I confess that I find passages like these troubling.  I mean, the blessings are nice but these woes are a bit hard to deal with.  Well, no, scratch that: I sometimes have a problem with the “blessing” part too.

Let me back up a second.  This reading, at least the first part, may sound familiar to you.  The “blessings,” or the “beatitudes” is a core passage for Christianity.  The poetic language and uplifting message make them easy to remember, easy to teach children, and probably make us feel warm and fuzzy inside.

“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are the peacemakers for they are children of God.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Oh, wait.  Those lines don’t appear here.

See, today’s reading is Luke’s version.  We usually talk about Matthew’s Beatitudes; from a story we call the “Sermon on the Mount.”  Today’s scripture begins with “He came down with them and stood on a level place,” this morning we’re talking about Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain.”

Even though the core of these two stories if very similar, there are some significant difference.  There’s the location, of course: in Matthew, Jesus “seeing the crowds…went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him.” Some of the content is different as well.  The first line in Sermon on the Mount is “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God;” on the Plain, Jesus begins “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

After this list of blessings, Luke adds a few woes to balance things out. “Woe to you who are rich; woe to you who are full now, woe to you who are laughing now….”

There appears to be a different audience: in Matthew, the people of Jerusalem and Judea are joined by crowds from the Decapolis (the term for a group of ten cities in the area); in Luke there is a specific mention of the seacoast towns of Tyre and Sidon.

Maybe it’s these different audiences that are the reason for the varying content of Jesus’ speech.  Matthew’s mention of the Decapolis highlights the broad crowd to whom Jesus is speaking – backing up Matthew’s focus that Jesus’ message is universal, not meant for just a Jewish audience.  Luke, however, mentions these folks from Tyre and Sidon, from what I’ve read, these were major financial centers with some close financial ties to Jerusalem. The Tyreans and the Sidonians were most likely in Jerusalem for business reasons.

One piece of teaching that’s sometimes given to preachers – at least progressive preachers – is that we are called to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  That certainly seems to be what Jesus is doing here. If you’re poor or hungry or sad or excluded, don’t worry – everything will be fine someday. But if everything seems to be going well for you today, watch out, bad times are coming.

This is a pattern we often see in the Hebrew prophets as well.  If they are preaching to an audience that is struggling, their message is uplifting and hopeful.  If they live during a time of prosperity, the prophet often warns of upcoming doom. If it’s bad, it’ll get better; if it’s good, watch out.

Jesus knows where he is and to whom he is speaking and he adjusts his message accordingly.  The language in the sermon on the plain is much more directed than the one on the mount. In Matthew it’s “Blessed are those who mourn,” in Luke it’s “blessed are you that weep now.”

Luke’s Gospel often focuses on the disparity between rich and poor.  For instance, it’s Luke who tells the story of poor shepherds received the news of the Messiah’s birth.  On the plain, Jesus knows that he is joined by some of the rich and powerful and he speaks directly to them.  “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” is balanced by “Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

It’s easy for me to see this as a simple black and white issue.  The rich are bad and the poor are good. But then I have to consider my status.  If these are the only two choices, I can easily find myself saying “well, thank God I’m not rich then!”  Then I can join Jesus in condemning the rich. But if these are the only two choices, can I rightly claim to be poor?  I don’t think so. What, then, does that mean for me? Do I get blessings or woes?

Maybe that’s part of what make this so uncomfortable.

Do we see ourselves as rich or poor? Or neither? How does that change how we hear Jesus’ words?

Jesus is working against the perceptions of his time.  His audience has spent a lifetime believing that prosperity and riches are signs of blessings.  If someone is struggling, it must be because they’ve done something wrong; success must mean that someone is being rewarded for being righteous.

The core of Jesus’ ministry is to show that this way of thinking is wrong.  Folks aren’t poor because they’re cursed; no one is blind because of their parents’ sins or unable to walk because of their own.

Jesus is all about discounting these beliefs and leveling the playing field.  God’s kingdom, the world that our Creator has always intended for all of creation, is about justice and equality.  There shouldn’t be some basking in the consolation of luxury while others struggle to survive. There shouldn’t be anyone full while others are hungry.

It would be so easy for me to once again fall into the comfort of black and white; of us vs. them; rich vs. poor.  It’s easy for me to condemn the super-rich and imagine that I’m not at least a little complicit. I can easily blame Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and the richest person in the world with a net worth of more than$133 billion.  I can easily point out that he has enough money to solve most of the problems in the world and still have plenty to live comfortably. I can easily…let’s see, how else can I condemn him. Well, he could pay his workers a living wage and pay some taxes to help get things done.

It’s so easy to condemn others – and it’s not entirely wrong to do so.  But we have to look at ourselves too. It’s not about just being rich or poor or hungry or full.  It’s about seeing the world through Jesus’ eyes. It’s not wrong to laugh but are we aware of the ones who are weeping?  Jesus isn’t saying we should starve for his sake, but what are we doing to help others who are suffering?

It’s not easy to follow Jesus.  It’s not always comfortable either.  We may come to church to find comfort but can we also look past the church’s door to see the refugees and the hungry?  Can we echo Christ’s good news by crying out for justice and peace and speaking the truth to power? When we choose to follow Christ, when we choose to speak out as Christians on behalf of others, we may find ourselves excluded, reviled, and defamed but if we do God’s work and imitate Christ, the Holy Spirit will work through us, helping to create rewards that are beyond power and riches; rewards that benefit God’s children of every race and gender and station; on mountains and plains, in cities and villages, beyond creed and color; from Sidon and Sudbury; from Tyre and Flint, Michigan.

God calls us to find comfort when we are struggling and to support and fight for others when we are comfortable.

May our words echo Christ’s own, may our actions mirror Christ’s work, and may we do our part in creating the Kingdom for all of God’s children.

Uncomfortable Blessings.