My first ministry context was as a pastor to a homeless congregation. I may have learned more about the Kingdom of God in that context than I had throughout my seminary studies. I remember sitting down for a meal with a couple who had pitched a tent down by the train tracks. They had come to our Sunday liturgy to eat a good meal and worship with us. We began to talk-story. After a few minutes, they simply asked if I had any cookware. As it turned out, another “urban camper” had asked them if they had a skillet. They did have one, and gave it away.
I was curious why they just wouldn’t tell them they only had one and could give it away. Their reply has stuck with me, “We know what it’s like to have nothing, and so when we have something, it’s something we can share. Besides, we know a church where we can ask for help.” This last phrase he said with a slight chuckle, clearly amused with himself.
I left that night thinking that the poor have an openness to the Kingdom of God that those with wealth tend to lack. And I see that same sentiment in the Gospel reading this week.
We know Luke 6:17-26 gives us the famous “Sermon on the Plain.” It has similar elements to Matthew’s version, but with several key differences. While Matthew is interested in Jewish tradition and worship (and places Jesus symbolically on a “Mount”), Luke seems more interested in placing Jesus on level ground, in solidarity with the masses of people who come to be healed. One can interpret this healing in multiple ways — surely the kind associated with physical ailments but also with economic and political “healing” as well; something more in line with liberation. While Matthew talks of the “poor in spirit,” there is no explaining away Luke’s emphasis on the economic poor.
It should also be noted that this passage directly follows the passage of Jesus calling the 12 apostles from among his disciples. From this point in Luke until Luke 9:52 (when Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem/the cross), we have a section of teachings, healing, and parables about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Or, to put it another way, to live as though the Kingdom of God has come. In preaching this text, it may be helpful to focus on a particular frame: discipleship, or the Kingdom of God, for instance.
The Kingdom of God plays a prominent role within this scripture. The Poor are blessed and the Kingdom belongs to them (v. 20). Jesus continues to juxtapose blessings and woes: poor — rich, hungry — well fed, mourning — laughing, hate — beloved. We struggle with the idea that the Kingdom seems to privilege a subset of people simply based on their social condition. Through no choice of their own, the poor are blessed. We much prefer the relationship established in Matthew that is easier to spiritualize. We can make sense of blessings to those who are poor in spirit. It seems so much more inclusive. But Luke’s Gospel is consistent in incorporating the economic poor within God’s history of salvation, and opposing the rich. Luke’s Gospel is the only one that includes Zaccheus, The Rich young Ruler, the Rich Fool, and the Unjust Steward. Luke tells us that there is a direct relationship between poverty, hunger, and mourning to the experience of the Kingdom of God. But how, exactly, can this relationship be defined?
I would suggest a few things happening. First, Luke is writing in a context in which the church is slowly emerging. Questions revolve around the relationships between the church and synagogue, the Roman Empire, and the significance that Jesus has yet to return. In the meantime, followers of The Way still live on the outskirts of an Empire that centralizes power through a violent hierarchy. This new religious sect is small, insignificant, poor, and ostracized – both by pagans around them and Jews among them. Perhaps Luke’s admonition that the world will “hate you” if you follow after Jesus is a way to encourage the growing church in the present adversity.
But it could also mean that following the way of the cross is also a missional call of solidarity with the world’s poor that have been hung up on crosses. If the cross is God’s ultimate “No” to the world’s violence, and the resurrection is the renewal of God’s life for the world, then we resurrected ones protest and resist all the forces that continue to bring death. Poverty and hunger are chief among these oppressive systems.
And so we come to another “frame” through which our preaching can rest — power. The crowds pressed in on Jesus and wanted to touch him because power would come out and heal them (v. 19). Power is not an evil in itself. There are many sources of power. Simply put, power is the ability to do or to change oneself, others, or our environment. We see in this passage Jesus’ power (ability) to heal. But I wonder if we carry the lens of power into the blessings/woes of this section to aid in our interpretation? Luke links rich and poor together. St. Basil continues this connection when he writes in his sermon “To the Rich:”
“How did you come by this abundance of wealth? Care for the needy requires the expenditure of wealth: when all share alike, disbursing their possessions among themselves, they each receive a small portion for their individual needs…How else can this be, but that you have preferred your own enjoyment to the consolation of the many? For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love.”
Wealth is one of the sources of power that allows humans to change — but it also directly connects to the those who are poor. How wealth is used matters. But both Luke and St. Basil tend to lean toward the notion that wealth is to be used for the good of the whole community. Woe to the rich because they have allowed their hearts to turn inward. Salvation is difficult for them because they have no reason to turn toward a savior. Woe to them because they have received their consolation already.
The poor, though, know the injustice of their situation and accept the Kingdom of God with willingness. They intuit that the Kingdom of God and poverty are incompatible and that the embrace of Christ is the means to reestablish justice. Those who experience poverty, grief, and hunger are the good soil in which the seeds of the Gospel can easily take root.