Not too many of us consider ourselves blessed or happy when we cannot pay our bills or put food on the table. We are very slow to count our blessings, much less dance for joy, when we find ourselves in tears or when we are excluded, rejected, and treated with contempt. We are more likely to consider ourselves blessed when we do not have to be constantly worried about money or food and when others treat us with respect.
So why does Luke’s Jesus declare the poor and suffering happy or blessed? And why does he seem to be so hard on those who enjoy economic security and the respect of others? What does the gospel say to those of us who are somewhere between the destitute who are declared blessed and the wealthy who are told to watch out? What does this gospel offer to those who attract neither praise nor blame?
There are no easy answers to any of this, beyond the clear evidence that Luke’s Sermon on the Plain continues the theme of reversal that permeates this gospel.
The poor are told that the reign of God is theirs. In others words, it is a present rather than a future reality in their lives. The poor can at least know that they are acceptable to God in ways that are incomprehensible to the selfishly wealthy who, in their turn, are challenged to share their wealth.
If we think of heaven as a place enjoyed in the afterlife, it is not much consolation for the hungry or those who weep to know that their ‘reward will be great in heaven’. ‘Heaven’ is better understood as a way of talking about God or God’s empire of justice and compassion. The reversal is expected in this life rather than the next.
Weeping is usually connected in the prophetic literature with the disasters that flow from ‘ungodly’ decisions. In our times, there are many weeping over the ‘ungodly’ decisions associated with the war in Iraq. They are at least being vindicated in their critique and may finally achieve some ‘reward’ as a result of their protests. Laughter seems a remote possibility for the people of war-torn Iraq. We are reminded today of the gospel imperative to work and pray that such war-torn countries will once again resonate with the sound of happy laughter.
Finally, our experience makes us wary of those who flatter or put us on pedestals. It is generally only a matter of time before we fall from favour and find ourselves on the receiving end of criticism or even attack. It is ultimately better to be misunderstood and to be at peace with one’s conscience in the pursuit of compassion and justice than to be the object of adulation and praise. I suspect it is only in handling life’s challenges with dignity, grace, and single-minded focus on the gospel that we find blessing or happiness.