February 17, 2019, Living the Good Life – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000120
What is the “Good Life”? When you think about those things that are top of the list for a happy and successful life, what are they? What are the basic things your parents hoped and prayed for you, as you went out into the world all those years ago; the things that you worked and planned and longed for; the things you hope and pray now for the young people you care about – children or grandchildren, nieces or nephews?
If we’re honest, financial security is pretty high on the list. How much of the blood, sweat and tears of our young adulthood was spent on finding jobs or studying for a career or just keeping our heads above water – or a combination of all of that – to achieve a certain level of financial stability. I am pretty sure that at least ninety per cent of the anxiety our parents, Carroll’s and mine both, suffered on our account had to do with our finances. And any parent comes to sympathize with that. You want your child to be wise about their finances. You advise them not to take out huge student loans or credit cards. You tell them to pay as they go, and work for what they want, so they can avoid debt and put a little money aside for the future. Avoiding poverty is pretty basic for the Good Life.
And the reason we work and worry so much about finances, is because the Good Life means having our basic needs met – food, clothing, a roof over our heads. And we tend to throw in other things that are sort of essential. But the truth is, human beings have basic needs, and as painful as it is to go without those things as an individual, it is even more terrible if we aren’t able to provide those basic things for our family. It is a terrible thing to see your child go hungry, or not to be able to provide a place for them to live, or adequate medical care.
Because everyone, at the most basic level, wants to be happy. The Good Life means choosing those things that we think will make us happy – the person we marry, the place where we settle down, the work we do, the things we surround ourselves with. And in the end, what we want most for our children, too, is for them to be happy. They might do some things that seem foolish – that’s the other 10 per cent of that parental anxiety. They make really different choices than you would have chosen for them – if they had been wise enough to let you choose. But the bottom line is generally that if you see that your son’s or your daughter’s choices, of education or career or marriage have truly made them happy, you are OK with that. We say that to them: “We just want you to be happy.” And mostly, we mean it.
And finally, for the Good Life we all have a deep-seated desire for people to think well of us. That becomes abundantly clear when we have a family – we really want other people to recognize how excellent they are – our son, daughter, niece, nephew, grandchild – we want others to see how great they’re turning out, how hard they work, how creative and talented and smart and kind they are. Why do you think we pack our wallets full of their photographs? Nobody hates having a chance to pull out those pictures and brag a little – or a lot. We treasure in our hearts every word of praise we hear people speak about our kid. And if we are honest, we desire that kind of affirmation for ourselves as well.
Poverty, hunger, grief, hatred and rejection – if we throw in life-threatening illnesses, that makes a pretty all-inclusive list of what is not the Good Life – everything our parents hoped and prayed would never happen to us, everything we worked so hard and planned so carefully so that it wouldn’t happen to us or to any of the people we love and care about. And that is why we should really sit up and take notice when we hear what Jesus has to say today. Because he seems to be saying that the very things we avoid at all cost, the very things we hope our children will never suffer – poverty, hunger, sorrow, and hate – that these are qualities that belong to the people he calls “Blessed” or “Happy”.
“Happy are you, you poor people. Happy are you, you hungry people. Happy are you people who are sad, who are weeping. Happy are you, you who are the butt of everyone’s jokes. Happy are you who get left out every time. Happy are you when people hate you, and spread rumors about you.”
Is Jesus crazy? Or is he just so spiritual that he is out of touch with reality? Or is it just some kind of spiritual metaphor? What is he really saying?
I think one of the most harmful ways people have misunderstood the beatitudes is to think that Jesus is saying that there is something inherently noble about suffering. If a person’s life really stinks here on earth, if everything turns against them, and they never catch a break, then they get some kind of extra spiritual brownie points that will pay off big some day, when they get to heaven. But it’s easy to think that’s exactly what he is saying. Blessed are those who are poor now, because later, they get the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who are hungry now, because they will be filled. Some day. Blessed are those who weep now, because they will laugh. Eventually. It’s a blessing when people are hated and rejected and mocked, because they will get a reward in heaven.”
