungry or to weep or to be hated or excluded. No one.
What are these beatitudes—these words of blessing—about? And, even more puzzling, what’s with the “woes” that accompany them? In Luke’s version of Jesus’ teaching, these eight sayings are announcements. They are nothing less than the outline of God’s program. This is, Jesus says, what God is up to in the world and in human history. The announcement of God’s program began all the way back at the beginning, in chapter 1, with the song of Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord . . . who has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. 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 echoed this announcement in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson calls this the great theme of Luke’s gospel: God reverses human status and perception: in a downward movement, [God] scatters the arrogant, pulls down the mighty, sends the rich away empty. But God also, in an upward movement, exalts the lowly, fills the hungry, and takes the hand of [the poor]. Precisely such a reversal is announced by Jesus in his Beatitudes and woes, and is enacted by him in the narrative of his ministry.
More than any other gospel, Luke is concerned with issues of wealth and poverty. The rich and poor populate his stories and encounters: the “rich fool” who plans to build bigger barns to accommodate all his goods only to die and leave everything behind; the rich young man whom Jesus urges to sell all that he has and give the money to the poor, who turns away because he cannot turn loose of his wealth; by contrast, Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector, who spontaneously offers to give half of his wealth to the poor and return fourfold anything that he has extorted. Reversals are all around.
Those who have studied the social situation of the ancient world use a pyramid (like the FDA food chart) to visualize it. At the very top of the pyramid were the truly rich and powerful: the very few who owned all of the land, ran the government, and commanded the army. Next, beneath them, was a very small group of clients, traders, some artisans who depended directly on the top group. The core of the pyramid was the urban and rural poor, workers, farmers, fishermen, their families: people who just barely made it from year to year. Finally, on the base of this entire pyramid (where the bread is in the FDA version) were the “indigent”—the really poor, the “disposable” people, slaves, utterly destitute.
The Greek language has two words for “poor.” One for that core of the social pyramid (what we might call the working poor), and one for the people on the bottom. It is this latter group that Jesus speaks of in both this beatitude and his sermon in Nazareth. “Blessed are you indigent—you at the very bottom, you who are overlooked, you who don’t count because you never get counted.”
Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes is kinder to our ears: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” It’s a description of a general state of being, a spiritual virtue like humility. Gone is the punch of the direct address; gone is the threat of reversal. Where Matthew describes a spiritual state that we all could and should attain, Luke makes an announcement: this is what God is doing; this is where God stands in history.
“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” Luke picks up a theme that runs all the way through the Hebrew scriptures: namely, the poor enjoy God’s protection and special favor, and the mark of the truly righteous or just person is precisely to be seen in how they treat the poor. In his recent book, The Dignity of Difference, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (who is Chief Rabbi of Great Britain) points out that there are two Hebrew words for justice: mishpat (which is the rule of law) and tzedakah (which is the just distribution of resources). He argues that laws found throughout the five books of Moses (especially in Deuteronomy) that require Israel to care for the poor and the most vulnerable in society (notably widows and orphans) are based on the idea that there is a “collective responsibility to ensure that no one would be excluded from the shared graciousness of the community and its life.” Life together (especially in covenant with God) requires that all people have the material conditions that make it possible to live with dignity, independence, and self-respect. Hence, the justice or righteousness of a society (according to the Old Testament) will be measured by how it cares for its poor.
In recent years, a number of theologians, especially from Latin America, have come to speak of “God’s preferential option for the poor.” So Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will.” The poor are the beneficiaries of God’s blessing, the object of God’s “program” in the world, because poverty is wrong.
On the other side of the ledger, the problem with wealth is not the material possessions themselves but the temptation wealth presents. As commentator Allen Culpepper puts it, according to Luke, “the rich are shortsighted and are lulled into a false security when they think that their present abundance ensures their future comfort.” Wealth of any amount (whether it is a $10 million stock portfolio or an hourlywage job) tempts us to think that that is where our security lies. The problem with wealth is the potential for misplaced trust. And the more wealth we acquire, the more isolated and insulated we are tempted to become.
That is a temptation for churches as well as for individuals. It is a temptation that this congregation must fight and does. Think about the ways that you as church have chosen not to become isolated or insulated. Think about what Fourth Church would be like without the Tutoring Program with children from Cabrini. Without the Elam Davies Social Service Center. Without the folks who drop in the Chestnut Street lobby for a cup of water or coffee. Without the people who come here for exercise class and conversation and blood pressure checks through the Center for Older Adults. Without the Lorene Replogle Counseling Center. And think about how much more there is to come when this facility is remodeled and expanded and when a new facility is built and mission programs begin on Chicago Avenue.
A friend of mine, when he offers table grace, very often says this after thanking God for the food on the table: “O God, be with those whose tables are not so full, and bring someone, even us, to their side.” God has announced a program (Jesus calls it “the kingdom”). “Blessed are you poor. But woe to you who are rich.” These are words of encouragement and vindication for those at the bottom of society, those who are overlooked, those who don’t count. And they are words of judgment but also invitation for the rest of us. The invitation is clearer in Psalm 1 and the words of Jeremiah. These texts present “the two ways”: the way of blessing for those who place their lives, their security, their hope in God, who follow God’s ways of justice, and the way of judgment for those who put their trust in themselves, in their own resources and who follow the way the Bible calls wicked—which generally means abusing the poor. We have choices. Two ways in which to walk. God’s path leads to the side of the poor.
The man who parks my car is old enough to be fully retired. He works (in part, I think) because he likes having someplace to go every day but mostly because he really needs the money. Every time I see him, he says, “I’m blessed.” And he is; Jesus said so. And so are we when we follow the path of justice for the poor.
1. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke in the Sacra Pagina Series, Volume 3 (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1991), p. 44.
2. Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London: Continuum, 2003), p. 115.
3. Gustavo Gutierrez, “Song and Deliverance” as quoted by R. Allen Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke, Volume IX of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 145.
4. Culpepper, p. 144.