1 Cor 15:12-20
There are some really powerful words in today’s scripture readings: blessed, woe. Blessed are you poor, you hungry. Woe to you who are rich. All very strong words. But what do they really mean? Even the word Power itself plays an important role.
Woe. Woe is me! I’ve always thought this word meant something like condemned or damned, but it actually means someone or something to be pitied. This sounds so backward! Why should the rich, those who have everything except empty stomachs and empty bank accounts be pitied? Why should we feel sorry for them?
It sounds like the good life to me. There is a commercial for one of those celebrity gossip shows that says
‘so rich, so famous so beautiful, what could possibly go wrong?’ Pictures of celebrities flash by—wealthy, beautiful, slim, and apparently happy. And then, a famous actress responds to that question of what could be wrong. “Oh honey, I don’t have enough time to tell you about all that” Then, we see photos of actors embarrassing themselves in drunken foolishness and then on their way to a rehab facility, an actress strung out on cocaine, another so thin and emaciated—by her own choice—that she is nearly unrecognizable. And then, image after image of ruined and estranged relationships. Ok, I can see some woe there. Sometimes, things that look good are only good on the surface.
But still, all wealthy people do not suffer like these images show. Some are quite responsible and generous.
Could it be that there is more to be pitied here than just wealth and popularity?
Blessed. What does it mean to be blessed? Happy, fortunate. This one is harder to understand in the gospel lesson. A good friend of mine went to India a year or so ago and met a lot of poor, hungry people and, at first, she thought their lives were so much simpler, easier, less complicated than our western, wealthy, well-fed lives.
“There’s so much that gets in our way here,” she said. “so much that stands between us and God, and they don’t have any of those obstacles. They are so close to God because they must rely on him for everything.
What a wonderful life!”
She believed that they were closer to God because of their poverty. That is, until she saw some of the children.
Little children living in excrement on the street and eating from what they can scavenge out of the garbage to keep from starving to death is neither fortunate, happy nor blessed. There must be something more than lack of food and other basic necessities in blessedness.
So how is it that the unfortunate are called fortunate and the fortunate are called unfortunate? This certainly isn’t how the world works. Success, happiness, good fortune are attained by having a good paying career, preferably a respectable one. If we were not born with the physical beauty we would like, we can purchase it.
Having all our needs met. With More. Better. Bigger. Faster. Greater. Everything. This is what we should strive for in order to obtain happiness—blessedness. How is it that Jesus turns this world upside down?
Well, for one thing, it is not the poverty nor the wealth in and of themselves that make for blessing or woe,
but the people’s connection to God or lack their of. The greatest reversal here is not that poor are blessed and rich are to be pitied but rather that neither state of being defined by the world are what determine blessedness or woe. It is instead the presence of God. In fact, God pretty much disregards what the world thinks altogether.
Those who are powerful by the world’s standards are to be pitied because they are actually weak and those who are powerful by God’s standards are truly blessed.
In our Old Testament lesson, we hear more about this word blessed and what that looks like. “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”
It is the nourishing power of the water that makes the tree flourish. The tree connected to this source of power and life is in no danger, come what may. Feast or famine, the tree is sustained by the stream. This beautiful image gives us an illustration of what it means to be blessed—it is the connection to the stream, to God, that creates the state of blessedness, come what may.
At the very beginning of our Gospel lesson, Jesus is coming down from the mountain with his recently named disciples. A few verses before this, we are told that Jesus has been on this mountain praying. Like the tree that stretches out its roots to the stream, Jesus had spent the whole night in prayer before selecting the twelve disciples. They descend the mountain, stop on a level place and are surrounded by a great crowd. The people have come from far and wide to hear Jesus teach and to be healed by him. The people were all trying to reach out to touch him because power was coming out from him and healing them—making them whole. It is this power that truly determines blessedness and woe—not the worldly ideas of happiness and pitifulness, but God.
The world tells us that money popularity and “having it all” are equal to being blessed and powerful, but Jesus shows us that wholeness and true blessedness come from God’s power.
In the movie Schindler’s List, there is a memorable conversation between Oscar Schindler, a German businessman, and Amon Goeth, the operator of a Jewish concentration camp. Schindler tries to convince
Goeth that real power doesn’t lie in the ways he believes, such as the ability to kill someone at will, but rather in mercy.
“you think that’s power?” says Goeth. “That’s what the Emperor said.” Responds Schindler. “A man steals something, he is brought in before the emperor. He throws himself down on the ground. He begs for his life and he knows he is going to die. And the Emperor……pardons him. This worthless man. He lets him go …….that’s power.”
Mercy, which looks like weakness to the world, is powerful and so, too, is the blessedness that comes from our being like the tree by the stream—receiving our nourishment solely from God. We receive this nourishment,
this healing, from God in the power of our baptism—when our roots stretch out to that stream of water which blesses us, rich or poor, our whole lives through. We receive this nourishment in the bread and wine—the body and blood of Jesus—the mercy that is God’s truest power.
So how does this change the way we see the world? The Gospel of Luke is often described as containing the Great Reversal —showing the ways that Jesus turns the world upsidedown. It could be that he turns us right side up, so that we can see the world through his eyes. To see things as they really are. Perhaps it means that the things we are told by the world are valuable are not at all—maybe they are even pitiful. Perhaps it means that even the people that the world does not see as worthy of value are blessed in the eyes of God.