The Uses of Sorrow
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
— Mary Oliver
Nations tell stories about themselves. Stories that establish who they are, how they see themselves in the world. For example, in 1950s and the early 60s in England, we could sing Rule Britannia and half believe it were still true. Now, they can’t even manage an orderly Brexit.
The USA has its Declaration of Independence, which contains these words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [men] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
‘All are created equal’? Yet some of the men who signed this document were slaveowners.
‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’? Tell that to the ever-increasing American underclass.
Australia’s founding story includes Terra Nullius, the lie that the land was unclaimed before Britain established a jail here for its own underclass. Terra Nullius enabled us to think of Australia as the land of the fair go, while ignoring the frontier wars that are our real history. Australia, the land of the fair go—but don’t arrive by boat.
Luke has a foundational story for the Good News of Jesus. It’s been called the Great Reversal. We see it firstly in Mary’s Song, the Magnificat. Mary sings:
[God] 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.
And Jesus himself follows it up, by reading from Isaiah 61 in the Nazareth synagogue:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
Luke’s Great Reversal subverts all other stories. It’s a story of the poor being raised up and the rich being cast down.
Luke continues that story in today’s reading, which is the beginning of what is called the Sermon on the Plain. The Sermon on the Plain is the less glamorous sibling of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel.
If the Sermon on the Plain had feelings, I suspect it would feel jealous of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Plain takes up a mere thirty verses; the Sermon on the Mount has three whole chapters devoted to it. People talk about living by the words of the Sermon on the Mount, but they never say that about the Sermon on the Plain.
When I went to Israel a few years ago, we saw the Church of the Beatitudes, where the Sermon on the Mount was supposedly preached. It’s a stunning church in a beautiful place. But it’s all about Matthew. There’s no traditional site that I know of for the Sermon on the Plain.
In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus comes down from the mountain and stands on a level with the people he is addressing. And he speaks plainly, very plainly indeed.
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.…
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Jesus addresses the disciples as ‘you poor’.
This is part of Luke’s founding story. Just was Britain once claimed to rule the waves, just as the USA claimed all were equal, just as Australia claimed to be taking an empty land; for Luke, the Great Reversal is a foundational part of telling the Good News of Jesus.
The Great Reversal tells the story of the people who are on the bottom of the pile being lifted up, and those on the top losing their place. For today, I’m focussing on what Jesus says about the poor and the rich.
Luke tells of this Great Reversal many times. It’s in the Parable of the Rich Farmer and the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
It’s in the story of the salvation of Zacchaeus the tax collector, and the (so-called) Rich Young Ruler.
It’s in the background of the Parables of the Good Samaritan, the Pharisee and the Publican, and the Prodigal Son.
These stories are unique to Luke’s Gospel! For Luke, this is life in the Kingdom of God.
How do we live this out today, in Australia?
Do we storm the barricades, à la Les Miserables? Do we become anarchists or join a political party?
Some people do these things, and good luck to them. But if those ways work, it’s because of solidarity rather than violence. Jesus showed the way of solidarity.
The Apostle Paul says
For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8.9)
And in Philippians 2.7, Paul speaks of Christ who
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
Jesus is The Poor One in solidarity with us. His solidarity looks an awful lot like compassion for us, who can’t seem to help ourselves.
So what is it about being poor? Are you blessed if you’re destitute? Are you meant to be happy if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from? Is being abused a blessing? Should we say ‘Blessed are you who are poor’ and leave them in their blessed poverty?
And what is it about being rich? Is it wrong to have a job, and food in the fridge? Is it wrong to be able to pay your bills? Should those who have enough give everything away, so that someone has to take care of them?
Perhaps these are the wrong questions. Maybe we should ask a better question, like this: What is it about the Great Reversal? How does this foundational story work in Luke’s Gospel?
In the Parable of the Rich Fool, we see a rich man who does not even think to share; in the end, he is brought down by death, illustrating Jesus’ words:
woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
In the story of Zacchaeus, the short, despised tax collector becomes a figure of salvation while the respectable folk who saw Jesus go into his house stay on the outside grumbling. You wouldn’t catch them dead in there!
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the younger son is elevated, while the older brother who had stayed home and worked is left out in the cold.
Does it all sound a little unfair perhaps? It’s called ‘grace’.
The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a huge reversal. In Hades, the place of the dead, the rich man is parched. Lazarus—the poor man who is given a name, while the rich man doesn’t even get that—is tended to by Abraham himself.
These are all Luke’s stories. It’s almost as though he had something to say, isn’t it? So how does that work today?
For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
We, the Body of Christ, continue the mission of Christ in the world today. The Great Reversal is an integral part of the mission.
How do we live this out? We’ll soon be engaging in a process of missional discernment and I hope we take this question seriously as we do.
I mentioned solidarity before, and I said that the solidarity of Jesus with us takes the form of compassion. I saw this meme during the week:
‘Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things.’ This comes from Thomas Merton’s final address, delivered just two hours before his untimely death on 10 December 1968.
Having compassion requires that we know we are connected one to another, and to everything.
It means that ‘the poor’ are not ‘out there’, and neither are ‘the rich’. We are interconnected with both.
‘We’ cannot lift up ‘the poor’. There is no ‘us and them’. As Tim Winton has said,
it’s not us and them anymore. It’s us and us and us. It’s always us. (Cloudstreet)
There are no poor who are different from us, and no rich either. Compassion requires us to see this. The Great Reversal both pulls us down and lifts us up. Yet let me not be heard wrongly: many of us Australians are more rich than we are poor. Some of us may need to be pulled down before we are lifted up.
We can’t make excuses here. We can’t exempt ourselves from the task.
The task is political as well as personal. We’ve just had a tumultuous week in Australian politics, and the focus has been on asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru who need medical treatment. Let me say that people languishing in these places must be among ‘the poor’. Yet our government is actively resisting bringing seriously ill asylum seekers to Australia for treatment.
Whatever the Great Reversal means, it means acting to help sick people. It means condemning the actions of those who would put obstacles in their way.
Of course, the Great Reversal is about more than than the poor and the rich. But whatever the focus, the way of compassion and solidarity is the way for us to go. We are interdependent.
I hope we gladly recall this as we engage in the process of missional discernment that is before us. As we seek to walk the way of Jesus, the Compassionate One who is in solidarity with us. I look forward to the ways members of this congregation will use their Spirit-led imaginations in the next few months.
West End Uniting Church, 17 February 2019