Better poor than rich


Yesterday was All Saints Sunday, the Sunday nearest to the feast of All Saints on 1st November. The gospel reading is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Officially the gospel reading is Luke 6.20-31. However, I have included in the link verses 12 to 19, the reason why will be clear as you read what I said.

Luke 6.12-31

First lines – whether in a novel, or a film, or even a piece of music – are so important. They can grab our attention – or put us totally off. A classic first line in a novel will immediately draw the reader in. It may give a very clear hint as what the rest of the book will bring, or be so enigmatic or intriguing that you just have to read on to find out more. The same is true of first lines in cinema, and while heard rather than read, a classic first line will make you immediately look forward to seeing how the film unfolds. Take this one, which I think is one of the best ever:

I never knew the old Vienna before the war, with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm – Constantinople suited me better. Anyone know that one? That’s from The Third Man with Orson Wells. (And amazingly, someone in the congregation knew it!)

How about this one? She isn’t coming yet, Toto. It’s the Wizard of Oz, of course.

Or this, from one of the most famous films ever made? What do we care if we were expelled from college, Scarlett. The war is gonna start any day now, so it won’t affect college anyhow. What else could it be but Gone with the Wind.

I’ll be surprised if anyone knows this one, from one of my favourite films: Ok. Say. Jones and Barry are doing a show. A line which is then repeated over and over from one person to another as the good news spreads. As a clue the film was made in 1933. It’s 42nd Street.

Some opening lines don’t quite have the desired effect:

Greetings, my friends! We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future. That is from the film that is regularly voted to be the worst film ever made: Plan 9 from Outer Space. If you’ve never watched it you really should – it’s so bad you can’t stop watching.

Our gospel reading this morning is important, because it contains a great and highly significant first line. More of that in a moment.

In these days of film and TV, the great first line is becoming a forgotten art. And often it’s only in films and television shows with a  commentary that it still exists. As soon as, for example, you hear the words These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise you know exactly what you’re going to get.

But the usual practice in TV these days – so that you can make sense of what is to come, is to begin with those words “Previously on …” and then they let you know what has happened previously so that you don’t get lost and confused.

Well, in order to make some sense of today’s gospel reading, we need to do just that – have a quick recap on what has happened before. Because it follows on from something else. That’s made clear in the very first word of the opening line, a word that is usually missed out in the reading in our lectionaries as set out for today. It isn’t there in the book of the gospels I have just read to you from. I have taken the liberty of putting it back in on the service sheet. It’s the word then. Luke writes: Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said – something has happened previously that we aren’t told about in today’s gospel reading, but  the word ‘then’ tells us that it’s directly linked with what Jesus says here, and we can’t make proper sense of today’s reading without knowing what it is.

So … Previously in Luke’s Gospel.

It’s still very early on in Jesus’ ministry. And Luke tells us how Jesus goes up a mountain and prays – and he prays all night. And at soon as daybreak comes he calls his disciples to him – and from those disciples, his followers, he chooses twelve whom he names apostles. And that name – apostles – is important. For it literally means ‘one who is sent out’ – Luke is reminding us that these twelve particular disciples were chosen for a special task.

Then he goes with the twelve down to what Luke calls ‘a level place’ and gathering the twelve and, Luke says, a great multitude of people, he begins to talk to his disciples – not to all the crowd, just to his disciples. And this brings us to today’s gospel. For by understanding what has gone before, we now know that the words that Jesus speaks are the first words that Luke reports Jesus as saying after he chooses the twelve apostles. The opening scene, as it were, of this week’s episode – the very first line of the script – Jesus stands up and says:

Blessed are you who are poor…

This, for Luke, is setting the agenda for the rest of gospel. He is telling us what Jesus is about. These is Jesus’ first speech to the newly chosen apostles – as well as to the rest of the disciples. And the fact that Luke says Jesus is speaking to the disciples – not just the twelve chosen apostles – but to all his disciples, tells us something about the message that Jesus is giving. It is given to the disciples, for those who follow him, not for everyone at large. This is, for Luke, Jesus setting the agenda for the Church, not a message for the world as a whole. And his message for the Church begins …

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.

And so begins the section in Luke know as the Sermon on the Plain, with Jesus giving the Beatitudes. It corresponds with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, which of course also begins with the Beatitudes. With one highly important difference.

We are so familiar with Matthew’s version:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn …
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.

And we miss what Luke is saying. For Matthew’s version – the one we all think about when we talk about the Beatitudes, is spiritual. Luke’s isn’t. In Luke Jesus is dealing specifically with economic and social conditions. And he is so blunt that we deal with the harsh reality of what Jesus is saying by spiritualising it and assuming he meant what he meant in Matthew. I’ve even heard preachers saying: We shouldn’t take this literally – Jesus obviously meant what he says in Matthew.

No, he obviously doesn’t mean what he says in Matthew. Luke is very clear – there’s no room for argument.

Blessed are you who are poor. Not blessed are you poor in spirit but blessed are you poor, blessed are you who have little or no money, nowhere to live.

Blessed are you who hunger now. Not blessed are you who hunger and thirst after righteousness, but blessed are you who are starving, who cannot get enough to eat.

Blessed are you who weep. Not blessed are you who mourn but blessed are you who live any kind of life where you are oppressed or downtrodden or uncared for.

Like it or not, this is deeply political and subversive.

And, Luke, unlike Matthew, goes on and shows Jesus presenting us with a challenge. For Jesus has harsh, uncomfortable, uncompromising words for those who are not economically poor or unable to feed themselves.

Woe to you who are rich – for you have received your consolation. Nothing there about those who are in the middle and reasonably comfortable – your one or the other according to Jesus.

Woe to you who are full – for you shall hunger.

And so, having chosen the twelve apostles, Jesus sets out his manifesto for his Church in his opening words in the Sermon on the Plain. And the rest of Luke’s gospel is spent showing us how Jesus has come for the materially poor and the physically starving and the oppressed. Those who say the Church shouldn’t be political clearly haven’t read or understood Luke’s gospel or this passage in particular.

So where does all this leave us? For we cannot avoid the reality that many – though not all – of us are comparatively well off. We are certainly rich when compared to most in our world. While there may be times when we feel we are struggling to make ends meet most of us have a roof over our heads, and manage to feed and clothe ourselves. But many in our own country today go without basics that others take for granted.

To go back to our TV theme – many programmes now end with “Next time on…” and we get to see what is happening next week.

Blessed are you who are poor … woe to you who are rich
Blessed are you who hunger … woe to you who are full
Blessed are you who weep … woe to you who laugh.

What is “Next time…” for Saint John’s church? What is “Next time…” for you? How will Jesus’ words this morning make a difference to your life so that next week is different from this week? Can we learn to start getting a right perspective about the good things we have – seeing them as God-given and to be shared – not self-earned and to be held onto. Can we embrace the reality that as followers of Jesus he calls us to join the poor and the hungry and the weeping so that together we can share that blessed ending in the eternal kingdom of God with all the saints – so that we can be ranked among the blest?


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