A Blessing on the Cursed

Posted by secondchurch on February - 25 - 2019


I have a sister who lives in Texas.  Once, in a conversation I was having with my brother-in-law about my sister, I said something like “bless her heart”, to which my brother-in-law reacted negatively.  I don’t often bless people’s hearts so I was surprised by his reaction, but he explained to me that in Texas, when someone says something like “Bless your heart”, especially with a smile and a shake of the head, it means something closer to “that jerk-face, snot-nose”.  I hardly bless anyone’s heart any more at the risk of truly offending someone. 


I thought of that conversation with my brother-in-law this past Wednesday when, at dinner church, we talked at length about the passage Andrew just read, and about the word blessing – how it has come to suggest something that makes us uncomfortable.  As in – I’ve been truly blessed, when referring to a sudden, unexpected inheritance, say, or, It was a blessing they survived that accident.  In both these instances, the word blessing or blessed is actually a substitute for just plain luck.  The problem with using the word blessing or blessed in those instances, is that it’s not too far a stretch to wonder if the blessing of that sudden influx of cash, came from God, and if so, why did one person get blessed and not another?  Did he deserve having wealthy great aunts?  And think for a minute about “It was a blessing they survived that accident.”  What about the person who didn’t survive it? Is she cursed?  Well, none of us want to go there, do we?  We don’t want to imagine God cursing anyone.  But, what if the person driving had had too much to drink at happy hour and plowed her car into the back of a van carrying a bunch of 4th and 5th grade soccer players.  And if it was that drunk driver who was killed and the kids were all spared, then would it be ok to curse her?  Or maybe it was a blessing she died.  Maybe her death prevented the deaths of other children.  So now what is she? Blessed to have died? Or cursed?  And did God cause any of that to happen?  Or did God merely do nothing to prevent it?


It’s tricky, you can see.  All that was swirling around in my mind Wednesday evening and in these few days since as I’ve pondered this passage from Luke about Jesus preaching to his disciples and a great crowd.  I think it’s possible, that in our modern speech, which is actually a little lazy, we’ve stretched the whole notion of being blessed way beyond what Jesus probably meant when he spoke what we know as the beatitudes.


You know the word “beatitudes” is a literary term.  It’s a literary construction used in a number of places in both the New and Old Testaments.  The construction begins with the word “blessed” which, in this gospel context means something like praised, or recognized.  So for example, the first of the beatitudes could just as accurately be “let us praise” the poor, or, strangely, “let us honor those who weep”.  It does not mean what we have come to understand a blessing is, which is more like lucky or fortunate.  The poor are not lucky.  Those who mourn are not fortunate.  You can find beatitudes in the Psalms and in Proverbs, in Isaiah, in Revelation, and of course, in Matthew, and in Luke.  It’s something of a Biblical oxymoron.  Two concepts are linked that seem an unlikely pairing. 


Jesus used the beatitude literary construct in several ways.  There are these formal beatitudes you just heard.  Blessed are you who are poor, Blessed are you who are hungry now, Blessed are you who weep now, Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you.   Jesus used this oxymoronic (isn’t that a great word?) this oxymoronic construction to explain how, in God’s Reign, in the Kingdom of God which is to come but is not yet, everything will be different than the way you think it is now.  The first shall be last.  The poor shall be fed at a most glorious banquet table and the rich will be turned, empty, away.  The proud will be brought low.  Those who give now will receive. 


Jesus was a master of the oxymoron.  His very life was an oxymoron. He entered Jerusalem, the seat of Roman government and power, riding on a donkey.  Power flowed from him, quiet and scarcely noticeable, that healed a bleeding woman and a demon-possessed man.  Innocent of any crimes against the state, he was executed.  He died.  And he lives.  Was he blessed?  We who are Christians would say, yes, of course he was.  God blessed him. 


Sometimes I wonder whether Jesus ever wondered just what it was going to cost him to be blessed by God.  Just think of the crushing issues he confronted – the horrible oppression Rome visited upon the Jews or the rigidity of religious laws, the anguish of social injustice or the pain and isolation of seemingly incurable illness.  I wonder if, while he was saying these words, “blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh”, or “blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you, and defame you, for your reward is great in heaven”, I wonder whether Jesus wondered why that blessing couldn’t come this side of the grave? 


I tell you what – let’s leave that question alone until Lent.


The particular version of Jesus’ use of the beatitudes in his preaching as told by Luke is not like Matthew’s version.  According to Luke, Jesus used the same Hebrew literary construction he would have known by heart – the beginning word of blessing linked to something not quite yet true or real or probable.  Matthew’s version of Jesus’ words did that too, but Matthew made it all seem as if it was out there for someone else, for others – 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.  Not Luke.  No, Luke’s Jesus makes it very personal – you will be filled, you will laugh, you will rejoice.  It’s going to happen.  It is the will of God that you – all of you who suffer now – your suffering will end when God’s will is done, when God’s reign on earth comes. 


One more point about Luke’s picture of Jesus.  To make an even stronger argument about the now and not yet nature of oppression and redemption, Luke’s Jesus hits those of us who are rich now, and full now, and laughing now, with what can only be construed as bad news.  We’ve already received all the consolation we’re going to get, we’re going to be hungry when the kingdom comes, we’re going to weep.  If we want our Christian discipleship to be alive now, in 2019, this side of the kingdom, we’re going to have to look at the way we choose to live, now, today.  I’m not talking about giving away all our possessions.  I don’t mean stopping eating so that we experience hunger.  This isn’t about ceasing to find joy and laughter in life. We cannot put ourselves into first century Israel and hear these words as Jesus’ disciples heard them. 


So, what do our 21st century ears hear in these blessings and curses?  It’s pretty simple, actually – simple and incredibly difficult.  We need to bring to light – to our conscious awareness all the ways our actions, our practices, our acquiescence to systems of economic exploitation contribute to the economic systems that cause food insecurity and homelessness.  We need to bring to our own awareness all the cultural norms that we have unwittingly accepted that tell us some people deserve more because of the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, and the texture of their hair, or their gender, or their gender orientation or their gender identity, or their countries of birth, or their physical and mental abilities, or the number of their children, or their illnesses – physical or mental, or their age or whatever! Whatever.


And I’ll tell you something – that work is difficult and painful and anger producing and humbling, because, deep down, where we really live, we who benefit from the privileges afforded to us by virtue of our culture’s values feel a little blessed.  So being on the receiving end not of Jesus’ words of blessing but his condemnation of woe is, well, unpleasant.


Christianity isn’t opaque.  It isn’t impossible to understand.  It’s just demanding.  Which may be why the word blessed has become so common in its usage.  It’s easier to feel blessed than responsible.  Amen.

Luke 6:17-26

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Carla J. Bailey, Pastor, February 17, 2019

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