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A little over ten years ago, the symbol that most of us referred to as the “pound” or “number” sign took on a whole new life of its own. Users on the social media platform Twitter- you may have heard of it- were looking for a way of grouping postings, or tweets, with relevant content into a single coherent thread. One user noticed another user tweeting about wildfires around San Diego and suggested grouping them using this symbol, thus the first hashtag- SanDiegoFire- was born. Since then,the practice has been used to group reactions to all kinds events and trends, and was an indispensable tool for communication during the uprising known as the Arab Spring. One the more popular perennial hashtags that people add to postings across social media platforms is the simple one word, #blessed.The use of this tag is so ubiquitous that it’s made its way into music, movies and television. So I went on Twitter to see the most recent posts trending with the hashtag, blessed. Unsurprisingly there were more than a few from this past week’s celebration of Valentine’s Day. There was a couple posting the announcement of their engagement, #blessed. NBA basketball star Russell Westbrook posted a graphic boasting his status as “all-time points leader” for the Seattle Sonics/Oklahoma City Thunder franchise, #blessed. Someone posted a picture of themselves flying a single engine airplane, #blessed. Someone signed to play football for the University of Miami, #blessed. Another posted their admission to medical school, #blessed. A woman rang the bell to signal the successful completion of her cancer treatment, #blessed. From the more profound to sometimes silly, people are counting their blessings: flowers at work, the arrival of a new baby, a day at the beach.
Interestingly, I didn’t notice anything resembling Jesus’ blessings in the feed I scanned. Nothing like, “unforeseen car repair means I can’t pay for my meds this month, #blessed.” Or, “School holiday tomorrow, kids will just have to wait ‘til dinner to eat. #blessed.” Noticeably absent was, “just lost my husband of 30 years in a car accident. #blessed.” If you were to put what Jesus calls blessed and what Twitter calls blessed side by side, I’m not sure I wouldn’t go with Twitter. I mean is it just me, or does Jesus sound a little out of step here. I don’t see anyone tagging tweets about being hated, excluded and reviled for their commitment to what God would put right and calling it blessed. Are they?
But then it gets worse. Jesus proceeds to it around and hands out a series of woes that sound a whole lot like the American Dream. Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are full. Woe to you who are laughing. Really, laughing, Jesus? Doesn’t everyone need a good laugh now and again? They say it’s the best medicine. Woe when all speak well of you. What have you got against the five-star review, Jesus? The whole thing just sounds completely upside down. Which may actually be the key to understanding just what Jesus is getting at here.
I was talking to my son, Yared, this week about Jesus’ words here. “Jesus said, ‘blessed are the poor,’” I told him. He wasn’t having it. “Why would Jesus want us to be poor,” he asked. “No one wants to be poor.” He has a point. Being poor isn’t simply a matter of having fewer resources. Statistics bear out that poverty leads to worse health outcomes, an increased risk of being victimized by crime, and reduced access to quality education. For many in the criminal justice system, their greatest crime is being poor- unable to afford bail, let alone a decent lawyer. They end up with prison sentences a person with the means to better representation might not get. We might say the same for hunger, or weeping, or derision. When someone wishes you God’s blessing, I hope that isn’t what they want for you. No one wants that, do they? Is that what Jesus wants for us?
Of course none of this is an issue, or at least it’s less of an issue, if we were to read Matthew instead of Luke. Because in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus doesn’t say, “blessed are the poor.” In Matthew’s Gospel the beloved Beatitudes begin, “blessed are the poor in spirit.” In Matthew, the blessing is for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Which makes sense, if you think about it. When Matthew shares theses words of Jesus, the Lord goes up a mountain to deliver them. He is elevated, and so too are his words. These conditions that Jesus names as blessed are spiritualized. Which conveniently removes them from the material realm. And the woes that he delivers are pointed at a specific group and don’t come until much later. But here in Luke, while similar, these words of blessing and woe take on a different quality as Jesus instead delivers them from a level place. And so too, the conditions that Jesus names are decidedly more material. They are the stuff of everyday life, the things that dictate so much of what we do with ourselves- making a living, eating, laughing, weeping, getting along with others. Perhaps that’s why they hit us so hard, they speak directly to where we live most days.
The key, then, to understanding what Jesus is getting at might reside in the very first blessing. “Blessed are the poor. For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” What if we were to consider these words as the answer to a question. Namely, whose is the Kingdom of God? To whom does it belong? Because the very first thing that Jesus did at the outset of his ministry in Luke was to stand up in his home synagogue, read the words of the Isaiah scroll, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” And when he sat down, he said that today the scripture had been fulfilled in their hearing. It didn’t go over very well. They probably didn’t want to be poor either.
Being poor can be pretty demoralizing. If a person is doing all that they can to get by, if the best they can do is to barely enough to meet their most basic needs, then what happens when they look at everything around them that is so far out of their reach- health, safety, education and more? They might come to the conclusion that much of the world, much of what there is in the world, is not for them; that, essentially, they don’t belong. When a person has less, it can be easy for them to think that they are worth less. Worthless. From that perspective, to be poor sounds anything but blessed. But along comes this Rabbi, this man of God, who is fulfilling the words of the prophet by bringing good news to the poor. And he says to the person who is poor, you are blessed. Not because of everything you don’t have, and not because there is anything particularly noble about being poor. No, you are blessed because regardless of whatever you may or may not have, God’s Kingdom is still yours. It is for you and you belong to it. The kingdom of God, the way God orders the world looks nothing like the world as it currently is ordered- largely along the lines of who has what, and how much. The things that the world values are not the things that God tends to value. As Eugene Peterson renders it in his translation The Message, “you’re blessed when you’ve lost it all, God’s kingdom is there for the finding.” In fact, God’s reordering of things is far easier to enter into when you’ve got nothing to lose. What’s more, when you’re hungry you’re far more eager to receive the bread of life. And to weep is to know the true value of what’s been lost. And if people are angry because they are made uncomfortable by the way you support and live into God’s reordering of things, that must mean that you are not far from what God is up to in remaking and restoring the whole world. #blessed
Conversely, if what we have defines our value- the numbers on a bank account, or the car that is parked in the garage- if we think we’ve got it all, then a reordering of the world according to what God values isn’t likely to be something we’re all that receptive to. And woe to us, if that is the case. We are far more impoverished than we might imagine. If we have our fill of whatever we want, then woe to us because there is a hunger that will never be satisfied by what we can consume. Laughter is good, but if it comes at someone else’s expense or is used to demean another’s pain, then woe to us when the shoe’s on the other foot. And if our highest value is the approval and acceptance of others, then woe to us because we have lost our bearings and will find ourselves serving only whatever it takes to stay in someone else’s good graces instead of resting in the grace and mercy of God.
Maybe that sounds harsh. I guess it does. But remember what happens right before Jesus delivers these words. The great multitude that’s come from all over is there to hear him and be healed. Jesus’ words aren’t so much a prescription as they are a diagnosis. Both the blessings and the woes are good news really. Because the former encourage us to look for blessing beyond the conventions of our surrounding culture and social media hashtags to see God at work in all things. And the latter wake us up to what we could miss entirely if we become too attached to the wrong kinds of promises, the ones that trade a moment’s pleasure for depth of what is eternal.
It isn’t really a matter of deciding which words are directed at us. My guess is that at any one time both blessing and woe apply in some combination. The point isn’t about feeling validated or guilty based on where we’re at. The point is to hear them, to know their truth, and ultimately to be healed.