If you have ever eavesdropped on a conversation (and I will not ask for a show of hands) you know that it is sometimes easier to take in the meaning and dynamics of the interaction than if you were engaged in it yourself.
It might have something to do with listening intently and not rehearsing your own response or reply to what you are hearing.
In the case of our Gospel passage today, we are listeners only along with the crowd as Jesus instructs the followers he has just “called,” namely the twelve.
This is a significant point in Luke’s narrative.
Jesus had been on the mountaintop praying which led to calling the twelve.
Then he comes down to stand on this plain to enunciate to those chosen what kind of ethics to expect in the imminent Reign of God.
Looking back at chapter one of Luke’s account, some of the same beatitudes and woes are enumerated in what we call the Magnificat of Mary,
“He has pulled the mighty from their thrones; he has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things. He has sent the rich away empty.”
When we read or hear the Beatitudes, we usually think of the seven listed in Matthew’s account.
In Luke’s telling there are four with corresponding “woe to you” statements.
Luke uses this pairing to emphasize how God’s way of valuing and judging is so different from worldly wisdom.
Unfortunately, the pairing we have in today’s text has often been used to mollify those who press for changes in this life that would lead to greater dignity for all and a better distribution of the world’s goods.
The message goes something like this: “Bear up under the injustice of the moment, because in heaven you’ll get your just reward.”
The Gospel writer has no such idea in mind.
Rather, this is a call to conversion for those who are contented with their own lot in life.
Rather than “contented,” I should say those who have any sort of status or power or riches or some combination of lucky breaks and want to protect all of that from others sharing in it.
For the fear that I might lose something that I think is mine drives all manner of jealousy and miserliness.
That same fear also makes me easy prey for the ruler who promises that I can hold on to what I have at all costs.
If I see some of my perceived status or wealth or power slipping through my fingers, I might seek to blame someone else….
A recent essay in the NYT by Thomas Edsall is a case in point.
He looks at status anxiety in the United States and collects the views of political scientists, social psychologists, and others with expertise in uncovering data from group behavior.
The conclusion of the essay is a quote from Michael Bang Petersen, a political scientist in Denmark, who writes, [quote]
We know that humans essentially have two routes to acquire status: prestige and dominance. Prestige is earned respect from having skills that are useful to others. Dominance is status gained from intimidation and fear. Individuals who are high in the pursuit of dominance play a central role in political destabilization. They are more likely to commit political violence, to engage in hateful online interactions and to be motivated to share misinformation. [end quote]
In the struggle for status, Michael Bang Petersen, a political scientist at Aarhus University, Denmark, and the lead author of “Beyond Populism: The Psychology of Status-Seeking and Extreme Political Discontent,” argues:
In yet another dangerous age in human history we followers of Christ Jesus need to listen closely to the beatitudes and woes presented by Luke’s account of Good News.
If we are meant to follow Christ Jesus in living out the proclamation of God’s reign, we will find ways both old and new to demonstrate that we embrace private and public behavior that faces into the fear of losing status, power, or wealth.
I submit to you that most of what we followers of Christ Jesus can do practically to herald the reign of God is to champion the common good economically and societally.
Here are but a few suggestions for how you or I or we might face our fears.
Number one, learn healthy ways to forgive and reconcile as individuals and in families and in local communities.
Those who have paved the way in recent decades are the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the International Forgiveness Institute.
The latter one is based here in Madison and was founded by Dr. Robert Enright at the UW.
Whatever you or I think we know about forgiveness and reconciliation has been researched and deepened by these organizations.
Number two, an adequate description of the Commons is simply cultural and natural resources accessible to all.
This dates back to Middle Ages in Europe.
Today, we can find hundreds, if not thousands, of groups working to preserve these resources.
I draw your attention to the Nelson Institute here at the UW which intensely studies how to make the modern standard of living sustainable and achievable.
Number three, since no one hearing this today is a multi-billionaire, I will assume we all have tax returns to file in the near future.
Learn more about tax justice.
Make a commitment to tax justice this year. The UCC in a statement in 2015 said, “Tax Day: A time to celebrate, lament, and (most of all) make a commitment to tax justice”
One of the largest accounting firms in the world, KPMG, published a very thoughtful essay in 2017, entitled,
The Purpose of Tax: Why celebrating the common good builds trust, says KPMG in 2017.
Number four, and most importantly, we need to set aside time for prayer just as Jesus did before healing and calling and teaching.
The issue that defines our age is our impact on the environment.
It started with the first steam engine over two hundred years ago and it will crush us or we will surrender ourselves to a new way of living that places us back in our proper place in creation, namely stewards of God’s gifts.
Climate change: our way of life is and will change.
As followers of Christ Jesus, we anticipate the new challenges that brings to how worldly wisdom separates the haves from the have nots and we have the beatitudes and woes as guideposts and message.
For those facing starvation in our world, particularly in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, that nations of greater means will extend all necessary aid to alleviate suffering, we pray …
For war torn areas of the world, especially Yemen, and for those facing the prospect of war, especially in the Ukraine, that peacemakers will find a way to resolve conflicts and introduce effective ways to reconcile neighbors, we pray …
For civic leaders facing the growing tensions around pandemic fears and fatigue, that they will take cood counsel and take decisions for the good of all, particularly the most vulnerable, we pray …
For communities of faith throughout the world, and particularly for our Sunday Assembly, that we will see with eyes of Christ Jesus and engage the world with complete trust that Gospel values will guide us to a life of true joy, we pray …
Please take a few moments to share aloud or in the quiet of your hearts the persons and concerns that you carry with you today. For these and all listed in our book of intentions, we pray …