17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 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.
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 “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. 26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Jesus is creating a new standard for what it means to be blessed. The religious elites of his day had convinced themselves that they deserved more than others, because their status in society aligned them closer to God. Maybe because they studied hard. Or because their family lineage was stellar. Or simply because it was their job to pray, to maintain temple standards, to be a visible likeness of God in the world. Have you ever faced that feeling yourself? I’m deserving of what I have, I worked hard, I’m important, I maintain standards. These feelings aren’t inherently bad or even wrong (it’s true- we work hard, right?). It’s when we allow these attitudes to divide us from others that becomes problematic.
How so? Well here’s one poor person you’re pulling away from with that logic. Jesus: He comes from nothing. He is a REFUGE. He doesn’t own a home or land or anything that would make him important in our day. And he is still the SON OF GOD. Jesus comes to set the record straight for you, for me, for anyone who thinks they are more worthy than another because of material wealth. True blessing is found not in earthly wealth or prosperity. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
We know Jesus desires all of us to have enough, not to be poor. He says it like this: I have come so you may have LIFE and have it in abundance. Enough food, enough friends, enough purpose, enough to live fully. I also know Jesus could smell excess a mile away (case in point: those religious elites of his day). You know the problem with having too much? It deceives us into thinking we’re self-sufficient. Maybe we start to believe we don’t even need God. This is the lie Jesus confronts when he preaches to those who are rich. He shakes us free from this false sense of security in earthly wealth. No matter how much we own, it’s never enough to save us; heck, it may even hinder our wellbeing.
I love the gospel; I’m also fascinated by science. As it turns out, Jesus teaches us what science tells us over 2000 years later. Excess wealth is NOT a predictor of happiness.
According to a study called “The Psychology of Wealth” published in 2014 in the Journal of Financial Planning, “The strongest predictor of financial satisfaction is the level of material desires one has, and his or her ability to afford them (Johnson and Krueger). As such, psychological perceptions about financial matters may be more important to life satisfaction than the actual financial matters themselves.”
Or as Fred Rogers says, “It’s not so much what we have in this life that matters. It’s what we do with what we have.” In 21st Century America, many of us (even in the lower tax brackets) have MORE than any human society in history. It makes a difference to acknowledge that for many of us, what we have IS ALREADY enough.
Even still, income inequality continues to be a real thing. According to research published in a 2009 Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, “ Inequalities in wealth are strongly associated with psychological distress, over and above other demographic variables and baseline health status.”
Fred Rogers offers a remedy: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”
What does all this mean? Having enough improves our wellbeing, something Jesus is concerned about. Keep in mind, he’s also concerned about our neighbors, every blessed one of them. Having too much becomes a distraction from what truly matters, if we let it. As humans, the more we have, the better we become at hoarding. We can also become pretty judgy about who is and is not deserving of nice things. I absolutely can.
Jesus comes to set the record straight for anyone who thinks they are more worthy than another because of material wealth. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” If we spend our lives chasing “more,” we will always come up hungry in the end. BUT, if we allow what we’ve been given to flow freely- meeting our needs AND the needs of others around us, we won’t be tempted to hoard. We won’t be deceived by the lie that we are more worthy of wealth than another. Giving in grace saves us from coming up empty-hearted in the end.
Are we Christians perfect at it? Of course not, but the most dedicated and selfless folks I know give freely of themselves and their resources. And they’re also the happiest people I’ve ever met. This church is home to many of you. Thank you for extending yourselves each week for our local non-profits. It’s been such a life-giving experience for me to witness all this generosity. We give to others because we believe what Christ offers us is already enough. Remember, even if others think you’re crazy for living so generously, Jesus says, “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven!” Amen and amen.
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Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.