But there are at least two huge problems with understanding Jesus this way. First of all, it tends to be dishonest. If we actually believed that’s what Jesus meant, it would mean that nobody in their right mind would really want God’s blessing. When we think of the poor that Jesus is talking about, we might imagine all those barefoot Jewish peasants, or pictures we have see of poor children in foreign countries. We can think about suffering at a comfortable distance. But what about our children and grandchildren, our selves, our own flesh and blood? If a life of pain and misery leads to God’s blessing in the end, are we wrong to be hoping and praying that we and our children will have Good Lives, free of poverty, and free of want, and free of sorrow (as much as possible), and free of being mistreated? But of course we hope those things, because we love our kids, with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. Of course, we want what is best for them, as well as for ourselves.
But the other, and even bigger problem with this understanding is that it lacks compassion. Can we really believe that our Lord Jesus looked out over that crowd and told them, “I see you, tired and sick and dressed in rags. I hear your children crying because their bellies ache with hunger. I see the tears on your faces. I’ve seen the way people curse you and spit at you and throw stones at you to get you to move along and stop cluttering the streets of their villages. But I’m here to tell you, it’s all OK. Just you wait. When you get to heaven, believe me, it’s all going to be great.”
But we know enough about Jesus to know that he never failed to reach out in compassion. He touched lepers when they called out for his help, even though it was against the law for lepers to come anywhere near respectable people. He struck up conversations with women, which scandalized his disciples. He invited himself to lunch at the house of a nasty little tax collector. When his disciples tried to keep things a little calmer by shooing away the kids, Jesus rebuked them. “Let the children come to me, don’t stop them.” For Jesus, nobody was ever beneath his notice; no one was ever beyond his healing touch. Nobody was a hopeless case. Nobody was beneath the notice of the kingdom. Because the kingdom had come among those people, in the flesh – and Jesus had taken notice of them, in their sickness, in their poverty, in their sadness and hopelessness.
Luke says that those thousands of people had come – and some of them had had to walk for hundreds of miles to be there – they had come all that way just so they could hear Jesus’ voice, so they could get near enough to touch him, because “power came out of him and healed all of them.” The sick and the demon-possessed; the poor, the hungry, the sorrowing, the reviled and rejected – they were all blessed, every one. But they weren’t blessed because of their misery. They were blessed, they were happy, because in their suffering and in their need they had found Jesus. The good news of the kingdom is that no one is beyond beatitude. Anyone can reach the kingdom of God – and it can reach anyone. Not in the “sweet bye and bye” when we die, not when we are finally good enough, but here, now, wherever and whoever we are. Because the kingdom is wherever Jesus is. It belongs to anyone who will receive it. And that is the real Good Life.
But Jesus continues with a warning. To some people in that crowd, Jesus called out a warning instead of a blessing. “Woe to you who are rich now, for you have already received your consolation,” he told them. “Woe to you who are already full, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you; the false prophets received the same treatment.”
The poor, the sick, the hopeless, the despised – they were first in the kingdom because by their very hopelessness and neediness they were ready at once to receive Jesus. But those who had no need received no blessing. Healing is a gift for the sick, not the healthy. Those who have filled their own bellies don’t need to be fed. We should be careful to hear Jesus’ warning today, in this society of ours. We have been brought up to consider self-sufficiency one of the very highest virtues. We have been taught from a very young age to be ashamed or afraid to admit how needy and hopeless we really are. Most of us here have arrived at some version of the Good Life we worked so hard to achieve. Happy and blessed are we when we admit that in reality, we are all still hopeless cases. Only then can we come to Jesus in our poverty. Only then can we be healed.
It isn’t wrong to pray and hope and work for the best for ourselves and our children. But it is more important to be people of compassion. Let us be assured that no amount of poverty or hunger or sorrow or hate or disgrace can ever rob anyone of the true happiness that Jesus offers. But let us also heed his warning: it is possible for us to blind ourselves to the joy he offers us by our affluence and our comfort and our dependence on the approval of the world. It is possible that in seeking the Good Life we could miss out on the very Best Life. Blessed and happy are if we remember these things.