When I was in college I participated in a mission program of the Presbyterian Church called a Global Internship. The program existed to send 19-30 year olds around the world to our church mission partners in many different countries. Interns worked in a variety of settings - - from geriatric hospitals in Cairo, Egypt, to Waldensian cooperative farms in Italy, to ministries with street children in Zimbabwe. When I was accepted into the program I was assigned to work with youth in the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, in West Africa.
There was just one problem. The intense cultural focus on hospitality in Ghana prohibited me, a guest, from working. So much for an internship or mission trip, I thought in my first few days in the country. I didn’t understand what the problem was. I didn’t know why they couldn’t use me or didn’t want me. I was there to work. I was there to help, and they just kept bringing me to meeting after meeting with church leaders and members, village and tribal chiefs. I heard a lot of stories and told a lot of stories, but didn’t feel very useful as a “Global Intern.”
My internship, for the most part, consisted of traveling around from church to church, presbytery to presbytery, outreach ministry to outreach ministry watching and listening and learning about what Christians were doing in their community. It was frustrating at times because I didn’t get to “do” anything, but I sure did learn a lot.
I had come into the whole experience with a very Western attitude. Even just at twenty years old I was sure I had something that they all needed. I was certain that I could somehow do something to make their lives better, as if I even knew what better would mean for them. What I didn’t understand at all was that in order to do my job, in order for me to work with the ministries of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, I had to learn from them. I had to listen to those stories, talk to those ministers and believers. I had to learn about the culture, the church, the history and the mission of the Body of Christ in that place before I could ever serve people within their present. I had to learn the vision of church by visiting the church in action and hearing her testimonies before I could ever dream of carrying it out myself.
Here in the gospel according to Luke Jesus’ followers are getting a similar sort of internship lesson. Teaching is what the next few chapters of Luke are all about, and it makes perfect sense. Jesus has just chosen his 12 apostles, those men whom he has appointed to represent him throughout the land. Yet, before they can be sent out to work on their own, they must learn the vision and the purpose of their work from the master. Jesus taught much in the same way my teachers in Ghana did. Or I should say, my teachers in Ghana, taught much in the same way as Jesus. By combining his actions with his words, Jesus shows that his vision does not just impact the intangible spiritual life, but gets down and dirty in the nitty gritty, physical life of humanity.
One of the attributes of Jesus that Luke focuses on throughout the whole gospel is his compassion. It is important that we understand that compassion is not the same as pity. Pity is superficial, and actually it can even be condescending. When I feel pity for you I am accepting the fact that I have something that you don’t have, and that you probably won’t get. Or if you do get it, my wealth or my friendship or my time, it’s not because you deserve it, but because I’ll feel guilty if I walk away without giving it. With pity I’m willing to live with the fact that things are unequal, and I feel no call or cause to do anything to change that reality.
What Jesus feels for these crowds and the people he meets throughout his ministry, is not pity, but compassion. Compassion is a much deeper feeling that comes from the belief that all human life is equal and worthy of the same love, the same blessings, and the same privilege. As Jesus looked at the multitude surrounding him, he was filled with compassion for them; for all of them, the rich, as well as the poor. At first glance, it sounds like he’s chastising the rich when he says “woe to you who are rich…”, but really I think he is warning them from a heart of compassion; a heart that sees what they are lacking inside and wants the best for them.
So, Jesus walks among them all and, I imagine that He touches some gently and looks into their eyes as He says, “Blessed are you who are poor…. Blessed are you who are hungry now…. Blessed are you who weep now…. Oh, blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you….” “Blessed are you!” he says to this crowd of people who are used to being called anything but blessed.
Some of the crowd was probably laughing and scoffing as Jesus said these things.
After all, the cultural wisdom of they day said that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing and poverty was a sign of God’s punishment, that health and wholeness to proof of God’s love and grace, while disease and infirmity prove God’s condemnation. Who was this nut who was saying just the opposite of what they believed to be the truth?!
