By the Rev. Justin Clemente
Let me begin with a very straightforward, but perhaps not entirely simple question: what is a beatitude? It sounds like something that comes out of a fortune cookie: and here’s your be-attitude for the day! Matthew’s beatitudes are probably most famous, but Luke has them recorded, too. A beatitude is a blessing. μακάριος in the Greek. But again, what kind of blessing is spoken of here? Is Jesus here presenting four principles to a blessed life? Are these guidelines designed to get God’s attention and earn reward? Or, is there something altogether different going on here? In his commentary on Luke, Arthur Just defines a beatitude as a declaration of blessedness. You see, what we have here are four blessed marks of life in Jesus. Life in fellowship with Jesus. Life in the gospel. On the other side of things, we also have the woes here, right? Not as popular, I might add! We have four marks of the life of a true disciple but we also have four marks of the life lived in rejection of Jesus, as well. And that’s what makes beatitudes and the woes so powerful – they are designed to reveal where you stand in relationship to Jesus.
As we share in this passage today, what I want to do is contrast each beatitude with the associated woe, so that you see the meaning of each one with greater clarity. So here we go – four marks of blessing and four marks of woe.
Poverty (in Spirit) Vs Ease in Riches (vs. 20 and 24)
Poverty in Spirit
Jesus, speaking to his disciples says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Matthew, in his version of the beatitudes, makes clear what Jesus means here – blessed are the poor in spirit. This hearkens back to what Jesus said in Luke 4 in his opening sermon at Nazareth. Remember that? Jesus reads from Isaiah 61, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord…has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” The question we have to ask ourselves is, are we poor enough to receive this good news? Tim Keller points out here that “the Gospel is 1) for only the spiritually poor, 2) the Gospel is especially for the actually poor, and 3) the Gospel comes to the world through those who are willing to be both.” Now, let me build on that a little.
Knowing yourself to be spiritually poor is the only entrance by which you will come Jesus and be part of his Kingdom. That’s who it’s for (in fact, the word translated as “poor” means literally “to crouch” as a beggar would). In Luke particularly, this is part of the Great Reversal that runs through his Gospel. Up is down and down is up in the Messiah’s Kingdom.
But then secondly, since this is true, more often than not those who are actually poor and not that well off will come to receive the Gospel. Now, of course, you can be poor and just as much make an idol out of riches as can the wealthy. Nevertheless, as Paul says of the Corinthian church, “Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.” This is a real check for those of us in the Western church who are comparatively well off. We need to reminded that the Christians would who would have been discipled by Luke with Luke’s Gospel were probably actually poor and would have, all the more, rejoiced because they were rich in Christ.
Lastly, if you know yourself to be spiritually poor – that this is how you come to Christ – then how will you treat others who are not in the same social standing as you? You will be utterly able to stand with, as equals, those who are not as well off or cultured or as fortunate or as advantaged as you are. This beatitude of Jesus raises a question in mind: is a church that is homogenous from a socio-economic standpoint healthy? I don’t know, but I do know this: the Church of Jesus is a place where the financially poor and the well-off stand in solidarity because they both know their own spiritual poverty.
Ease in Riches
In verse 24, poverty in spirit is contrasted with ease in riches: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” Again, we need to hear this, because this is one key note of what the shape of a life lived in rejection of Jesus looks like. We live in a time where people can be, 24/7, saturated in their own desires, with their own money, consoling themselves, for their entire lives. I think this goes back to what Keller said about the actually poor being receptive to the Gospel. This is just how God works. The Gospel is a hard sell in our place and time, and yet it is exploding elsewhere globally.
Hunger for God Vs a Need for Glory Now (vs. 21a and 25a)
Hunger for God
Well, this sets the tone for the rest of the passage. Jesus continues with the next beatitude: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.” The life of the Christian is a hope-deferred, pilgrim-style life. As Lewis put it, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” And the Christian is constantly aware of that. We are never quite at home. It is a life where absence and longing is felt, and yet we are even now satisfied as we wait for the hope that has been promised to us – Christ in you, the hope of glory, as Paul put it.
A Need for Glory Now
“Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.” The necessary hunger of the Christian life is here contrasted with an absolute need for this life to be glorious now. Why is this so dangerous? Because this kind of person will be unable to preserve when the road of life becomes marked by suffering and want. This kind of person will not be able to walk in the way of the cross. They will not be able to hear Jesus when he tells them to deny themselves and take up their cross. Instead the crucified and rejected messiah will be rejected.
Present Sorrow Vs Foolish Mockery (vs. 21b and 25b)
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh … Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.”
It is better to know sorrow now in this life than it is to seek a life and glibly and superficially free from it. Better to know godly sorrow over sin, that we may also know and be blessed with Jesus’ word of forgiveness. Better to know sorrow now over the brokenness of our world, living in the hope and joy that God will make it right, than it is pretend all is well, or try to explain it away. Better to continue in the joyful fellowship of your brothers and sisters in Christ though all is not well, than it is to live in isolation, pretending all is well.
Rent Relationships Vs Love of Flattery (vs. 22 and 26)
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets… Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”
Blessed and better, Jesus says, to endure rent relationships and exclusion for Jesus’ sake than it is to love flattery. Better to have your “name” scorned (and here Luke is thinking of the name “Christian”) and to receive the Messiah who was scorned as well. It’s certainly not that we want to be hated (there are people who think like that!), but the nature of Gospel is such that it usually does not come without creating some kind of division – be personal or otherwise.
And yet, look at the joy in this last beatitude! Why? Because of the treasure stored up for you in Jesus. In Ephesians 1, Paul has an entire chapter devoted to this theme of the blessings we receive in Christ. It starts out, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” Compared with these blessings, the balance in Jeff Bezos current bank accounts is as pocket change.
In the midst of poverty, in the midst of hunger, in the midst of sorrow, in the midst of rent relationship, Jesus calls his disciples to rejoice and skip for joy! Because although there is a cost associated with the Christian life, all that we receive through Jesus makes it impossible to even consider comparing the two.
In the End, Jesus is the Blessed One
Let me end here. We’ve been looking at what it means to be blessed in Christ. But there is something deeper still. And that’s that Jesus is the blessed one himself. He is the one who fulfills each beatitude. Listen to Arthur Just here:
“Whom do the beatitudes best describe if not Christ himself? Each beatitude applies to Christ in the fullest sense. He is the one who believed with unswerving faith the Father’s words about the fulfillment of his mission of salvation, and he persevered without taking offense at the shame of the cross. Jesus is the one who was poor and hungry, who wept and was persecuted like the prophets of old. He is the one who had no physical children, but who made possible the new birth for countless sons and daughters of God.” (Luke 1:1-9:50, Arthur Just)
So I bring us back to where I started – the beatitudes and woes shows us where we stand – in Jesus or apart from him. May you live this week with in greater confidence that every blessing is yours in Christ and may help others know it for themselves, too. Amen.