Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry.
Blessed are those who weep. Blessed are those who are hated.
Woe to the rich. Woe to those who are full.
Woe to those who are laughing. Woe to those who are spoken well of.
For the careful and thoughtful reader of this Gospel, the blessings and woes pronounced by Jesus in chapter 6 of this Gospel reach back into earlier parts of the story. Jesus is here standing on a level place, surrounded by a crowd of people, drawn from nearby and from places further afield, Jews and even Gentiles, who are crying out for help. It is a striking scene (see https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/on-a-level-place-with-a-great-crowd-luke-6/)
The words spoken by Jesus on the plain reach back to the scene in the synagogue, when Jesus sets out his manifesto for mission, reading the charge from the prophet Isaiah, to offer good news, to free the captive, to enlighten the blind, to implement the Jubilee time of God’s favour; and then presses the point with his hometown people: this scripture is fulfilled today, in your hearing!
The ministry of Jesus is always, relentlessly, towards those on the outer, the strangers with whom we are called to make friends, the enemies whom we are called to love (as we will hear next week), the outsiders who are invited to come, join in and share in the banquet feast spread before us (see https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/02/01/scripture-fulfilled-in-your-hearing-luke-416-30/)
Then, the blessings, and woes, pronounced by Jesus, reach back, beyond that striking synagogue scene, back to the time before his birth, when Jesus was still in the womb of his mother, Mary … the scene set in an unnamed village in Judea, which Luke simply describes as “a town in the hill country”, on the occasion when Mary was visiting her cousin Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah (Luke 1:39-45).
The blessings and woes of Jesus resonate strongly with the words that his mother sang to her cousin on that visit: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
This is the central motif for the ministry of Jesus: good news to the poor, sight for the blind, food for the hungry, empowering the oppressed. And the flip side comes with it: disempowering the powerful, emptying the superabundance of the rich, challenging the mighty with the vulnerability of love.
This is our calling. We are invited to walk the way of Jesus, to set forth with these words ringing in our ears, to reach out with the hope of this Gospel, to serve with the joy of those working amongst the poor, the oppressed, the outsiders, the dispossessed.
The national President of the Uniting Church, Dr Deidre Palmer, took this notion as the theme for the 15th Assembly in 2018: we are called to rejoice in God’s abundant grace, and look for God’s liberating hope.
Indeed, as we live out this grace and hope, we are called, not just to serve the outsiders, the unloved, the oppressed, and such people—but to work with them. Jesus calls his followers to seek out those who will share with them in the work of the kingdom. They are NOT the usual suspects. They are not the mighty, the self-confident, the powerful. They will be drawn from places of need—from poverty and hunger, from grief and persecution. They are the people that surround Jesus, looking for healing and renewal, in that vibrant scene on the level place in Luke 6.
Jesus issues each of us a call to engage deliberately with people who are different from us, rather than always with people who are largely like us. That is our task, today. We are charged with forming a community that is intentionally inclusive. We are called to seek the kingdom in the realities of everyday life. We are called to work with each other, no matter how divergent or different our views about specific matters might be. We are all a part of the community of faith, all integral to the people of God.