Only the rich would have laughed at that, though; the poor, the outcast, the lonely, those excluded and left on the fringes of society through no fault of their own would have received Jesus words of blessing like water after a walk in the desert. It would have been food for their souls and they would have received it eagerly.
Next, I imagine that Jesus turned to those in the crowd who had been laughing as he blessed the poor. And with the same compassion and love in his eyes, “Woe to you” he says to these. It’s not a condemnation, but an expression of grief. I believe he touched them as he said, “What sorrows await you who are rich, for you have your only happiness now. What sorrows await you who are satisfied and prosperous now, for a time of hunger is before you all. What sorrows await you who laugh carelessly, for your laughing will turn to mourning and sorrow. What sorrows await you who are praised by the crowds, for their ancestors also praised false prophets.”
It’s extremely important to hear that Jesus was not condemning the rich here. It is easy to reduce this whole passage to a set of moral precepts, but the bottom line is so much more to that. These blessings and woes announce a truth about the divine vision Jesus has for the world and for his ministry, rather than a mandate for human morality.
Jesus wasn’t condemning the rich for the fact that they were rich. He grieved over their status, so he was warning them, encouraging them to change before it was too late. And their being rich wasn’t the problem; it was their attitude. It was thinking that they had an “in” with God simply because they were rich. He wanted them to think differently – to think like God.
God’s vision for the world is set out in this passage for the apostles of Jesus’ time and the apostles of our time, for us, to catch a hold of. In the culture of Jesus’ day, it was thought that there was a limited supply of everything: grain, livestock, love, honor, friendship, reputation, power. Everything was distributed as God saw fit and if you didn’t have it that was because God didn’t want you to have it, because you didn’t deserve it. It was thought that God gave more to those who were worthy and less to those who weren’t. Therefore, you could see exactly where God’s favor rested by seeing who had more stuff.
The vision Jesus is passing on to his interns is a reversal of this sort of thinking. He is heralding a new order in which the patterns of wealth, privilege, and well-being are broken open, and even reversed. Jesus wanted the people to realize that there was enough of everything for everybody. God has enough love for everybody, enough grace for everybody, enough compassion for everybody. And if the people who have more grain will share with those who have less, there will be enough. If those who have more power will share with those who have less, everyone will feel valued and have input into decisions made for the community.
Jesus’ vision calls for a radical reversal of the way we usually think about wealth and our systems of privilege. Instead of going to extremes to insure our status, power, and comfort as Jesus’ apostles today, we are called to go to the opposite extremes to insure the equality of all people. Those who are poor can have the riches of a kingdom. Those who are hungry can be filled. Those who weep can be filled with joy and laughter. Those who are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed can feel the love and acceptance of community.
But, talking about blessings for the poor on the side of a mountain isn’t good enough. Jesus walked among the crowd, teaching with what he did as well as what he said. His healing actions and his words are closely interrelated. Jesus’ work and ministry was about declaring the value of all people not just through words, but especially through actions. His compassion that is to be our compassion is not something just to speak about in sermons or to pray for in prayers. It is something we must participate in with our actions where we live, study, work, and play.
It means looking at who we choose to talk to and who we choose to ignore. Who do we include in our circle of friends and who do we leave on the outside? It involves examining at the places we work to see that all workers are treated fairly and humanely. It means thinking about our fields and courses of study not just with academic minds, but with minds and hearts of faith. How does what I am learning relate to my life of faith? How can I use the knowledge I am gaining to further Jesus’ vision and God’s kingdom in the world? It means structuring our priorities and our energy around activities that empower and benefit others. What can I do with my free time that will help show those who feel insignificant, that they are truly valuable in God’s eyes and to the world?
As those carrying his vision into the world, we must reach out to others with touch. Jesus’ vision for the world is one in which each human life is valued infinitely. It is one in which the unclean are touched, and hugged, and healed, and cure. It is one in which the outsiders are brought in, the reviled are called blessed, the broken are made whole. It is one in which the hungry are filled and those who have stockpiled share with the world, one in which those who weep find joy, and those who are joyful turn to suffer with those who mourn. This is the vision we much catch and live as Jesus’ apostles today.
In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.