READ : Luke 6:22
Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man!
Luke 6:22 RSV
I’m calling this message “Happiness Revisited” because Jesus says such surprising things about what it is to be happy. They cut across our common-sense notions. They call for a closer look, a second opinion about real happiness.
Listen. I’m reading from Luke, chapter 6, beginning at verse 20. Try to imagine that you were in the crowd of disciples when Jesus said these things.
And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out 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. But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger. Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”
The word translated “blessed” here means happy. The people being described first are in a desirable situation. They have it good. They have found joy.
The woes are strongly contrasted with this. They describe a sad state of affairs. It’s as though Jesus says “Alas!” for these people. They are to be pitied. They are of all men most miserable.
THE PUZZLING PART
All right, we understand the terms blessing and woe, gladness and misery, but how do we make sense of what Jesus says about them? I think we have to say flat out that the surface meaning of these words can’t be the one that Jesus intended. You and I know, and millions of people in the world know today better than we do, that it’s not a happy experience to be poor. People don’t find that pleasant, do they? They don’t tell us that it’s a beautiful thing to be penniless and homeless. They don’t celebrate the fact that they and their children are deprived, vulnerable to all kinds of disease. Poverty is not fun. It grinds the spirit. Its tendency is to take the joy out of life rather than to put it in.
What about going hungry? Is that enjoyable? Does it make you feel good to lack the food your body needs, to look into the eyes of your children when they are malnourished? Doesn’t it seem a mockery to say that a diet of scraps and garbage could be blessed?
And what about weeping? What’s so great about that? People weep when they’ve lost a dear one, when they’ve seen a house filled with priceless memories go up in flames, when they lose their jobs and watch people they care about suffer terribly. Does that feel good? Can a broken heart in any realistic sense be called a blessing?
Jesus talks about being hated by other people, about being shunned as an outcast, being despised as an evil person, about being given a bad name. All that sounds like pure anguish to me. To be looked at like that, to feel enmity like that – it makes our blood run cold, doesn’t it?
And if the blessings are hard to believe, the woes don’t seem very realistic, either. Jesus says, “Woe to you that are rich,” as if to say, “Too bad for you if you have a lot of money!” Can it be that sadness is called for if you’ve just inherited a small fortune? Or won the state lottery? That’s not how people usually react when news of some great windfall reaches them, is it? No. They can’t contain their joy.
“Woe to you that are full now,” says Jesus. Suppose you’ve just enjoyed a hearty meal, all the things most delightful to your taste. “Tough luck,” someone says. “You really have a hard lot in life, eating so well!”
Then there’s that word about laughter. You’re doubling up with mirth, exchanging jokes with your friends. You’re laughing so hard you almost cry. Is that what Jesus means when He says “woe”? How can laughter, which Norman Cousins says has such great healing power, possibly be bad news?
Further, when everyone speaks well of you, is that such a calamity? To have everyone’s good opinion? To be universally popular? That’s not very painful, is it? Not many people lose sleep just because they have a good reputation.
On the surface, these words of Jesus are not only shocking. They don’t even seem true to human experience, do they? There must be something deeper here that doesn’t appear at first glance.
WHO ARE THE POOR AND THE RICH?
Two clues are especially helpful for me. One is to realize that words like poor and rich have a special depth of meaning in the Bible. They mean what they ordinarily mean, of course. But they mean more than that, and the extra dimension is what gives us the light we need. Think about that word poor. Do you remember how many times one of the psalmists will cry out to God, “I am poor and needy”? Now maybe he’s groaning that he’s broke and without food, but that’s not usually the sense we get in those psalms. It often seems that the author feels himself beset by enemies or in a situation of great distress. The odds are against him and he’s feeling very much alone. When he says “I am poor and needy,” he means most of all that he’s without any human help.
A few years ago, I was flying back home from Russia after visiting churches there. I was on an airliner from one of the Scandinavian countries. The stewardess asked me what I had been doing in Russia. I mentioned visiting the churches and how much it had meant to be with those Christians. The stewardess said, “Those poor Russians. They don’t have anything but religion!” I reflected on that for some time afterwards. “Those poor Russians,” the pretty young thing was saying, “they don’t have anything but God!”
You know, friends, that’s a perfect definition of poor in the Bible. They’re the people who have nothing but God. They don’t put their trust in kings and armies, in chariots and horses. They call on God for help. They put their whole trust in Him. They are the poor. They may or may not be financially impoverished, but there is no treasure for them apart from the Lord. When Jesus talks about them in the Sermon on the Mount, He calls them “poor in spirit.”
