“The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade even while he goes about his business. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him?”James 1:9-11; 2:5
The Biblical aesthetic of beauty incorporates the ugly. The heart of reality is not a sentimental romance, a garden party, a Hollywood beauty. The heart of reality is a suffering romance, a bloody Calvary beauty. True beauty is paradoxical.
We see the unseen. We subdue by submitting. We win by losing. We are made grand by making ourselves little. We come in first by becoming last. We are honored by being humble. We fill up with God by emptying ourselves. We become wise by being fools. We possess all things by having nothing. We wax strong by being weak. We find life by losing ourselves in others. We live by dying.
– Leonard Sweet, So Beautiful
17He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, 18who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, 19and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.
20Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22Blessed are you when men hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
23“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.Luke 6:17-26
24“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.
We are about to get into Jesus’ most extended teaching on what kingdom life looks like. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is similarly, but not identically, described. The passage in Luke is called the Sermon on the Plain, since it describes that Jesus “went down with them and stood on a level place.” We’ll break the different topics into separate encounters so that we can explore each set of ideas more deeply.
Note that “a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon . . . had come to hear him and be healed of their diseases.” Word has spread that Jesus’ teaching and healing action go hand-in-glove. Prior to teaching, Jesus ministers to those who have come for healing: “Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.” In this instance, it appears that Jesus healed all that came in need of such. The introduction refers to a “large crowd of disciples.” Apparently, many have taken Jesus up on his offer to “follow me.”
Jesus contrasts four basic points at the start of his sermon to basically turn common wisdom and human predispositions in the flesh upside down. First, he contrasts the poor, who shall inherit the kingdom of God, with the rich, who have already received their comfort. Second, he contrasts those who hunger, who will be satisfied, with those who are well-fed, who will go hungry. Third, he contrasts those who weep now, who will laugh, with those who laugh now, who will weep. Finally, he contrasts those who are hated, insulted and excluded, who will receive a great reward in heaven, with those who receive the acclaim of man now.
Are the things Jesus warns of not the very things that culture and our flesh tempt us to build our lives around? To accumulate wealth/power, to experience pleasure, to be “happy” and to enjoy status and be well thought of by others? Go to Amazon and survey the book topics covered on the best-seller page . . .
Jesus pretty much captures what at times have been snares in my own life – the things that have kept me from God and feeling times of anxiety fall under these categories. The pervasiveness of emotional pain and the persistent stress among people particularly in the developed world is an indicator of what a life focused on chasing these things yields. We rush from one thing to the next, never resting, never satisfied. As we grasp for what we think we must have and deserve, reference points of humility and gratitude from what God has already blessed us with are lost.
I don’t think Jesus is advocating that we actively seek out poverty, hunger, sorrow or being hated. Our life call is to follow him and become more and more like him. This becomes our preoccupation, rather than seeking wealth or poverty, hunger or satiation, sorrow or happiness, man’s rejection or approval. However, to be his disciple, we must be willing to accept the former conditions if required in the course of following him; remember that a disciple is seeking above all else to become like the teacher. Jesus was the “man of sorrows” with “no place to lay his head,” ultimately rejected, beaten, spat upon and hung on a cross. Sound good? Praise God that Jesus has already walked this road on our behalf in obedience to his Father for our redemption.
If we make success, pleasure, status and approval prerequisites to what we feel we need to live a joyful life, we are likely to never experience it. To build on this, those of us who have been given some degree of success, resources, access to pleasure and status are in danger of building our lives around these things, which makes the life of full-bore discipleship – and the peace and purpose that accompanies such a life – a steep challenge.
Turning this around, those who are poor, hungry and despised are more likely to feel their need of God and be more inclined to truly “follow” Jesus. They are desperate. They have less to let go of and “leave behind.” In this way, they are “blessed” to be far more likely to experience what Paul in I Timothy calls “the life that is truly life” in deep and intimate dependence on Christ versus being caught up in materialism, insecurity, self-obsession and pleasure-chasing.
Regardless of where we think each of us are on the spectrum of wealth, success, access to pleasure/comfort, we are undeniably rich, well-fed and live “happier” lives than 95%+ of the world’s population . . . for some of us, more than 99%. Hence, we are in danger of the “woe” of living lives that are, at best, semi-dependent on God and thus experience bouts of emptiness, frustration, anxiety and depression. The temptation is to spend our lives chasing all the things Jesus warns against, end up feeling empty, tired and overwhelmed and then say, “I don’t really feel God right now.” Jesus reveals the underlying dynamics of why right here.
By God’s grace, may he allow us to more fully follow him despite these distractions and the temptation to let them control us. May we become “poor in spirit,” fully aware at all times of our utter brokenness and need for Jesus. Let us rejoice in his extravagant grace and healing love. May we graciously share the food from our well-provisioned tables with those in need; let us live with open hands, recognizing that the highest use of any resource we have been entrusted with is to bless others. May we have gratitude and experience enjoyment of all the good things God has given us, but not be a slave to pleasure, ever reaching for more intense and exotic experiences. May we be less concerned with what others think of us and more focused on finding out what pleases God and living lives that pursue his pleasure.
Jesus’ expression of God’s kingdom turns the ideals and pervasive messaging of contemporary culture upside down.
“Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn it out of seven pillars. She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her maids, and she calls from the highest point of the city. ‘Let all who are simple come in here!’ she says to those who lack judgment. Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of understanding.”Proverbs 9:1-6
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness or his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”Psalm 23:1-6