Blessing and Woe
Blessing and Woe
I’ve been a swimmer for almost my entire life. I swam competitively through high school. My “main event” was the 100 yard Backstroke, but I was also part of a medley relay team, swimming the backstroke lap. A medley relay team is made up of four swimmers, who take turns swimming 50 or 100 yards each of backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle. In high school we had an “A Team” made up of experience upperclassmen and a “B Team” of less experienced underclassmen. Part of the job of the A Team swimmers was to work with the coach to train the B Team so that in a year or two they could become the A Team.
We had forty or fifty swimmers on the high school team, but every year, a few weeks before the first competition, our coach would start watching us closely and would then pick four of us to makeup the new B Team for that year. Everyone knew what the coach was up to when he gathered that little group of us because each of those four was particularly good at one of the four medley strokes. He’d then start us practising with the A Team and coaching us himself, watching each of us and giving us a few specific pointers to help us prepare for competition as a team. The coach didn’t dump everything on us at once, but he coached us in the importance of swimming as a team and especially the things that were different when swimming in a relay. It was a big deal, because the relay wasn’t just another event in competition. The relay teams represented the whole team; we were the best at each of the four competition strokes. The relay teams were the senior members of the whole swim team. When someone needed help with a particular stroke, the coach would ask the appropriate relay team member to help them.
Today we’ll be moving into a new section of St. Luke’s Gospel, beginning with 6:12. Jesus is choosing his “team”. More specifically, he’s choosing his team leaders. And just as everyone on the swim team knew what was happening when the coach picked four people, each one of the best at the strokes swum in the medley relay, everyone could see what Jesus was up to as he chose specifically twelve men from amongst his disciples. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look at 6:12-16.
In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
From amongst this large group of disciples whom Jesus had gathered, he chooses specifically twelve to be apostles. We might think of twelve as arbitrary: Maybe Jesus chose twelve because there happened to be twelve men in the group that he noticed would make particularly good apostles. But that’s not it. There’s nothing arbitrary about the number twelve. Just as my high school coach choosing four boys and girls particularly good, one each, when it came to the four medley strokes and everyone knowing that he was choosing them for a relay team, so any Jew of Jesus’ day understood the significance of his calling twelve men to be his inner circle. You see, part of what it meant to be an Israelite was to be a member of one of the twelve tribes descended from the twelve sons of Jacob. God had elected, he had chosen, he had called those twelve men to be the representative fathers of his chosen people, of Israel. And now Jesus has come onto the scene. He’s declared himself to be Daniel’s “Son of Man”—the eternal King and Messiah in whom the hopes of Israel, those twelve tribes, had been placed. And he’s also come proclaiming the establishment of a new kingdom. So in light of all that, everyone understood what was happening. In electing and calling these twelve men, Jesus is creating a new group of leaders for God’s people and that means that Jesus is not just proclaiming, but also establishing a new kingdom: a new Israel. Some people were no doubt excited at this prospect. The long-awaited King had come. Some people were upset. From their perspective Jesus was doing something that they might have seen as blasphemous. Almost everyone was probably a little bit confused by it. But everyone got the gist: Jesus was inaugurating his kingdom reign. Either disbelieve and oppose him or believe and submit in faith. Those were the only two responses possible.
In the way he tells the story, Luke put even more stress on this new kingdom as a new Israel. Notice that he tells us that Jesus went up to a mountain to pray. He was in communication with God. And coming down he chooses the twelve and then begins to teach them. In doing this, Luke deliberately paints Jesus as a new Moses. Think back to the Exodus. God led his people into the wilderness, to Mount Sinai, and then called Moses up the mountain. For forty days Moses was on the mountain with God and when he came down he brought the law, carved on tablets of stone, for the people. That law—the torah—was the charter and the constitution of Israel. It was at Sinai where the Lord called Israel into covenant with himself, made them his people, and gave them their mission to be a light to the gentiles. Jesus’ actions now parallel those of Moses. He goes up to the mountain, he consults his Father, and when he comes down he’s ready to establish his new people. He chooses twelve leaders and, as we’ll see in the verses ahead, he teaches them his new “law”—this time a law of love and a law of faith.
As far as what it meant to be called an “apostle”, Luke doesn’t flesh that out until the book of Acts. That’s where we see the apostles really take on their role as the leaders of the new kingdom. The general Greek meaning of the word “apostle” has the sense of being an envoy. For Greek-speaking Jews familiar with the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it had the added sense of referring to commissioned agents being sent out to represent someone in authority and with equal authority to the one who sent them. The Jewish Mishnah describes it this way: “The one sent by the man is as the man himself.” That gives us a sense of both the responsibility Jesus was placing on these twelve men as well as the authority he was giving them as apostles.
A few of them we’ve seen before in the story: Simon Peter, James, John, and possibly Matthew. The others are new. What interesting is that Luke tells us that all of them were chosen by Jesus after going up to the mountain to pray—to consult with his Father—and yet Judas is amongst them. Luke hints at future betrayal, but also reminds us here that even that betrayal took place within the bounds of God’s sovereignty. Judas’ election as one of the apostles wasn’t a mistake. Simon gets the most attention here. Luke tells us that Jesus renamed him Peter. Peter (or Petros) means “rock”. This is the rock on which Jesus will build his new kingdom, his new Israel. But what does that mean? Think of Peter. Notice that even in what little we’ve seen of him, he’s a man who hears and then does. He listens to Jesus and then follows through with it; he’s a man of faith. We’ll see more of that as the story plays out. But the point is that it’s on people like Peter—people who hear and do—that Jesus is building his kingdom. Brothers and sisters, remember that as get into Jesus’ teaching: he is building his kingdom on people who hear him and who then in faith do what he says.
