Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” – Luke 6:20-26 (NRSV)
The beatitudes are a comfort for many people, but I don’t really feel comforted when I read this passage. In Luke’s version, I’m not left with a lot of room. Either I’m blessed or under woe. But life doesn’t feel that black and white.
As a person of privilege, I have a hard time saying I am poor or hungry. There are things I weep over, but I haven’t experienced deep loss in my life. And while I may be generally “hated” by some for being a Christian, I’ve never personally experienced extreme hatred, exclusion or insult because of how I represent Christ in the world.
A part of me feels that I don’t feel I have the right to claim these blessings.
But my ponderings over this passage led me back to Withness Community’s prayer service last month, which focused on grace. We reflected and prayed about how it is only in our weakness that Christ is strong in us. My privileged life keeps me from being poor or hungry, and I don’t allow Christ to be strong in me. Can I know Christ if I am never poor, hungry, wretched or hated?
Can I comprehend grace – and therefore, truly receive it?
As I approached this passage over the last week, I found myself struggling even more than usual. Right now, I don’t feel very “blessed.” Certainly I know in my head that I have had good fortune. I know that I love my family, and that I’m healthy, and that I am not worried about what we’ll eat tomorrow or next week, and or afraid for my safety. But yet, my heart is heavy.
Diagnosed with depression three years ago, it remains my constant companion. Much of the time, it is something that only nags in the background. Always there, but not at the forefront my life. But over recent weeks and months, this unwelcome companion seems to have set up camp in the center of my life – feeling more like a permanent occupation than a passing presence. It keeps me in bed for hours in the morning and robs my mind of focus and creativity. It leeches joy from the things I love. It empties me.
A common definition for sad is “unhappy.” But I don’t think this is what Jesus means. The weeping he speaks of must be deeper and more intimate. This weeping cannot simply be tears but must be a great wrenching of the soul. A profound grief that threatens hope. An anguish that can only be extinguished by the blessing that comes from God.
And isn’t that grace?
And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. – Romans 5:3-5 (NRSV)
In the depths of depression, my mind must fight against my own mind. I must continually remind myself that God is good; God is near; God loves me. As I lay curled up in bed or staring off into space, I must speak the words my heart cannot grasp in those moments:
Hope does not disappoint.
In the times when depression is only a shadow, my stomach is full, my checking account is plentiful, and I have the good favor of people – I believe Jesus’ beatitudes (both blessings and woes) are a reminder that these words are not just for me. If I am truly discerning the Body of Christ, if I truly believe that in Christ we belong to one another, then I must find myself in constant solidarity with those whose afflictions threaten their hope.
I can’t truly be blessed as these verses describe as long as the needy, the hungry, the wretched, the hated and the excluded are still among us. For it is not really my lack of need that places me in the second group of woe-receivers, but my blindness to the needs of others.
Jesus’ solidarity with the first group went so far as to actually join them during his time on earth. These were his people – not those that were already satisfied in this life. We read in Philippians 2 about this attitude of Jesus:
Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:6-11 (CEB)
This Jesus hymn could be a retelling of the beatitudes. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded of Jesus’ solidarity with those in need. We are reminded that we are in need. The meal represents the joining of those who have, with those who have not. The bread and the cup are our constant reminder that our purpose is not personal satisfaction and comfort but generosity and hospitality – and in all things, to trust in God. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.