Strange Blessings

Luke 6:17-26                                                                                       February 13, 2022

I am so blessed. I have my health. Since I started exercising, my blood pressure has gone down by 15 to 20 points, and I’m off Lisinopril. So Blessed! I have a great wife, and I know she will always have my back. I love my job and have a great team at work. So blessed! I could go on counting my blessings, but you get the idea. I grew up with the old gospel song, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one. Count your many blessings see what God has done”  The song advises that when times are tough, we will find consolation in counting the blessings of what we have. It can be good advice, like keeping a gratitude journal. Start each day by writing down five things for which you are grateful. It will improve your attitude. It is standard advice in AA for people in recovery.

Yet when I read the beatitudes of Jesus, especially Luke’s version of today’s scripture, I’m a little uneasy.  “Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry now. Blessed are you who weep”  Those don’t sound at all like blessings. Either Jesus is missing the point, or I am. Especially when he says woe to the rich, the filled, and the happy. When people say they are “so blessed,”  they name things Jesus proclaims as woes. I checked this out on Twitter. Every day, thousands of people post #SoBlessed after celebrating the many accomplishments of their children, their vacation in the Caribbean, and other life successes. Here are a few examples:

  • I’m at the age where home décor, fun recipes, and traveling to beautiful places makes me the happiest. #SoBlessed
  • I was fortunate to have learned earlier that a classic wedge salad pairs well with a good whiskey. And it’s all#keto #soblessed
  • My best girlfriends decided to surprise me with a birthday party.
  • I love my job @topgolfLasVegas. #Soblessed

There is a fine line between gratitude and bragging online. I didn’t see anyone posting their blessings for poverty, food insecurity, or grief, and those whom Jesus blessed. After 5 minutes of scrolling, I did come to someone saying, “I’m so glad I’m sober”  Upon reflection, here is what is bothering me about the casual use of blessings. Are we only blessed during the happy times and with good things in life? Does God only bless the winners? If things are going badly, does that mean we are not blessed? Is God absent in times of pain and suffering?

I dug into Jesus’s beatitudes more deeply and discovered that his strange blessings not only run counter to the American prosperity Gospel but also many 1st century views of God. What does it mean to be blessed? In the New Testament, the Greek word translated “bless” is “makários”  It means the gods favor a person in some specific way. Makarios is not luck, not a skill; it means that the gods are giving you a gift. People used the word when you have a baby, when you find the right spouse, when you have a moment of fame, when your relative who was suffering is released to death when people see you as righteous, or you had a mystical vision. Note that you can’t bless yourself. No one says, “God bless me,” when we sneeze. Blessing is a gift from outside ourselves, and it is always good. Greek literature does not give examples of being poor, grieving, or weeping as a blessing. Those are curses and lead to tragedy (and Greeks loved a good tragedy.). Being blessed by the gods is excellent, but it is not the norm. Life is mostly tragedy to the Greeks. That is the opposite of American culture. We see blessings as the norm, practically our right, and tragedy is unacceptable.

Jesus is saying something counter-cultural to the Greek mind. I don’t mean 1960s hippie counter-cultural. He is being provocative to challenge a view of God. Human tendency thinks every good thing is a sign of God’s blessing, and every bad thing is a sign of God’s disfavor. Even in the Hebrew Old Testament, many passages say, “The righteous will prosper, and the wicked will be scattered like chaff in the wind” This is where we get the Prosperity Gospel, where people are promised riches if they are faithful to God. Prosperity preachers probably don’t preach on Jesus’ woes. Life experience seems to say life is not always fair. You don’t always get what you deserve. That is why we have the book of Job. God can love you, and things can still go wrong.

Jesus is firmly in the prophetic tradition when he says, “Blessed are you who are poor. For yours is the Kingdom of God” Most of his audience was likely confused. Jesus, I don’t think Makarios means what you think it means. Are you a revolutionary? You sound like Bernie Sanders. Maybe Jesus is a socialist at heart. We may need to ban this book. People loved it when Jesus fed 5000 people, but they were probably uncomfortable when he said blessed are the poor and woe to the rich. Archbishop Oscar Romero once said, “When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why they were poor, they called me a Communist.”

Some interesting clues in our text help us better understand what Jesus meant. Notice the location. It is a sermon on a level place, and this is called the Sermon on the Plain. Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes is in the Sermon on the Mount because Matthew saw Jesus as the new Moses. Luke sees Jesus as the one who welcomes the Greeks, the poor, and the oppressed. Luke notes his audience was from the Greek cities of Tyre and Sidon. Jesus’ message here is the same as his hometown sermon in Luke 4 about bringing good news to the poor, releasing to the captives, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. It is the same message as Mary’s Magnificat. God extends favor, creating Markarios blessings in ways we can barely imagine. These blessings from God will start with those on the outside, not with those who currently feel blessed. God will find you when you weep, when you grieve, and when you are worried about when your next meal is coming.

One of my most profound times of receiving God’s blessing was while lying in a hospital bed. I had just come through a bowel resection. I can’t remember whether it was surgery number three or four, but the point is I had been through a lot. I had a colostomy bag installed, I had missed lots of work, money was tight with all the medical bills, and I was scared. The bottom was falling out of my life, and I didn’t know where I was going to land. I was not feeling so blessed. What I was thinking right then was, “I need more morphine”  (I understand why we have an opiate crisis. It dulls all kinds of pain.). I felt sorry for myself, and My attempts at mindful meditation failed.

I was trying to focus on my toes and relax. I was wiggling my toes and already fearing the nurse coming around to make me walk for the first time. I hate that first time getting out of bed after surgery. Its torture. But as I wiggled my toes, a peace came over me. I thought, what I can move today is my toes. Tomorrow I will walk. And someday, I will run. This was not positive thinking. I felt a presence with me. I didn’t hear a voice, but I sensed God was right there and saw my pain, fears, and suffering. I knew I had a hard road ahead, it was still uncertain, but I wasn’t alone. God was as close to me in that moment as any triumph, achievement, or looking at a beautiful sunset. So blessed even amid pain and uncertainty, but as with the beatitudes, you shall know wholeness again. Whenever we are in pain, uncertainty, and stuck in sorrow, the message of the Beatitudes is that God is on the way. You are not excluded from God’s care in your trials.

So, what about the woes Jesus proclaims. Does Jesus hate the rich, the happy, and the fulfilled? Would he be angry at all the #SoBlessed proclamations? I can’t imagine God would want us to be unhappy, that the only way to salvation is to take a vow of poverty and refrain from all laughter. These are not bad things. Make a joyful noise unto the Lord! Every Sunday is a day of rest and celebration. I think the point of the woes is to remind us that God wants good things for everyone. It’s a sharp reminder that we are in relationship with people who suffer. If we take our blessings, hoard them, and raise the drawbridge to our gated life, then woe unto us. We have forgotten our inter-relatedness. If God puts such an emphasis on giving preference to the poor and suffering, maybe the fulfilled are called to rush ahead of God to the work of blessing.

By all means, count your blessings. It is good to be blest. Remember that all good things come from God. And then be a blessing. The best way to show gratitude to God is to pass the gift along. It is powerful to extend a blessing to someone. Friends, you are all a blessing. If you need a little more blessing right now, may God meet you soon. And if you feel so blessed, drop the hashtag, and pass it on.

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