“She’s not just rich, she’s loaded!” I was startled to overhear our daughter Alice say this about a classmate the other day. “How do you know that?” I asked. “She told me” I laughed. It was really funny to imagine an eight-year-old saying this outrageous thing. And then I had some more serious thoughts. I wondered what we grown-ups might learn from the blunt ways of children. I am pretty sure the world would be better off if adults could actually talk about money and possessions openly and productively.
Friends, the Bible is loaded too—loaded with teachings about money, loaded with declarations of God’s love for the poor, and loaded with admonishments about the responsibilities of the rich. The Bible talks about economic justice incessantly. So, I’m absolutely positive Jesus is calling us to have this conversation. This uncomfortable topic is in fact the very essence of discipleship. And when I say we need to have this “conversation” I don’t mean we need to exchange a few words and move on. I mean being vulnerable with each other—way, way more vulnerable than is comfortable in our culture. I mean a sacred exchange that leads to conversion. I mean an encounter with the divine in each other that awakens us and that changes how we think, feel and act.
In our culture, we’re experts at dodging this kind of conversation. When money comes up, we get quiet and vague and change the subject. Or we get mad and leave the room. And preachers are especially good at avoiding this tender topic. We look at texts like today’s, and find some way to equivocate, to soften, to reassure everyone that this teaching is not as harsh, radical and demanding as it seems. I could do that. I am sure I have. Today I’m trying to hold my own feet to the fire by focusing on, rather than tiptoeing around, Jesus “woes.”
It seems to me that in order to tackle the woes, we have to start with the blessings. The reality is, no one wants a “woe.” We all want blessing. We all need blessing. We all deserve blessing. Jesus was a Jew. The practice of blessing is utterly central to Judaism. Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein says it this way:
The melodies and rhythms of Jewish blessings have served as the cultural glue for Jewish daily practice for thousands of years. There are blessings over food and drink, upon leaving the bathroom, before going to sleep and during life cycle events. Jews who pray three times a day recite dozens of blessings. The Talmud states that each person is obligated to recite 100 blessings each day, suggesting that the way to live connected to the Divine is through living a life immersed in blessings, in gratitude.
Jesus was part of a community and culture that believes wholeheartedly in blessing. He belonged to a people deeply aware of the truth that God’s blessing is for all of us in all situations—no exceptions and no conditions. And yet Jesus felt compelled to specifically bless the poor, the hungry, the weeping and the persecuted. Luke tells us he met this great crowd, this multitude, at a “level place.” In the bible, the plains are nota blessed geography. With thanks to biblical scholar Ronald Allen, who did the homework, level places are associated in various passages with “corpses, disgrace, idolatry, suffering, misery, hunger, annihilation, and mourning.” Those who came seeking healing from Jesus were the people of these level places. They were the ignored, despised, and exploited. So Jesus was making a political as well as a spiritual statement with his blessings. Today, we say “Black lives matter” in order to point out that our society acts as if they don’t. Jesus was declaring, to poor and rich alike, “the lives of the poor matter.” Latin American liberation theology, founded by Gustavo Gutierrez in the 1970s, argues that God expresses a preferential option for the poor. Which can sound like God playing favorites. Or God hating the rich. What it really means, however, is that God sees the poor. To God the poor are not invisible and inconsequential. God’s agenda centers their well-being, and, paradoxically, by doing so, provides for the well-being of us all. In God’s vision, the world is totally rearranged so that no one is poor.
Alice’s proclamation about her classmate initiated some important conversation between us. In the middle of the discussion that ensued about poverty and wealth and the blessings of Jesus, she suddenly said, “But what about Ramona?” “Huh?” I replied, thinking she was changing the subject. “Her family isn’t rich but they aren’t poor either.” I realized she was right on topic. In Beverly Cleary’s novels, the Quimby family worries about money a lot. They don’t have the means to go out to eat frequently. They look for deals at the grocery store. And the kitchen cupboards are sometimes bare right before payday. And yet, no one goes hungry. In the book we’re currently reading, the family is able to get a loan to build a long-awaited addition to their home.
Most people I know are kind of like the Quimbys, somewhere in between rich and poor. Not immune to anxiety about meeting basic needs, or debt, or job loss, or the ability to deal with unexpected major expenses. Able to imagine having more—more security, more comfort, more financial freedom. And at the same time, full. Full of good food. Full of great experiences. Full with life’s comforts. Not having to choose between paying for heat and paying the water bill, having transportation or getting health care. Held in security nets, both material and emotional. Managing the sorrows and strains of life with support and resources.
We all want blessing. No one wants a “woe.” And yet sometimes the path to blessing leads through woe. The word translated “woe” in this passage is, grammatically speaking, an interjection. Like “Hey!” The idea is not to issue a curse. These woes are a warning. They grab our attention. They shake us awake. In the image on today’s bulletin cover, created by artist Cara Hochholter, the face of the person holding the abundant cornucopia of beautiful food looks to me like a skull. And their seat of comfort is the aching back of another human being. The warning is: we can only find joy, fulfillment, peace, and security together. The wake-up call is: the gifts of creation are here to sustain all of us, not some of us. We are interconnected and interdependent. Banquets are to be shared. If we do not recognize these fundamental truths, then we are all doomed.
“Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” What lies does wealth tell us? In what ways do our riches own us? If your family holds inherited wealth gained through theft and slavery, what are you going to do about it? “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” What else are you longing for, even when your belly is satisfied? “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” What happens to us and to our community when we fail to grieve together? When we grow numb, get overwhelmed, use our privilege to check out? “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” What keeps us from speaking up and standing up for the more just world? What prejudice is blinding us? What rejection are we too afraid to face? What consequence are we unwilling to bear?
I don’t think Jesus’ blessings and woes are a mutually exclusive binary. Jesus blesses us all. And in the level places of our lives, the places of deep suffering, the places where we experience injustice, Jesus sees us. Jesus centers our needs and strengthens us with comfort and encouragement. And insofar as we are the ones who are addicted to wealth, lulled by comfort and mired in complacency, Jesus addresses his woes to us. Woe to you, Jane McBride, for you zoom past the people in need all around you when you could share a dollar or even just a kind word. Woe to you First Church, for your doors are too often locked when the community needs you. Woe to you, Minneapolis and St. Paul, for your teenagers are dying, your buses full of school kids are getting shot up, and you refuse to do what it takes to create true safety. Woe to you, Mayor Jacob Frey, for you dismiss the heartfelt, grief-stricken cry of community members for accountability, transparency, and transformation as a politically motivated stunt. Jesus’ woes are, despite their gruff bite, a pastoral word that seeks the good of the people on whom they land. These woes are also the Gospel, the word of grace. These woes are an invitation to be healed. These woes show us how far we are from God’s beautiful, joyful vision not so that we can despair, but so that we can begin moving toward it. What would it look like for you to welcome Jesus’ woes? To allow them to shake you awake, and shock you alive? Amen.