East of downtown Denver Colorado, stands an old church with beautiful stained glass windows and an arched, heavy wooden door. But don’t let the 100-year-old building fool you. There are no pews in the sanctuary. It makes it easier to clear the room when it’s time to dance. In addition to Sunday night Eucharist services, there’s yoga on Wednesdays. Theology Pub got its start here. About once a quarter, they have Beer and Hymns, which, according to the website, is just what it sounds like. And there is the annual Blessing of the Bicycles. This is the House for all Sinners and Saints, founded by Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber (Nadia retired from House for All in 2018, to pursue full-time her call as a public theologian.) I think Jesus must have had something like this place in mind when he preached to his disciples early in his ministry.
Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” sounds a lot like Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount.” But there are some significant differences. For one thing, it’s shorter. Luke includes barely half of the Beatitudes found in Matthew. But Luke adds something to Matthew’s reassuring list of blessings that might make us squirm a bit, if we listen with honest ears. Along with his short list of blessings, Luke includes a corresponding list of Woes in Jesus’ sermon. One commentator suggests that any pastor preaching on this text would do well to put on a hard hat and protective gear, because there is no way to approach these blessings without hearing the Woes that go with them. So, as we read this passage together, you will want to follow what is on the screen, because the verses aren’t going to come out in exactly the same order found on the printed page. I will read the plain text; you read the bold.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
24 ‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
25 ‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
21b ‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
(25b) ‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you* on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
26 ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
27 ‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also;
and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
30Give to everyone who begs from you;
and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
So, what do the blessings and woes from the first part of this passage have to do with Christ’s instructions for living like true saints of God in the verses that follow? At first, it sounds like the very things that bring us woe are the same things that bring us blessings, doesn’t it? Ah, but there is a difference. Look carefully at what Jesus is saying in these Beatitudes and their matching woe-itudes. What do all the blessings have in common? Seeking God. What do all the woes have in common? Seeking ourselves. I think the message is actually pretty simple: We are blessed when we seek God, regardless of our earthly circumstances, and we find woe whenever we are self-satisfied instead of God-hungry.
When Jesus blesses the poor and hungry, the sorrowful and the ridiculed, he isn’t saying that we should all aspire to poverty, hunger, sorrow, or being verbally abused. He is saying that God is present with us, even when the world has abandoned us, that God loves us, even when everyone else hates us. As saints of God, then, we find blessing in seeking God, being hungry for God, loving those whom God loves, no matter what.
When Jesus announces woe to those who are rich, eat well, and enjoy fame and admiration from people, he isn’t saying that wealth, good food, and popularity are bad things. He is saying that when we start to take material blessings for granted, or worse, think that we have somehow acquired these gifts by our own efforts alone, we abandon God, and our self-dependence will be our spiritual doom.
But then we come to Vs. 27 – “But I say to you that listen…” No matter which camp you put yourself into up to now, whether blessed or woebegone, none of us can escape Christ’s direct commands. We are all here, right now, hearing the Word of the Lord together. There’s no fudging on this one: every one of us is being told to love our enemies, bless the people who curse us, and do good to the very people who hate us. If someone slaps us, we are to turn the other cheek.
Make no mistake. Jesus is not telling us to passively accept abuse here. In that time and place, striking someone on the right cheek meant a backhanded slap that was intended to establish superiority. If I wanted to punch you in the face with my fist, my right hand would hit your left cheek, and I would, in effect, be calling you my equal. When Jesus tells us to turn our left cheek to someone who insults us by assuming superiority over us, he is telling us to affirm our own value as a beloved child of God. In essence, turning the other cheek is like saying, “I refuse to accept your arrogant insult. I dare you to consider me your equal.”
Likewise, offering your undergarment to someone who has sued you for your cloak would leave you stark naked. But there was no shame in being naked in first century Palestine: the shame was in causing or viewing another’s nakedness. Once again, Jesus is turning the tables on us, reminding us that God’s kingdom doesn’t play by earthly rules. The things we think are important: wealth, fame, power – these mean nothing in the Kingdom of God, where love, mercy, and compassion mean everything.
Loving our enemies is not a ticket into sainthood. Christ’s command to love our enemies is borne out of our sainthood.It is the way we are to respond to being blessed:
When we are hungry for God, we want the things God wants. God wants every person on earth to know him and love him.
When we are seeking God, we feel the pain and sorrow God feels for people who are hurting. These are the people God loves, remember. Every person on earth.
When we are focused on spiritual wealth, money loses its power over us. As we practice generosity, we lose the desire to accumulate more than we actually need, and we may even find that we need considerably less than we thought we did before.
When we stand up to injustice with love and generosity, we affirm that every human being is loved by God, worthy in God’s sight.
Here’s the thing:
We are saints because we are sinners – sinners who have been forgiven and loved and graced into sainthood. It has nothing to do with what we do, and everything to do with who God is. God loves us. God made us for that very purpose, so He could love us and we could love him. He loves us enough to forgive us for being satisfied with ourselves, for gorging ourselves while others go hungry, for hoarding our wealth while others have nothing. Yes, he loves us enough to forgive us for everything we have ever done to separate ourselves from Him. If we will only ask his forgiveness, he will forgive. God loves us enough to transform us from sinners into saints.
We join the great company of saints who have gone before us, and the great company of saints who will come after us – all of us forgiven, all of us loved to our very core. We come together around this table to remember that God’s love isn’t limited by our standards. In his Son, Christ Jesus, God is setting a new standard: love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Do to others as God has already done for you. Not so you can become a saint, but because you already are.