Who doesn’t love a good news/bad news joke?
Defense lawyer says to her client: “I have good news and bad news.”
Client says: “What’s the bad news?”
“Your blood matches the DNA found at the murder scene.”
“Oh, no!” says the client. “What’s the good news?”
“Well, your cholesterol is way down.”
Teenager says to her father: “I have good news and bad news.”
Father: “Give me the good news first.”
Teenager: “The airbags work really well in your new Mercedes.”
Husband: “I have good news and bad news.”
Wife: “Tell me the bad news first.”
Husband: “The washing machine broke.”
Wife: “Oh, no. What’s the good news?”
Husband: “The dogs are really clean.”
OK, so I know that neither of the writers of neither Jeremiah or Luke intended to make a joke. But I couldn’t help seeing the good news/bad news theme in both passages today, and even in the psalm.
In Jeremiah, the good news is first:
Blessed are those who trust in God, you’ll be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. You won’t fear when heat comes. You won’t be anxious in times of drought.
Ah, if only he had stopped there. But then comes the bad news: “Woe to you who trust in mere mortals whose hearts turn away from God. You’ll be like a shrub in the desert. You’ll live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.”
That is definitely not funny. Nor was it meant to be. It’s not for nothing that a long lamentation or complaint or list of woes is called a jeremiad. The prophet Jeremiah preached to the Hebrew people in a time of great national crisis. The Babylonians were on the move and coming their way. As we know, they would conquer Judah and take their best and brightest into exile.
Jeremiah is often (rightly) seen as a prophet of doom and gloom. But as we can see by the good news part of his prophecy, there are blessings to be had even among the woes.
Then there’s Jesus. First the good news:
Blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry, you who weep. Blessed are you when you’re hated, excluded, and reviled. You will be rewarded.
Then he drops the other shoe:
But woe to you who are full; you’ll go hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now; you’ll be in mourning. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you; you’ll be known as a false prophet.
This, too, is no joke. If you’re wondering why these beatitudes sound different from the ones we’re used to, it’s because we’re in Luke’s gospel, not Matthew’s. We don’t get to read this version that often in church. We read Matthew’s beatitudes every year on All Saints Sunday. Luke’s, on the other hand comes around in the lectionary just once every three years on the Sixth Sunday of Epiphany.
But we don’t always have a Sixth Sunday of Epiphany. Depending on when Easter is, which determines when Lent begins, and therefore when Epiphany ends, Epiphany 6 doesn’t come around that often. Because Easter is late this year, today and next Sunday – the sixth and seventh Sundays after Epiphany – we hear lessons we seldom hear. These are portions of what’s called the “Sermon on the Plain,” the parallel in Luke to the longer and more familiar “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew.
According to Luke’s account, Jesus had just spent an entire night on a mountain in prayer. He then called all his followers together and chose twelve of them to be his apostles. Then Jesus came down from the mountain with them, healed many people and then preached this sermon, on a level place, beginning with a series of blessings or “beatitudes.” Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are reviled and defamed.
There are fewer blessings in Luke (four, compared to Matthew’s nine). There’s nothing about the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, or the peacemakers. And two of the remaining ones have some major differences: Luke’s ‘poor’ becomes Matthew’s ‘poor in spirit’ and to Luke’s ‘blessed are you who hunger, Matthew adds ‘for righteousness.’ Luke moves from a spiritualized ethic to a more practical one.
And, unlike the beatitudes in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Luke’s Jesus includes four ‘woes’ to those who refuse to hear and embrace these teachings – very reminiscent of the warnings we heard from Jeremiah. It’s also reminiscent of what we heard not all that long ago, back in Advent, when Mary sang the Magnificat:
My soul proclaims your greatness, O God and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior. The mighty, who may be flying high now, will be brought low. The oppressed will be lifted up; the empty will be filled. Those who are full will taste what it feels like to be empty.
When you read the entirety of Luke, you see that a major theme of this gospel is this great reversal of fortunes in God’s reign. See how the blessings and woes are paired together: poor/rich; hungry/full; weeping/laughing; rejected/accepted. In other words, there are ‘woes,’ there are consequences to living in opposition to God’s intentions. There’s an edge in this part of the teaching that maybe we’re not used to hearing. I’d venture a guess that most people like Matthew’s version better than Luke’s. My first recollection of the Beatitudes is that they were pasted into a back cover of a Bible under the heading “For Those in Need of Comfort.”
But I’ve never seen a similar thing for Luke, under the heading “For Those in Need of Challenge.” But here we are on Epiphany 6 with Jesus speaking to the crowd on a level place. Might we also hear Jesus speaking to us – on the level?
This long Epiphany season of revelation is taking us even deeper into the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. On the surface, it seems pretty simple. We could see the blessings and woes as an either/or situation. Either you live right, or you don’t. Either you’re blessed or you’re cursed. But the reality is not so cut and dried. I don’t consider myself to be rich, do you? Except we are rich, compared to most people in the world. I’m never hungry, not really. In fact, we’re so full so much of the time that many of us have health issues from over-consumption.
