Jesus is being followed around by a large crowd of people and in today’s gospel text he is speaking to his disciples in front of this group. He begins with: Blessed are the cheesemakers! Ok, not really, but whenever I read this text, that’s what I think of.
Blessed are the cheesemakers is NOT something Jesus ever really said. It is actually from a scene in the Monty Python movie, The Life of Brian. In that part of the movie, a man named Brian is being followed around first century Palestine by huge crowds of people who are under the mistaken impression that he is the Messiah. After desperately trying to avoid these people, he finds himself in front of them and they expect him to speak some great, profound words. So, he tries to say something wise and give them good advice. A group at the back can’t really hear Brian very clearly and they seem to think he said, “blessed are the cheesemakers.” Brian’s followers begin to grumble. “Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?” one of them comments. Another answers, “well obviously it is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacture of dairy products.”
Of course what Jesus said in his real sermon is: blessed are the poor. Actually, what we have in today’s text is, “Blessed are you poor people.” He follows it up with, “blessed are you who are hungry…who weep…who are hated…” To tell you the truth, some of this might sound as confusing as blessed cheesemakers!
What is so special about the poor? What is so special about the hungry, weeping, hated?
There is a somewhat similar sounding sermon by Jesus in the gospel of Matthew; similar, yet different. In it, Jesus says: blessed are the poor in spirit. Well, we could always say, like the followers of Brian, that wasn’t meant to be taken literally. He’s obviously referring to anyone who feels spiritually weak or lacking, so most of us could at some point or another fall into that category. It is a perfectly legitimate interpretation of that scripture.
However, today’s sermon from Jesus is, like we said, similar yet different. Here, Jesus will not let us get away so easily. Blessed are you poor people. That is not people who feel like they need a little something to believe in or who feel like their faith meter is running low. This is not those who are poor or weak in spirit. This is poor people. This is people who are actually hungry, people who do not have what they need to feed, clothe and house their families. Blessed are you who had your power turned off, who have no money for gas. Blessed are you who have no transportation at all, who cannot find a job, who have lost all you ever had and have no reason to hope for a better tomorrow.
WHAT? What on earth is Jesus talking about? None of that sounds blessed to me. Does it sound so to you? Blessed means, “fortunate, to be envied.” Oh yeah, I envy those poor people! Sure, while we live in our comfortable homes and enjoy heat and air conditioning and lights. We who have covered dish lunches with tables overflowing with delicious food, we who get into our cars and drive all around town. We who are considered respectable people because we are Christians. Yeah, I just can’t tell you how fortunate I think those poor people, those hungry, weeping and hated people are!
The first time many Americans visit a genuinely poor community in the third world, the may actually feel that way. I remember being humbled by the remarkable faith of the families I met in El Salvador several years ago and thinking how much more focused they were on what was most important in life. That is a romanticized idea of what it means to be poor and it is often confused with cultures that emphasize faith and the centrality of family regardless of the economic status. When the second infant in a row dies immediately after birth because of the mother’s lack of access to good nutrition, when there are multiple deaths from influenza because no one can afford the medicine, when any of the problems that profound poverty can bring are present, it is nearly impossible to continue seeing “poor people” through blessed rose-colored glasses.
About now, we might be wishing that Jesus had said, blessed are the cheesemakers, because it would be a whole lot clearer as to what we are supposed to do in life. If that were what he said, we could all go become dairy farmers, milk cows or goats, and become purveyors of all manner of cheeses. Blessedness attained!
But that isn’t what he said. There must be something more here to what Jesus is saying than what it sounds like on the surface because it is not likely that he actually means we ought to seek out suffering merely for the sake of the pain and somehow reach a state of blessedness through suffering. Jesus does say in more than one place that we should give generously, even giving away our possessions, but he doesn’t say we need to go out seeking for suffering. He’s pretty clear that suffering finds people just fine without having to be sought out. So, what could he mean here?
Many times, we read scripture with the idea that it is Life’s Little Instruction Book, chocked full with how-to articles about all the many ways Jesus makes our lives more comfortable, productive, and fulfilled. With good intentions, we may turn to the bible looking for how we are to get into heaven, how to make God love us, what to do to find the good life. It is not an unreasonable idea, but that is not what the bible is. Scripture is many things, but it is not an instruction manual for life. There are definitely what are called proscriptive texts that tell us what we are to do. Things like, ‘love your enemies’, ‘baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’, and ‘do this for the rememberance of me’ are just a few of the examples of clear instructions of what we are to do in this world. There are also descriptive parts, too. These are parts that describe how the world is or how it should be. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that all who believe in him will not perish but have eternal life’ is a good example of descriptive text. There are some that are both, like the Ten Commandments which both proscribe the way we are to behave and describe what the people of God look like.
When we look at Jesus’ sermon about the blessed poor, hungry, weeping and hated, it is not a proscriptive text. In other words, it isn’t God’s prescription for his love; Jesus isn’t giving us a to-do checklist or a task list of what to do in order to be good or considered good by God. It is a descriptive text in which Jesus talks about people who are loved by God; so loved, in fact, that they are enviable and fortunate despite what ought to be hopelessness.
There are tons of places in the bible where we hear that God has a great love for those who are suffering. The psalms (34:18 for example) teach us that God is close to the broken hearted. The Torah has many provisions in the law to care for those who are poor or hungry, such as leaving the corners of fields un-harvested so that those who lack may glean from them. Jesus’ mother, Mary, sings about God lifting up the lowly ones, casting the mighty down from their thrones, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. Jesus’ words here fall right in line with her song, especially when we look at all the woes listed after the blesseds.
While this isn’t a list of dos and don’ts for us, it can be considered proscriptive in a manner of speaking. It isn’t so much what we are to “do” or “be” but perhaps more of what we should find valuable because of what God values. The truth is, we don’t want to associate with poor people, hungry people, those who are broken hearted and hated by others. Yet, Jesus says that they are special to him. While I don’t think this means that we should find a way to be poor, hungry, sad and hated, it does mean that when we see those who suffer, we should see them as God sees them. We should see them as beloved and worthy, just as God does. If they are worthy of God’s love, then surely they are worthy of our love. If they are worthy of Jesus’ time and energy, then surely they are worth ours.
We are heading into the time of year when we have many opportunities to reach out to those who are in need. It is when we plan special meals and celebrations with family that we can be the most sensitive and compassionate towards those who struggle for or do not have these things at all. We are taking offerings of food for both Community Table and United Christian Ministries, both of which distribute food and other kinds of assistance to those who need it in our community. What about those who weep and those who are hated? What can we do for them? We can reach out to them with open hearts and listening ears, seeing them as beloved of God, too.
Jesus’ words also tell us something else as well. It also shows us that in our own lives, we do not need to fear the loss of these things. If you list some of the most common fears, I believe that losing one’s livelihood, home, ability to care for oneself, and friends and family, would be high on the list. There is a theory in psychology called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (named for Abraham Maslow who developed the theory in 1943) and it suggests that before we can concern ourselves with things like personal achievements, creativity, complex problem solving, and development of a moral center, our needs for food, security, and human relationships must first be fulfilled or stabilized in some way. It is logical that we would all fear the loss of these things.
Yet, Jesus says that even if we do lose them, we do not lose God. In our text from Ephesians we hear that we have obtained an inheritance from God. This inheritance is from the God who raised Jesus from the dead and fills us with hope regardless of what we encounter in life. Even if we live lives that look hopeless and lack so much we may feel we need, we are blessed by God. It is like the last verse of the hymn we sang last week: A Mighty Fortress. “If they should take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they shall not win the day. The kingdom is ours forever.”