Texts: Jeremiah 17:5-10; 1 Corinthians 15:12-26; Luke 6:17-26
But if you’ve ever looked at a Magic Eye picture (or ever tried to explain to someone how to look at a Magic Eye picture), you know that explaining something like that isn’t easy. And so, the words we hear from Luke today are Jesus’ way of shocking his listeners into a new way of perceiving the world around them; he’s trying to explain to them how to see the old woman when all they can see is the young lady. The Beatitudes—the list of blessings—that he gives are an introduction to an entire sermon intended to radically shift our way of thinking. Only if we begin to get our heads around what he is talking about in the Beatitudes will we really understand the rest of his sermon—and understanding the rest of the sermon will help us get our heads around the Beatitudes.
Throughout the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus tips the worldview of his hearers on its head: he tells us to love our enemies, to lend without the expectation of receiving payback, to bless those who curse us. He castigates us for trying to take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye while looking around the logs jutting from our own. He warns us that judging others will mean being judged ourselves. With the whimsical prowess of M.C. Escher, Jesus proceeds to distort, subvert and ultimately disarm our established view of the way things are until, finally, we are left no longer trusting our own five senses—which is exactly where he wants us to end up.
The Beatitudes are just the beginning of this homiletical roller coaster. Jesus starts by calling up down and down up: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God; but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” What he says is exactly the opposite of our lived experience. It’s the rich who are blessed, we say; they are the ones leading charmed lives filled with all the good things they could ever want. They are the ones who never have to fear being cold or hungry or homeless. Meanwhile, we look on those cold, hungry, and homeless with disgust, with judgement, and with pity—all of which mask the one thing we are really feeling, which is fear: our fear of ending up like them. And yet, it is the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, the rejected to whom Jesus says, “Blessed are you.”
It’s tempting to take this list of Beatitudes and turn it into a list of rules: “Be more poor, be more hungry, be more humble,” we might say to ourselves, “I can do that.” Or at least, I can try. We may even begin to think that poverty or hunger or being rejected are virtues in and of themselves, but this is missing the point; Jesus isn’t making commendations or issuing commandments, he’s stating facts: it’s better to be poor than rich. He’s calling the sky green and the grass blue. He’s getting us to distrust our sense of what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong.
We need this wake-up call. We need to be grabbed by our shoulders and shaken until we come to our senses. You know the old saying that if you put a frog in hot water it will hop out, but if you put a frog in cold water and slowly heat it up, it will sit there until it boils to death. Well, we are boiling to death. The things we desire are so often harmful to ourselves or the people around us. The things we do or accumulate in order to make ourselves feel happy or full or accepted will not only leave us empty in the end, they can also have a negative impact on the people and the world around us. As Jeremiah says, “The heart is devious above all else.” In order to see the truth of this, we need look no farther than the disproportionate amount of resources we need to sustain our way of life and the tremendous amount of waste it produces; to our rapidly warming planet, and our ballooning income inequality.
To the systems we inhabit and the people who grow fat and powerful our constant need to consume and accumulate, the gospel is a threat. Those people and forces in the world that rely on our drive to fill ourselves, and they then leverage our desire to be happy, to be full, to be accepted and convince us to vote against our own interests, as it were; to shout “crucify him” when we should be crying out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
It doesn’t take much to convince us, because it’s not that these things don’t fill us up; they fill us up very well. What Jesus is trying to tell us is that eventually, they won’t; because filling ourselves with these things only teaches us to want more. To trust in them for our happiness is to be like the dry tree in the desert that sucks up what little water there is during the wet season and is left stunted and wilted during the long dry heat. Unlike the tree, we have a choice; and Jesus is inviting us to be planted by the stream where there is an endless source of water to nourish us.
But we don’t like being told that all the things we’ve striven for and sacrificed to achieve, all the things around which we have built our lives are harmful to us. The gospel message goes against everything we’ve ever been taught, and it’s just to hard for us to accept or believe. It gives us a headache trying to wrap our brains around it. We would rather kill the messenger than heed the message, and that is exactly what we have done: we have marched the one sent to save us to the top of a hill and we have nailed him to a tree.
But even if we did listen to his message, even if we did want to change, how could we? What difference can one person make? We live immersed in a culture of consumerism and accumulation, a world of second homes and celebrities and selling out. How could we possibly hope to escape? Where else is there to go? As it turns out, Jesus’ death does solve our problem, after all—if not in the way we expected. On the bloody hill, Jesus shows us the way out. It’s simple: all we have to do is die.
Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are the mournful. Blessed are the hated. Blessed are those who have died. Contrary to everything we’ve been taught, the way up out of the mess we’re in is to dig deeper. The way to gain is through letting go. The way to save our lives is to lose them. As Dante discovered, the only escape from Hell is at the bottom of the deepest, darkest, coldest pit in the innermost circle; only by squeezing between the ankles of Lucifer himself was he able to ascend the mountain to Paradise.
Jesus’ sermon isn’t a list of rules to follow. It’s not even something to which we should aspire. It’s a wakeup call, a reorientation. It’s Indiana Jones taking the leap of faith from the lion’s head. It’s Jesus splashing us in the face with cold, baptismal water; telling us that this picture is not a young lady but an old woman. Now that you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it; and maybe—just maybe—knowing that truth about the world and about ourselves will change how we live our lives from here on out.