We do weep, some of us more often than others. And we take that seriously. But we also love to be entertained, to distract us from the overwhelming tragedies of the world. Syria, Yemen, Ukraine are far-away places; let’s change the channel and watch more funny cat videos.
And we rarely have people saying seriously bad stuff about us, especially on account of Jesus. We’re respectable, comfortable, nice, good people. Except when we do speak out in a prophetic way, letting loose a jeremiad against those who exploit the poor, the hungry, the oppressed – when our desire to make a stand for justice outweighs our need to be liked.
It’s often hard to know if we’re in the blessings column or the woes. The reality is that we’re complicated creatures. Martin Luther said it best when he described us as simultaneously saint and sinner.
These blessings and woes remind me of the challenge we have these days with understanding privilege: white privilege, male privilege, middle class privilege, straight privilege, cis-privilege, able-bodied privilege. We get into all kinds of tussles about who’s using their privilege and when.
But here’s the thing. I know that I enjoy certain kinds of privilege – as a white, middle-class, able-bodied person. I also know I’ve experienced the other side of the coin. As a woman, I obviously don’t enjoy male privilege. We could each name where we have privilege and where we don’t. That’s why many are calling for intersectionality, which says that all oppressive systems (racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and can’t be dealt with separately from one another.
In other words, we’re all in this together – in both the blessings and the woes of life. We all have some form of sin and brokenness in our lives. Sometimes our sinfulness or brokenness is visible, oftentimes it’s invisible, but it’s there, nonetheless. Yet even in the midst of our complicated blessings and woes, God calls us into a way of transformation – both for ourselves and for our communities and our world. It’s called resurrection life.
St. Paul, in his plea to the Corinthians to remember their faith in the resurrection of Christ, reminds us where we need to put our trust as well. Living as we do in the paradoxical way of being both saint and sinner, we must rely on the life-giving power that is beyond our own efforts and will power.
Resurrection isn’t just about eternal life when we die, but is also about the promise of new life, new possibilities in the midst of seemingly impossible problems. As we confront our own brokenness, sinfulness, the ways we’re caught in systems from which we cannot break free (our woes) – we also open ourselves up to the blessings. In this very challenging manifestation of the person and work of Jesus in the world, we are called to follow in the way of resurrection and blessing. The call to discipleship demands a response.
Depending on how you look at it, the way of Jesus can be a good news/bad news story: the good news is that God loves you. The bad news is now you have to do something about it for the sake of the world. Wait, that doesn’t sound right. Let’s turn it around. Jesus has bad news and good news: the bad news is that you’re a sinner and you can’t free yourself and you live in a world of woes. The good news is that you are beloved and perfectly OK because God has made it so. Now go and do something for the sake of the world.
Jesus has come to us “on the level” to tell us that the good news wins. Resurrection wins. Love wins – for our sake and for our prophetic work and witness in the world. And that is no joke. Amen
Cursed are those who trust in human ways who rely on things of the flesh, whose hearts turn away from me. They are like stunted vegetation in the desert, with no hope in the future. It stands in stony wastes in the desert, an uninhabited land of salt.
Blessed are those who put their trust in God, with God for their hope. They are like a tree planted by the river, that thrusts its roots toward the stream. When the heat comes it feels no heat; its leaves stay green. It is untroubled in a year of drought, and never ceases to bear fruit.
The human heart is more deceitful than anything else, and desperately sick – who can understand it?
I, Yahweh, search into the heart, I probe the mind, to give to each person what their actions and conduct deserve.
Happy are those who reject the path of violence,
who refuse to associate with criminals
or even to sit with people who belittle others.
Happy are those who delight in the law of Yahweh
and meditate on it day and night.
They are like trees planted by flowing water –
they bear fruit in every season,
and their leaves never wither.
Everything they do will prosper.
But not wrongdoers!
They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
They won’t have a taproot to anchor them
when judgment comes,
nor will corrupt individuals be given a place in
the congregation of the righteous.
Yahweh watches over the steps of those who do justice;
but those on a path of violence and injustice
will find themselves irretrievably lost.
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Tell me, if we proclaim that Christ was raised from the dead, how is it that some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching has been meaningless – and everything you’ve believed has been just as meaningless. Indeed, we are shown to be false witnesses of God, for we solemnly swore that God raised Christ from the dead – which did not happen if in fact the dead are not raised. Because if the dead are not raised, then Christ is not raised, and if Christ is not raised, your faith is worthless. You are still in your sins, and those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If our hopes in Christ are limited to this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But as it is, Christ has in fact been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.
Coming down the mountain with them, Jesus stopped in at a level place where there were a great number of disciples. A large crowd of people was with them from Jerusalem and all over Judea, to as far north as the coast of Tyre and Sidon – people who had come to hear Jesus and be healed of their diseases, and even freed from unclean spirits. Indeed, the whole crowd was trying to touch Jesus, because power was coming out of him and healing them all.
Looking at the disciples, Jesus said:
Blessed are you who are poor, for the reign of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they scorn
and insult you and spurn your name as evil because of me.
On that day, rejoice and be glad: your reward will be great in heaven;
for their ancestors treated the prophets the same way.
But woe to you rich, for you are now receiving your comfort in full.
Woe to you who are full, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will weep in your grief.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in the same way.