The Good News of Jesus’ Blessings and Woes

Luke 6:17-26; Jeremiah 17:5-10     Sixth Sunday after Epiphany     February 17, 2019


How does this morning’s gospel passage strike you?  Are there any verses in the entire Bible that are more challenging for us who have more stuff than we need?

Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.”

God prefers those who are poor.  That’s consistent throughout the Bible and, in the gospel of Luke, Jesus is in our face about this.  (It’s interesting to notice that this causes a problem for the author of the gospel of Matthew!  Do you remember how he softens this saying of Jesus?  There we read: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[1])

“Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Certainly, there’s nothing romantic about being poor.  Being poor means being hungry!  It means weeping!  And so:

“Blessed are you who are hungry now,

for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh.”

What if you took Jesus’ message out beyond our doors this morning?  What if you left this place and, in the name of Jesus, you criticized all your friends for having more stuff than they need?  Well Jesus addresses that in his next words in this gospel of Luke:

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”

Hoo boy, huh?  If we proclaim God’s blessings, will that cause us to be estranged from our friends?

*  *  *

Look at where we are in the liturgical calendar, the “church year.”  During Advent, we spent time focusing on how much we need God’s intervention into our world.  During Christmas, we celebrated God’s intervention, in the birth of our Savior.  Now we’re in the season that follows Christmas – the season of Epiphany – and, during these weeks, our Sunday readings lead us into a couple of questions.  What does Christmas mean?  What does it mean, that God has been born into our human flesh?  And, how are we called to respond to our Lord, in obedience; in our words and actions, in our personal relationships, as members of our communities, as citizens?  Well, unfortunately for those of us who have power and privilege and more stuff than we need, the gospel writer of Luke has collected Jesus’ teachings to address those questions, here in chapter six.  (A warning: next Sunday’s reading will include more of chapter six of Luke!)

*  *  *

It seems to me that one reason this morning’s teaching from Jesus is so shocking is because of how we usually use the word, “blessing.”  What is a blessing?  What does it mean to be blessed?  Approximately 100% of the time, when we use those words, we’re referring to good things that are happening to us, right?  God blesses us with a new baby or grandbaby.  God blesses us with a new job when we have suffered through a period of unemployment.  God blesses us with healing when we’ve been sick or disabled.

Could it be that our most frequent use of these words is to talk about “material blessings?”  And so, it is indeed a shock for Jesus to say:

“Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.”

What if there is blessing when bad things are happening to us?

A blessing is something that does something to us, according Biblical scholar Russ Parker.  He writes: “[B]lessings are an impartation of holiness or the touch of God on our lives.  It is tangible and intended to be transformational, for all such sacrifices invite us to walk in the newness of life that is the very heart of our Christian gospel….[T]he blessing is intended to have impact and to leave us with the imprint of God’s touch and benefits on our lives.”

When Jesus speaks words of blessing, he is announcing the reality of God’s kingdom, God’s new age of grace and joy, “life, health, and peace.”  It is here – in Jesus, and Jesus is inviting us into it!  Jesus’ words of blessing are intended to be transformative for us disciples.  Jesus intends his words of blessing to change and to transform his disciples’ worldview and conduct.  In turn, when we disciples of Jesus speak words of blessing, “the blessing…brings with it the expectation that God is changing things in our lives, which is evident by the differences made in those lives.”[2]

*  *  *

            What if blessings are what God wants for us – and that might not be what we want?  What if God’s blessings are intended to transform us into the worldview of the kingdom, when you and I tend to be pretty self-centered?  What if God’s blessings come to us in the course of God’s relationship with us – in experiences of joy as well as sorrow, celebration as well as suffering, in our “consolations” as well as our “desolations?”[3]

So, for instance, how is God blessing you in your cancer?  In your struggles to recover from knee replacement surgery?  In your unemployment?  How is God blessing us, as our Governors’ and Attorney General’s past racist actions have surfaced?  How is God blessing us, as women have had the courage to speak up with allegations against our Lieutenant Governor?

I do not think God causes bad things to happen to us!  But how is God present, transforming me – blessing me! – in this time of pain and confusion and even suffering?

These are experiences that break us down, right?  Could they be experiences that open us up to Jesus’ good news?  Experiences that break us down convince us (often painfully!) that we cannot rely on ourselves.  We cannot save ourselves.  Our power and privilege, our youth and strength break down.  And there is blessing in this  — when we are transformed into creatures who trust God!  This is the good news for us “who are rich,”  in this morning’s words of Jesus: the good news is that God can be trusted.  It is not up to us!  In fact, woe to those who are trusting in themselves, in their privilege, in their abilities.  That turns out to be bad news!  That’s what Jesus is saying, isn’t it?

“But woe to you who are rich,

for you have received your consolation.

“Woe to you who are full now,

for you will be hungry.

“Woe to you who are laughing now,

for you will mourn and weep.

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

“Woe to you,” Jesus is saying, “who are still grounding your security and confidence in false values, who have not yet been transformed by the kingdom that has come among you.”

I love the way Eugene Peterson translates Jesus’ woes:

“But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made.

What you have is all you’ll ever get.

“And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself.

Your self will not satisfy you for long.

“And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games.

There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it.

“There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them.  Popularity contests are not truth contests – look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors!  Your task is to be true, not popular.”[4]

Did you notice that the prophet Jeremiah is saying the same thing in this morning’s reading?

Thus says the LORD:

Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals

and make mere flesh their strength,

whose hearts turn away from the LORD.

They shall be like a shrub in the desert,

and shall not see when relief comes.

They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,

in an uninhabited salt land.

Blessed are those who trust in the LORD,

whose trust is the LORD.

They shall be like a tree planted by water,

sending out its roots by the stream.

It shall not fear when heat comes,

and its leaves shall stay green;

in the year of drought it is not anxious,

and it does not cease to bear fruit.

The good news of Jesus’ blessings and woes comes when those words transform us to stop trusting in ourselves, and our accomplishments, and all the stuff we’ve accumulated – because, someday, that will all come crashing down.  The good news of Jesus’ blessings and woes comes when those words transform us to live according to God’s kingdom that Jesus has brought into our human flesh and blood.

In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen


Pastor Andy Ballentine

[1] Matthew 5:3 (my emphases)

[2] Russ Parker, Rediscovering the Ministry of Blessing (London: SPCK, 2014), pages 1-2, 5, 39, 41.

[3] To use traditional words from monastic spirituality.

[4] Eugene Peterson, The Message (many, many editions from many publishers!)

About Pastor Andy Ballentine

Pastor Andy Ballentine retired in July 2019 after 40 years of ordained ministry. He loved serving as a parish pastor! Pastor Ballentine took his BA degree from the University of Virginia (with a major in sociology) and earned the Master of Divinity degree at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He earned the Master of Sacred Theology degree at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, with the thesis topic of: "How Benedictine Monastic Spirituality Nourishes Parish Ministry." He has completed the program of Spiritual Direction from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Ballentine has served as Dean of the Peninsula Conference and as chaplain to the candidates in the Virginia Synod’s Candidacy process (those on the way to being approved for ordained and professional ministries in the church). He has staffed many, many Virginia Synod youth events!