Getting Ready for Sunday: By the Rev. Rebecca Tankersley

Luke 6:20-31

Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now,

for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,

for you have received your consolation.

“Woe to you who are full now,

for you will be hungry.

“Woe to you who are laughing now,

for you will mourn and weep.

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. 

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” 

To be confirmed, I was required to memorize the Beatitudes. At 12 years old, I had only ever been asked to memorize a verse or two of Scripture at a time. I loved learning a longer passage – loved the way the words rolled off my tongue. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn.” I’d venture to say that many of us memorized the Beatitudes in our younger days. Of course, when we did so, we learned Matthew’s Beatitudes. This All Saints Day, we take on Luke’s version where blessings are alarmingly juxtaposed with woes and then followed by a seemingly-impossible list of disciplines.

Blessings. Luke’s Beatitudes are plain and literal. Jesus’ concern isn’t the poor in spirit but the actual poor. Jesus isn’t focused on those who hunger for righteousness but those who hunger for food. When Jesus blesses “those who weep” in Luke’s Gospel, he may have in mind a group like Matthew’s “those who mourn”, though the blessing (laughter) is stronger in Luke than in Matthew (comfort). The meek, merciful, pure, and peacemakers receive no mention here. Instead, Luke is focused on the poor, the hungry, the weepers, and the hated – the excluded. Luke wants to share with these, for whom God has a special heart, the good news that Jesus is bringing God’s kingdom in which God’s justice will prevail by turning their current suffering upside down. This is the heart of the good news for Luke: beginning its rhythm in Mary’s Magnificat (1:46-55) and Zechariah’s prophesy (1:68-79) and pounding palpably in Jesus’ first public speech (4:18-19) and parables (see, e.g., 16:1-9, 19-31). God’s plan to turn suffering upside down beats boldly in the Beatitudes.

Woes. Suffering isn’t the only thing that is turned upside down in God’s kingdom. To the rich, full, laughing, and accepted, Jesus issues a warning. “You have received your consolation” (6:24). We cannot expect to share in Jesus ministry – in the promise of the good news – without sharing in his suffering, without carrying the cross and following him into places where poverty, hunger, sorrow, and hatred proliferate (14:27). We may squirm or quake at Jesus’ warning, but if we attend to the message, we can also hear good news in Jesus’ woes. Riches, full stomachs, laughing hearts, and acceptance from others make us feel good, but only for a while. They are temporary “solutions” to an emptiness that will never be filled by the things of this world – an emptiness that can only be filled by relationship with God. When we store up treasures, fill our bellies with fine foods, and distract ourselves with entertainment and jokes that lead us to laughter, we serve idols. We fall into the trap of self-sufficiency. We deny God as Lord of our lives. The good news for us in the woes is the permission to let go of this idolatrous pursuit and the invitation to cling to Jesus – to learn to rely completely on him.

Disciplines. How do we learn to rely completely on Jesus? Here at the conclusion of the Beatitudes in Luke, Jesus encourages us to practice. The verbs in the concluding paragraph of the text (love, do good, bless, pray, offer, give) are good starting points for our practice, though we are rightly cautioned that they can become empty platitudes without an abiding focus on the objects of our practice. Love must be directed to enemies, good to haters, blessing to those who curse. Jesus’ disciplines, much like the promises made by those who will be baptized this All Saints Day, will impossible for us to practice without God’s love and help. Follow the link below and pray St. Francis’ prayer with me, seeking just that: God’s love and help for the journey.


Getting Ready for Sunday

October 30, 2016: Proper 26, Year C

Luke 19:1–10

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it they all murmured, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I havedefrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” 

Have you ever noticed how Jesus had a hard time getting on with the good guys? The Pharisees, the devoted, the “churchgoers” of the first century—these are the ones who are usually scandalized by Jesus and his teaching. And this is especially so when he is rubbing shoulders with “the wrong kind of people” such as sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors. 

In first century Palestine, tax collectors were especially “the wrong kind of people.” They worked for Rome, collecting revenue for the occupying political power. Devout Jews believed it was Rome that was holding back the Kingdom of God, that time in which the Messiah would restore home rule to sons of Abraham and reinstate the Golden Age of King David. Tax collectors were therefore seen as traitors. They were in league with the enemy.

Moreover, tax collectors were known for being “ethically challenged,” unscrupulous in their collections. Besides the money they got for Rome, they would overcharge (or “round up” we might say) thereby padding their own pockets. In a number of ways tax-collectors were getting rich off the oppression of their kinsmen.

Just as the good guys didn’t eat with Romans or other Gentiles, this being considered unkosher —literally, “not clean”— Pharisees and other observant Jews would not eat with tax collectors, since they were considered even worse than the pagans. But Jesus wants to have a meal with this notorious character named Zacchaeus. Christ doesn’t care that the man is unclean, doesn’t mind what his sins may be. He bids him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today,” all of this showing that Jesus is actually a friend of sinners, and is not at all ashamed to be seen with folks even as notorious as Zacchaeus. 

What is the effect? As the feast, the party, ensues, Zacchaeus is transformed by Jesus’ mercy and love. Zacchaeus’ heart overflows in generosity and a desire to restore his ill-gotten gain, all of this happening without coercion or a call to repent! Apparently, Jesus didn’t have to tell Zacchaeus what a scoundrel he was; he just let his heart go out to him. And maybe that’s only way true transformation can happen.

We can apply this Gospel story in two ways. First, we can let it speak to ourselves. Secondly, it can influence the way we interact with those “sinners” we meet each and every day. 

First, we are all tempted to think—probably somewhere below our consciousness—“God would love me more if I were a better person: if I cleaned up my act, if I went to church more, if I more earnestly resolved to give my entire life to him.” This passage tells us that it actually goes the other way round. It is Jesus’ love and acceptance that transforms us. We don’t fix ourselves. Rather, it is his embrace, his mercy, his friendship that makes the difference. No amount of work or willpower can transform the human heart—only love can do it! The bottom line is that Jesus loves us not as we ought to be but as we are. And it is in experiencing this love, or what Christians call “grace,” that we are transformed in ways that are otherwise impossible. 

Regarding the “sinners” we meet, we would do well to follow Jesus’ lead. Sure, there are times and places to call others to repentance. But sometimes Christians fall into the trap of thinking that they are the good guys, and that it is the job of the good guys to convince “the wrong kind of people” how bad they are! How crazy is that?  

Perhaps it would go better if we reached out to others the way Jesus reached out to Zacchaeus: freely, without condition, willing to be friends with the kinds of folk who would shock our churchgoing friends. Maybe we don’t need to point out how people are doing it wrong, and focus more on Jesus’ way of doing it right: accepting, including, befriending people as they are. And maybe that kind of love, Jesus’ kind of love, that will have a transforming effect.

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This is a blog of essays meant to prepare parishioners for an upcoming Sunday reading.