Have you ever been surprised? Like truly, genuinely 100% surprised? It is honestly a very alarming process. Even a good surprise that we are truly not expecting can throw us off-kilter, take the wind out of our sails, and leave us in a bit of a mess. At least that has been my experience, because there was one time my wife really surprised me. It was while we were in college and dating. She spent a semester as part of a study abroad program and was in England. Because of how it worked, her semester ended slightly before mine did. She had a final trip to Italy, and then would fly home. Unknown to me, she had purposely given me the wrong dates of when she was going to be getting back. She actually arrived back safely several days earlier than I was anticipating, and this was part of a planned surprise. Apparently everyone I knew was in on this but me. In the evening I went with several friends to a Chinese buffet, and when I came back Abigail was waiting in the dorm room. This was a complete and total surprise. My response, which to this day I have not lived down, was “You are not supposed to be here.” Yes, I know of all of things I could have said and I should have said, that is right near the bottom. In fairness though, being surprised truly is a shocking experience. Seeing her there was not what I was expecting at all, it caught me off guard, and it went completely against what I thought I knew. It was a complete surprise, it did not compute, so “you are not supposed to be here” was the first thought that came to my head. It was not the ideal response, but on the plus side Abigail accomplished her goal. I was truly, 100%, completely surprised.
I mention being surprised because I think this morning’s scripture can come as a bit of a surprise as well. We are familiar with the “beatitudes”, these reassuring statements that being with “blessed are” Luke chapter 6 parallels Matthew chapter 5. Both of these sections begin the Sermon on the Mount. In the gospel of Matthew this discourse is much more developed and given a lot more space. In both gospels though it begins with Jesus on a hill, surrounded by crowds that he begins to teach. In both instances he begins with what we commonly call the “beatitudes.” We should understand here that the word blessed is not a synonym for happy. The opposite of blessed is not unhappy it is cursed. The word blessed here conveys ultimate fulfillment or the best possible state. In other words, blessed is as good as it gets. The beatitudes appear in both Matthew and Luke, but we are more familiar with how it is worded in Matthew. It is far more common for us to see these familiar words: “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “
We like how that sounds. It has just that right mix of sounding inspirational and uplifting while still having a bit of vague mysteriousness to it. We may not fully understand what the Bible means when it says “blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”, but that scripture looks great when we print it on a picture of a sun rising, a field of flowers, or children hugging. For that reason when we talk about the beatitudes we tend to turn to Matthew.
This is because the beatitudes in Luke are quite a bit different, and they can come off as a bit of a surprise. We are not expecting them to be different and we are certainly caught off guard by pronouncements of woe. First, it is possible to be bothered by the fact that they are not the same. Some are surprised to find that a similar story or teaching told in radically different ways. From our modern perspective, where we expect and desire reporting to be “just the facts”, this can be disconcerting. However, the gospel writers were much more interested in telling the story of Jesus and communicating the highlights of what he taught. Biblical scholars are often in agreement that in the teaching discourses, the gospel authors did not record exactly what Jesus said. Rather they used historical events such as the Sermon on the Mount to include the teachings of Jesus. So even though the two accounts are different, it is still possible that during his life and ministry, Jesus taught both versions of the beatitudes.
The beatitudes in Luke can also be a bit surprising and even jarring for another reason, they do more than pronounce blessings. It starts with “blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Yet it ends with “woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.” That escalated quickly. This is probably why we tend to prefer the Matthew version. It does not have any pronouncements of woe. This scripture might not be what we are used to when we think of the beatitudes and blessings and it might even be a bit jarring. However, when we look at what is going on here in this scripture I think we begin to get a bit of a better understanding of what it means to be blessed. However, that does not take away the jarring nature of this teaching of Jesus because ultimately the beatitudes in Luke are meant to convict our hearts.
