What does it mean to be blessed and what might it mean to be cursed? We spend a lot of time counting our blessings but rarely do we consider that which might curse us. And that makes sense—who wants to think about being cursed in any way? We might lament after a string of bad luck and call ourselves cursed, but we don’t really mean it—or at least we don’t recognize it as part of our identity. We assume it to be experiential in nature and transient—not a permanent status defining who we are.
We approach blessings in a somewhat different manner. We want to live a blessed life and we do all in our power to understand our life as one of blessing even in the face of suffering. We like to “keep things on the sunny side” or “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” Our propensity to find blessing in the midst of all life’s circumstances reflects an emotional state in which feelings are fundamental to our existence at best and a detached reality inconsiderate of the sufferings of others at worst. Its not that living a blessed life isn’t desirable—quite the contrary—but I wonder how we are defining that blessed life.
#blessed has 106 million posts on Instagram. When I searched it on twitter as I was writing my sermon, there had already been 140 tweets in that hour with the hashtag. Search #blessed and you will see posts like, “Got a new car today. #blessed.” Or, “We won the playoffs! #blessed.” Or, “It’s my birthday! #blessed.” You get the idea. We tell people to “Have a blessed day” before we hang up the phone. And respond, “I’m blessed” when asked how we are doing. But I wonder if we really understand the implications of the way “blessing” has come to be defined in our society?
Whether we are aware of it or not, many of us have been influenced by the Prosperity Gospel when it comes to our understanding of what it means to be blessed. The Prosperity Gospel says that if I act in a certain way then a demonstrative or emotive benefit will be conferred upon me. So, if I go to church and live a good life then I will receive blessings appropriate to my works. Basically, we equate being a “good Christian” with financial blessing and physical well-being.
The belief that our level and commitment to our faith has consequences related to our wealth and well-being is sprinkled throughout the Old Testament. The prophets are notorious for telling the people that bad things are happening to them because they have been unfaithful. Sickness is associated with sin and if a child is born unhealthy or disabled, it is thought to be due to “the sins of the father.” The understanding of God in the Old Testament is less of God at the center of our being and more about God as an outside agent acting upon us in response to the way we faithfully live our lives. That theology is eradicated in the personhood of Jesus Christ.
In the cross, Jesus’s salvific act, we understand ourselves not to be at the center of our world, but God and nothing we can do or not do will save us because that has already happened in Jesus. Part of Jesus’s work is to prepare us for the cross by turning our old theological ideas on their head and opening us to truth. And Luke’s version of the Beatitudes does just that.
We have a tendency to automatically associate blessing and woe with a sense of judgment—we are saved if we are blessed and condemned by the woes. To understand that point more clearly, one need only read the parallel verse next to one another: “Blessed are you who are poor…But woe to you who are rich. Blessed are you who are hungry…but woe to you who are full. Blessed are you who weep…but woe to you who are laughing. Blessed are you when people hate you, but woe to you when all speak well of you.” The simple understanding of reading this passage in this way is to assume that Jesus is speaking of our eternal life: those who suffer and are lacking will receive their heavenly reward, but those who have plenty in this life have already received their reward. That really doesn’t sound like good news for a congregation that is well fed and owns houses and cars and works hard for what they have. It sounds like our good fortune and hard work have cursed us. But I don’t think Jesus is thinking about our eternal life in the passage we read today. Instead, I think we need to begin by trying to understand what Jesus meant when he used the particular words we translate as blessing and woe.
The Greek word we translate as “blessing” is better understood to mean satisfied, unburdened, at peace or even respected. With this understanding we might better read the blessings of Luke’s beatitudes less as burdens of suffering and more as opportunities of liberation. Several years ago, I took a group of youth and adults on a mission trip to Trinidad. We had rented two busses for our trip and the drivers for the two busses stayed with us throughout our ten days, transporting us all over the island. As I got to know the drivers, I learned about their life and what I considered their “impoverished living situation” as neither of them had running water or electricity. I asked them if electricity came to their village would they get it for their homes. One said yes, he wanted electricity and a telephone. But the other said no. If he got electricity then he would have to buy appliances. If he bought appliances then he would have to be concerned with their upkeep which meant he would have to make more money and would have less time to spend with his family or in pursuit of the things he enjoyed—fishing and farming and enjoying the outdoors. For him, the modern conveniences of the middle class were restrictive and burdensome and would imprison him in a lifestyle he did not want or seek. Though I perceived him as poor, he saw himself as unburdened and at peace—not poor, but blessed to not have to worry or focus on the trappings of earthly pleasures like a dishwasher.
Not everyone experiences his or her poverty, hunger, grief, or sufferings as a sense of liberation. Most of us experience these things as painful, restrictive, and undesirable. The challenge for those who lack is in trusting that things won’t always be so hard—that we won’t always be burdened by our deep sorrows and cares—that God will remember us and take care of us. The greater challenge is that when we lack for nothing, we often become burdened by our desire to hold on to what we have.
The word used by Jesus for woe is “ouai” in Greek. It is a lament, a word of warning, a call to repent and not a judgment or condemnation. Jesus is not saying the rich are damned but instead is warning us to look out—we are trapped and ensnared by something we think is a gift—something we think offers us security but is actually a false hood, a lie. Jesus is not condemning us for being wealthy, or full, or happy, or even respected. Jesus is offering us a warning that being wealthy or full or happy or even well respected is not the thing we should hold on too for our salvation and to be aware when it begins to take hold of us.
The woes may be aspects of privilege and good things to have or good ways to live but Jesus recognizes they can also be the things that kill us, the things that deal death: the things that blind us to God’s presence in our midst. What if the things we work so hard for and trust so deeply in are mere allusions or traps? What if my bus driver friend in Trinidad is right and that releasing ourselves from the things of man unburdens us and allows us to re-center our lives on Christ, trusting him for our security? What if my job and home and all the other things I have worked so hard to achieve or possess are really just bars of my own self-created prison? Woe to me when work or possession or community standing becomes my desire and motivation in the world for I will have lost the way of Jesus. I will have pushed him to the margins of my being.
As Christians, we seek liberation and we can only find that liberation in Jesus. He frees us from our sins through his salvific act upon the cross. We cannot trust in our own wealth and well-being—it is temporal, fleeting, and earthly—to place our hope in these things is to reject the reign of God, the eternal life we have been given. Woe to those who trust in the things of man. But blessed are those who trust in the Lord.
Epiphany 6C: Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; I Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 16:17-26
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, February 17, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer