Levelling the playing field

By Rev Elizabeth Raine

Luke’s beatitudes are less well-known, and less often quoted than Matthew’s (Matthew 5:1-12). Reading the two together, it is not difficult to see why. The statements that Luke assigns to Jesus in his ’Sermon on the Plain’ are briefer, starker and more politically subversive than those from Matthew’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’. Luke’s four statements of blessing, or good fortune, are also matched by four warnings addressed to those who think they are fine but are in fact heading for a fall.

These are not blessings and curses in the sense of powerful divine commands or magical words which will change the course of a person’s life. Rather, they are profound observations about how things are from the perspective of the Kingdom, which is to reverse the status quo so that those who weep now will not only be comforted but will laugh; and victims of persecution will not only have a stake in the Kingdom but will receive “a great reward”.

Luke’s four woes bring the focus back sharply to the political and economic realm. Those who are rich, well-fed, contented and who have status should enjoy their good fortune while they can, because it is not going to last. In the coming Kingdom the tables will be turned and they will find out what it is like for those whom they currently exploit and ignore.

Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom, as set out by Luke, involves a complete overturning not only of what the average person (now as much as then) would assume to be signs of God’s favour but also of what much conventional religious teaching has asserted – to be blessed is to be comfortably off.

But that is not Jesus’ message here. If we are poor, hungry, marginalised and excluded from power, then God’s promised blessings are already ours. If we are well off, privileged and of comfortable social status, however, Jesus’ words should be flying across the plain and down the centuries straight at us, challenging us to make the changes needed in our lives if we want to be part of the new world order which the Kingdom represents. It does rather contradict this quote from John Piper.

That isn’t me, you might be thinking, I am not rich. Rich is Gina Rinehart and Twiggy Forrest and Bill Gates. And certainly, I have not thought of myself as rich, though I know I am certainly privileged, in many ways. But compared to the rest of the world, I am. Western people generally are in the top 5-10% of the world’s wealthy, even those of us who would see ourselves as middle or lower class. Rich to us is the very rich, and surely that is who Jesus is talking about.

When we read the parable of the man who does well and stores up grain in his barns the definition of who are the rich suddenly changes. And suddenly I find myself sitting on the edge of my seat when I read “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” And to make matters worse, Luke’s “woes” don’t say “woe to you who are rich and ungenerous”, they just say, “woe to you who are rich.” As someone in the top 5% of the world’s wealthy, I am finding this deeply disturbing.

Like everyone, I want to experience God’s blessings. But like just about any churchgoer of the wealthy West who hasn’t been inoculated completely against the power of these words of Jesus, I am really uncomfortable when I read them. What can possibly be the good news for me in this passage?

Luke sets his discourse of Jesus literally on a level or flat area. This happens directly after Jesus heals people of many ethnicities from all kinds of diseases and casts out unclean spirits. In the jargon of our world, it is a level playing field, a place symbolically where all are equal.  

In this “level place” Jesus tells his would-be disciples what discipleship looks like. Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad, and expendable.  Woe to you who are rich, full, happy, and popular. The good news of the Kingdom of God is the status of the world turned upside down. In a few sentences, Jesus has made pronouncements that the Church will find difficult and even offensive for centuries to come.

So, Luke’s Jesus is making a clear statement about ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. And this statement isn’t just about who has shelter, money and food. It is about other divisions as well, such as power, discrimination and security.

While a lot of things are different for us who live in the 21st century in wealthy countries like Australia, some things are remarkably and disturbingly similar.

There’s still a vast gap, fixed and maintained by the top echelon of society, between rich and poor in Australia, and that gap is growing. And then there’s the rest of the world, the world that is not Western society, that make our clothes and our goods and who live in areas with few resources, earning a few dollars a day.

The readings from Luke makes it clear that there are two significantly different ways of living: a way that is blessed, but at odds with how we understand blessing, and a way that goes with the thinking and living of the Western world but is cursed. So where to from here?

I have to say that in my experience that Jesus’ words about “blessed are you who are poor,” and “woe to you who are rich” have been causing Christians to look for loopholes ever since he spoke them. Conflating Luke with Matthew’s account is usually the default position of the comfortably off. Another loophole states that Luke is being allegorical, where ‘poor’ means those who do not know Jesus, and the ‘rich’ are those who do, which is another way Western Christians have tried to make this teaching more comfortable for themselves.

So what do we do with this Gospel reading? How should we reflect on it?

Perhaps the first thing to note that those named as blessed in this passage are those so desperate and so poor that they have nothing left but hope in God. If we are honest, mostly we are not that desperate for God. We are not daily on our knees with a need driven by poverty and hunger and exclusion. We have food to eat. We have roofs over our heads. We have a relatively free education and healthcare system. Many of us have friends and access to good social lives.

Most of us can probably go for days without praying or reading our bibles or seeking to discern the will of God.  And this is because — as Jesus puts it so succinctly in his penetrating words — we are already ‘full.’ We are primed, like the fishermen last week, to live our lives in the shallows, too comfortable to often try and seek the riches that lie waiting in the deeper water.

Jesus’ ministry and words do make it clear that he is not opposed to abundance or wants to bless everyone with miserable impoverishment. The miracle of the loaves and fish is just one example of Jesus demonstrating God’s promise of abundance for all.

However, he does openly observe that the rich found it far more difficult to take up his invitation to discipleship. Pragmatically, if you have few possessions and investments, they are not hard to leave behind. But if you have invested everything in things, the pain of walking away is more than most people can bear, no matter what sort of abundance is promised.

I know I am still far too entangled in the values of Western life to just walk away, having sold my possessions and given the money to the poor.

So where to from here for people like me? Maybe we could be more critical of the way of life we have simply inherited, reflecting more on what we are called to do as disciples, which is to help level the playing field and live more simply to enable others to live better lives.

We could also decide to better use our privilege, our power and our resources to do something about the oppressive structures that keep the poor destitute, to change our consumeristic culture and to share far more than we currently do.

As Debbie Thomas, in her blog Blessings and Woes prays, (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2089 )

“Lord, help me to hear what this is saying. Help me not to squirm away. Help me somehow to sit with woe, and learn the meaning of blessing”.

Amen

Photo of Rev Elizabeth Raine

Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine

Elizabeth was minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, between 2018 and 2023. Elizabeth retired in December 2023 and has moved to Dungog in the Hunter valley, with her husband Rev Dr John Squires.

Over the years, Elizabeth has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister. 

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