There are two major differences between the Matthew and Luke beatitudes. First, this morning’s scripture from Luke has a much more material focus. The Matthew beatitudes say “blessed are the poor in Spirit.” In Luke it is “blessed are the poor.” In Matthew it is “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” In Luke it is “blessed are those who hunger now.” The spiritual metaphor language is gone, and instead the beatitudes are focused on the material condition. It seems a little odd to tell the poor and hungry that being poor and hungry has made them blessed. Remember, being blessed is more than being happy. It is a state of fulfillment, and in biblical terms this state of fulfillment is only possible when God is present. To be blessed is more than being happy, it is being the recipient of God’s graceful provision and being fully satisfied by all that God has provided. The poor and hungry are blessed then, because the message of the Bible is consistent that God is on the side of the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, and the alienated. Time and time again in the bible when the downtrodden call out to God to provide, God answers this request in abundant blessings. Luke intentionally leaves out the spiritual language of Matthew, because the point is that God’s blessing extends into the real world too.
This does not mean that God only blesses those who are dirt poor and starving. There can still be a spiritual component to this scripture. It is true that those who are poor are much more likely to humbly rely on God and those who are hungry are much more likely to be truly grateful for the food they have. However, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, because God is on their side too. While the focus on this scripture is on material, physical conditions it ultimately is about the state of one’s heart.
That gets to the second major difference between the two versions of the beatitudes: this morning’s scripture includes woes. These woes are directly opposite of the blessings. The poor are blessed, the rich are cursed, those who are persecuted are blessed and those who are well regarded are curses. As people who live in the most prosperous nation to ever exist, have access to plentiful food, and generally live good lives these woes can be especially hard for us to hear. They do come as a bit of a surprise, they catch us off guard, and they leave us feeling uncomfortable. However, I think it is worth reading the last part of verse 26. After pronouncing these woes it equates those who have woe pronounced on them with false prophets. I think this once again gets to the matter of the hearts. Blessing is rooted in the concept of God’s blessing. These woes are spoken against people who seek to live life without God’s blessing, who think they can do it on their own. The woes of this morning’s scripture remind us power, worldly success, and comfort should not be our primary goals in life.
The rich, the well fed, the revelers, the well thought of that this morning’s scripture condemns are people who have made their entire life about themselves. The primary concern is what makes me comfortable, what makes me safe, and what makes me happy. This scripture speaks woe against people who pursue comfort, safety and momentary happiness above all else because these things are idols and they are promises of a false gospel. Jesus told his disciples follow me. Jesus did not promise his disciples they would always be comfortable, safe, or feel happy. What Jesus promised is that they would be blessed. That they would experience eternal life, and they would know true, unquenchable joy. Being blessed means that we know God’s good grace and provision, it does not mean we will always be comfortable and free of risk. If we look at the Bible and the saints throughout church history, we see that often being blessed means we experience the opposite of comfort and safety.
Perhaps because today is the day that we honor all saints day, I am reminded of one of my favorite songs. This song speaks to the conditions that the saints of God have faced throughout history. It reminds us that following Jesus as our Lord and savior is not always comfortable, but it is always a blessing. Have a listen to it:
All of us face times of uncertainty, times of loss, times of pain, and times of sorrow. I understand the reaction we have to build protective walls around ourselves to avoid those times. I understand why we might want to pour all our time, effort, and resources to ensure we have wealth to rely on, all of the comfort, security, and temporary happiness we can afford. However material wealth, comfort, and safety is not the gospel. God so loved the world that he sent his only son to die so that we may live, that is the gospel. There is no promise that following and living that out will make us rich, safe, or comfortable but there is a promise we will be blessed.
The saints are the ones that are blessed. They are the ones who are leaping for joy because their reward is the kingdom of God. I don’t know about you, but when the saints go marching in, I want to be one of them. Even if that means life is not always comfortable and safe. The question this scripture puts before us what is more important to us, where do we want to invest our life? If we want to invest it in our comfort, success, and safety then Jesus has some harsh words for us. If we want to invest it in loving God, following Christ, and building up the kingdom of God then Jesus has a word for us as well: It is blessed. May you choose to be blessed on this day.