How shall we “play” the blessings and woes that lead off the Sermon on the Plain? The easiest way to read these little poems is to pronounce them as blessings on the “good people” and curses on the “bad people.” Thus, the rich, full, laughing, and praised are singled out for condemnation. Since we human beings can always find someone else better off than we are, the rich, full, laughing, and praised can always be identified as those other people, the ones who have more than I do.
But that’s an odd reading in a sermon which, just a few sentences later, urges the listeners not to judge so that we ourselves will not be judged. Perhaps we need to exercise a bit more subtlety and patience in our interpretation of the text.
I would recommend the current episode of the “Sermon Brainwave” podcast for your reflection. Rolf Jacobson notes that “woes” are not the same as “curses,” at least in linguistic terms. If you want to hear real blessings and curses, he suggests, you’d be better served to reflect on the first reading for this Sunday from Jeremiah 17:5-10. In those verses we get the real Hebrew words for “cursed” and “blessed.”
Moreover, curses are accomplished facts from which there is no return. Curses are pronounced on people as declarations and descriptions. If that’s what is happening in the Sermon on the Plain, there’s not much hope for the rich, full, laughing, and praised.
Richard Swanson talks about the nature of these “woes” as the Lukan author reports them. “Here the strong economic edge would make any interpreter who actually had to take them seriously a little nervous,” Swanson writes. “If woe is pronounced on the rich, any interpreter hoping to curry favor with her audience will have to find a way to reassure her audience that the ‘rich’ in this passage live somewhere else and live some other way” (page 104).
Of course, the rich, full, laughing, and praised that Jesus addresses in the Sermon are not somewhere else and living some other way. They are right in front of him, addressed with clear second-person plural pronouns and verbs. Jesus is not talking about someone else, somewhere else. As we listen, we will likely realize (we white, North American, English-speaking Christians) that we, too, are among the rich, full, laughing, and praised people toward which the woes are directed.
“If you listen to the reaction of people to the economic bite of these woes,” Swanson writes, “you will notice that speaking these words simply and straightforwardly in any worship gathering will get you accused of being a disloyal leftist who is engaging in class warfare, typical of those who don’t support the real America” (page 105). Yes, I think that’s an accurate assessment.
Jacobson argues that these woes are not curses. Instead, they are warnings in the shape of laments. A curse is an accomplished reality. We only have to wait for the hammer to drop. A warning is given when there is, at least in theory, the possibility of a change in course or an alteration of behavior. We who are rich, full, laughing, and praised now still have the opportunity to get on board with the healing and wholeness the coming Kin(g)dom offers to a sick and broken cosmos.
I think a preacher might take the opportunity to pull a story from later in the Lukan account to illustrate what’s going on here. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-13) won’t show up in the lectionary until some four months after Pentecost, so there’s no harm in bringing it up now as an illustration. This reminds listeners of the unity of the gospel as a whole story. And it will set up the possibility of reminding listeners later that the Lukan author spends a lot of time working out the implications and applications of this sermon as we go along.
The rich man, after his death, is an example of one who is now cursed. He had his good things in life. He had received his “consolation” in his earthly life. In death he can see his error, but there is nothing to be done. A great chasm now exists between him and Life, and no one can cross it. He did not heed the warnings he received when alive. Nor will his brothers, since they also have access to the same warnings.
What are those “warnings”? In fact, the clearest warning of the rich man’s dire situation lay at his gate day in and day out. What further evidence would the rich man need that the status quo was terribly wrong? In Moses and the prophets, he could read about God’s intentions with the Jubilee Year (in Leviticus). He could read the warnings in Isaiah to those who connected farm to farm and house to house and were not concerned about the ruin of God’s people. He was awash in warnings to change and chose to ignore the plain evidence before him.
I think it is responsible to the text to “play” the woes as warnings to the rich, full, laughing, and praised. Thus, I would “play” the woes as warnings to us who are privileged, powerful, positioned, and propertied. The warnings are not just the words on the page. The poor, the hungry, the miserable, and the persecuted live among us as warnings that the unjust status quo cannot and should not last.
This line of thinking reminds me of the moment of realization Charles Dickens allows for Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Is this vision, whether for Scrooge or in the Sermon, a vision of things that must be or of things that may be? Is this a set of curses or warnings? In the course of human affairs, one might be able, Scrooge says, to make the necessary changes to set things right. If that is not possible, he continues, then why bother with the warnings at all?
The woes are warnings and therefore invitations to repentance. It is possible for even the hardest human heart to be changed – to love one’s enemies, to share one’s goods, to be merciful as our Father is merciful.
Heeding the warnings requires a clear and honest look at our situations as the rich, full, laughing, and praised. That’s much easier said than done. We can refer back to the Rich Man and Lazarus. How many times did the rich man simply step over that poor wretch at his gate without even noticing the need? How easy can it be to take our privilege for granted and to become habitually blind to the human dramas in the world around us? It is very easy indeed. Ignore the warnings long enough, and woes become curses.
It’s one thing to make personal changes in priorities and practices that lead to a more just and equitable way of living. That is certainly a part of the way of discipleship, especially in the Lukan account. But this cannot be a purely individual affair. At the very least, all the pronouns in this section are plural, and all the verbs are addressed to “you all” rather than merely to “you.” The communal and, dare we say, systemic nature of the woes can be hidden in the imprecision of English grammar, but it is starkly visible in the Greek.
I have just read an online article by Bob Smietana from the Religion News Service entitled “Woke War: How social justice and CRT became heresy for evangelicals.” If you don’t know the day-in and day-out excellent work Smietana produces, I would encourage you to follow him on whatever platform you might prefer.
He notes that one of the current ideological battle lines in the Evangelical Christian world (in the United States) is the fight to sustain the dichotomy between personal faith and social action. He quotes evangelical influencer, Owen Strachan, who declares that Christians can follow Jesus or be “woke” on issues of racism. But, Strachan says, they can’t be both. Social justice warfare, according to Strachan and his ilk, is the latest and greatest Christian heresy of which liberal and progressive Christians are guilty.
I’m an ELCA Lutheran and hardly likely to take seriously Strachan’s pronouncements. But much as the South won the ideological Civil War in the United States, evangelicalism has won the popular theological war in the hearts of many, many American Christians, regardless of denominational label or heritage. So, a progressive/liberal preacher, such as I am, has to take these arguments seriously, since they come in the doors of our congregations every Sunday.
“In an interview with Religion News Service, Strachan explained further that wokeness undermines the unity of churches by emphasizing racial and ethnic differences,” Smietana reports. “The gospel, [Strachan] said, erases such distinctions, while wokeness pits people against each other.” If that is the case, then Jesus is engaged in the Sermon on the Plain in such “pitting people against each other.” Naughty Jesus!
Individual repentance and social justice work are not diametrically opposed in the gospels. That should be clear from the Sermon on the Plain. Instead, they are two sides of the same coin. Smietana also quoted Professor Anthea Butler (author of the book, White Evangelical Racism) in the article, who gives an excellent explanation of what is going on. “On the one hand, evangelicals wanted souls to be saved,” Butler writes in her book. “On the other, they wanted everyone to stay in their places.”
That desire to have things both ways is not consistent with what we read in the Sermon on the Plain. We who are rich, full, laughing, and praised – we can make constructive changes, or we can sustain a status quo that will be the death of us. The good news is that the power for healing and wholeness flows out of Jesus and into us, if we are willing.
But what about those “blessings”?
References and Resources
Chen, Diane G. Luke: A New Covenant Commentary. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.
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