And this “hungering” that Jesus calls blessed is not what people feel when they lack bread. It’s a hunger and thirst for righteousness. It’s a yearning of the heart, a longing for God. It’s what people feel who can’t find the deepest desires of their spirits satisfied anywhere except in Him. They say, as Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”
Those “weeping” ones that Jesus calls blessed are the people who shed tears of penitence. They’re sorry for the way they’ve failed the Lord and those who count on them. They feel the pain of others and cry along with them. The sorrows of the suffering world weigh heavily on their hearts. They weep because they love.
This must be the kind of poverty and hunger and weeping that Jesus is speaking about, because He spoke these words, Luke tells us, to His own disciples. And when He talked about how blessed it would be when men would hate them and exclude them and revile them and cast out their names as evil, He qualified all of that like this: “on account of the Son of man.” He’s not talking about suffering reproach for just any reason, certainly not about the hatred and blame that comes from our own evil ways. The blessedness is when you suffer for Christ and His cause, when you have fellowship with Him in the pain of His heart. To be shunned by the world can be a joy only when it means that you belong to Jesus Christ.
Now let’s look at the other side of it. What does Jesus mean by rich? He can’t mean just any person who is wealthy. Abraham was a rich man, the father of the faithful. So were the publicans who responded eagerly to Jesus’ message. So was Joseph of Arimathea. And so have been many of God’s choicest saints. This word rich, on the lips of Jesus, stands for people who think they are well off. They dream that their riches make them secure and self-sufficient. If the poor have nothing but God, the rich have everything they want without Him. They are the miserable ones, says Jesus. They are the fools. They think themselves prosperous when they are really deprived.
The “full” ones, in a similar way, are satisfied with themselves. Pleasures and profits have their cup brimming over. They need nothing, or so they think.
And the “laughing” ones, they’re congratulating themselves. They’re laughing, as we say, “all the way to the bank.” They haven’t a care in the world because they see no imaginable difficulty they can’t buy their way out of. The world is their oyster. They’re laughing up a storm.
Now all this makes more sense, doesn’t it? We begin to see the blessing of being poor enough, hungry enough, heartbroken enough to make room in our lives for the Lord. And we see how empty the life of the rich can be when it’s so filled up with things and dainties and merriment that they never give God a thought.
THE LONG VIEW
But the real situation isn’t apparent to everyone yet. That’s the other major clue. Jesus is taking the long view here. The “blessings” and the “woes” look ahead to what’s coming down the road. What would you rather have now, Jesus seems to ask, fabulous wealth that’s certain to take wings and fly away, or modest means that are bound to multiply incalculably? Would you rather satisfy all your whims here for a few short years or have the Lord satisfy your heart forever? That’s the issue.
God’s poor ones have the first installment of the coming kingdom now. The Holy Spirit lives in their hearts as a kind of down payment. But one day the whole kingdom will be theirs. The hungry ones have already tasted and seen that the Lord is good, but they will sit down some day to a banquet beyond belief. And the weeping ones will have all those tears wiped away and find joy unspeakable and full of glory. The persecuted ones can afford even now to lift up their hearts and sing. The Lord will not forget their work of faith and labor of love. He knows all their sorrows. He’s with them, and for them it will be worth it all when they see Jesus.
So happiness for God’s people is partly present reality and partly future hope. A large part of the joy is a kind of anticipation. We’ve got a glimpse of the glory and we’re looking forward to much, much more.
The truly happy ones in the world are the forward looking ones. They are the people of faith. They trust in what God has done for them in the past in the gift of His Son, crucified and risen for them. They trust in what He’s doing now, working in them by His Spirit, transforming them into the image of Christ, and they believe also in what God will yet do when the Lord will come. They set their hope on God’s faithful promise. They savor already a blessedness that is yet to be. You can’t finally discourage them, can’t keep them down permanently. For them the future is so bright with hope that they’re feeling the glow of it already.
How about you today? Are you among the poor in the sense we’ve been describing them, or the rich? I’m not talking now about your bank account or your investment portfolio but about your real treasure in life. Do you feel so full today that you don’t need God? Or do you feel so poor that God’s grace is your one hope and the cross of Jesus your only boast?
If that’s true of you, you are truly blessed. You’re totally forgiven, for one thing. You have something to live for now bigger than yourself. You have a hope that nothing can destroy and a joy that keeps springing up amazingly even in the midst of pain. You’re a part of the most wonderful fellowship in the world, the body of Christ, and you have the Lord with you all the days. And that, friends, is only the beginning. In Jesus Christ, the deepest joys are all ahead. The best is yet to be. May all of that be your portion as you make Jesus Christ Himself your treasure!
Prayer:Lord, help us all to know that happiness isn’t found by looking for it but that in Jesus Christ and in commitment to His cause and kingdom we discover a blessedness beyond what we would have believed. May that be true for all who share this program today. Through Jesus Christ. Amen.