Look now at verses 17-19:
And 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 and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all.
This new apostolic “team” needs instruction. I think again of swimming on the medley team. Backstroke and butterfly, breaststroke and freestyle; they don’t change just because they’re part of a relay. They’re the same old strokes. But you nevertheless swim differently as part of a team than as an individual. In the case of Jesus’ new kingdom, most of the familiar aspects of the old kingdom will be part of the new kingdom, but the two kingdoms are still very different. The problem Jesus faced was that the norms of the old kingdom—summed in circumcision, dietary regulations, and Sabbath observance—had been institutionalised as a way of distinguishing insiders from outsiders and especially of keeping outsiders on the outside. “Team Jesus” needs their thinking on kingdom norms reoriented. Specifically, they need to have their thinking reoriented around Jesus. And it’s not just a matter of thinking; it’s a matter of doing. Think again of Simon. Jesus changed his name to Peter. Jesus made him “Mr. Rock”: the man who not only hears what Jesus has to say, but who puts it into practise, who reorients not only his mind around Jesus, but reorients his actions—his whole life—around Jesus, too.
So far in the story we’ve seen Jesus healing outsiders and in the process inviting them to become insiders. We’ve seen him eating with tax collectors and sinners—again, people who were outsiders—but as Jesus redraws the boundaries of the kingdom around himself, he invites these people in. And now we see him gathering his people to teach them and consider how diverse the crowd is. His new apostles are there in the front row, but Luke says there were people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem several day’s journey away, and even from Tyre and Sidon, which were largely gentile cities. In Jesus, God’s grace is reaching wide and far afield. Everyone is welcome in the new kingdom, but if you want to be part of it you can’t simply name Jesus as Lord with your lips; like Peter, your whole life needs to be reoriented around him in obedience.
Luke even sets up this expectation with more Moses parallels. Moses came down the mountain with the law of the Lord written on stone tablets and the people, hearing the law responded: “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 24:3). That’s the expectation Luke sets up here. Jesus comes down like Moses and delivers a new law. Will we do what the Lord has spoken?
Look at verses 20 to 26. Jesus begins his teaching with four blessings and then four parallel curses. (Note that this is just the beginning. We’ll get to the rest of his teaching in the coming weeks.)
And he lifted up his eyes on 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 shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers 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 shall be hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
Let me say first—and I can’t stress this strongly enough—these blessings and woes aren’t Jesus’ way of giving us a new kind of morality or ethics. He’s not simply saying that rich people need to give a hand to poor people. This isn’t a new way of being a do-gooder. This is a description of Jesus’ kingdom and of a whole new way of ordering the world. This is, to use a technical theological term, eschatology—a Greek term that means the “study of the last things or of the last days. What Jesus gives us here is a vision of the “last days” or the “age to come”. It’s a vision of the hope of Israel; it’s a vision of the new kingdom; it’s a vision of the world reoriented around the Messiah. It’s everything the Jews had been hoping for without realising it—because they’d misunderstood the Messiah and his kingdom. Again, this is a description of life in the new kingdom, in the new Israel. But notice that it is not future; it is very much here and now and present in Jesus. Brothers and sisters, this is the “age to come”, but it’s now here. And that means that Jesus’ people will live exactly the sort of life he describes here. Again, this isn’t for the future. Jesus is describing his kingdom today.
First, Jesus shows us the “poor” over against the “rich”. Remember that these are more than just economic terms. Jesus has shown us that the “poor” are ultimately the “outsiders”: the sick, the unclean, the possessed, tax collectors and sinners. Jesus is redrawing the kingdom boundaries and inviting them inside. Jesus came to heal, to make clean, and to forgive so that those outside God’s salvation might be welcomed in. This had been the mission of the Jews going back to Sinai and even back to Abraham. They were to be a light and God’s means of blessing to the gentile nations. They’d been entrusted with a “letter” offering reconciliation with God—a letter that they were supposed to carry to the nations. But Israel kept the letter to herself. She made it a source for her own security and a means to judge, condemn, and ultimately keep everyone else on the outside. Now Jesus has come to fulfil that failed mission. He’s come to open the letter and proclaim its saving contents not only in Israel, but to the whole world. And so the rich had better watch out. All those who find their security in wealth or in power or in social status or even in their covenantal status as Jews—all those who are “rich”, all those who part of what we might call the “in crowd” had better watch out. As Jesus redraws the kingdom boundaries, they may well find themselves suddenly on the outside.
The hungry and the full parallel the poor and the rich. Jesus is now drawing on the imagery of the great age of plenty or the great feast everyone expected to come with the Messiah. Micah described the Messianic age in terms of every man sitting under his own vine and his own fig tree (4:4). Isaiah wrote of the Lord preparing a feast of rich food and well-aged wine (25:6). And Jesus warns: Those who come to me will be filled, but those who are full already—like the “rich” who trust in themselves and in the ways of the old kingdom—they will find themselves hungry and outside the great new kingdom banquet.
Jesus then carries the parallel to the weeping and the laughing. In biblical Greek, in both testaments, this word for laughing usually refers to a sort of haughty or foolish laughter. It’s laughing at someone, not with someone—it’s laughter at someone else’s expense. And in biblical language, to weep or to mourn is what you do in response to rejection and to loss—to being an outsider. Jesus’ point is that those who, in the old kingdom, were rejected, who were lost, who were on the outside and weeping are now invited into the redrawn boundaries of the new kingdom. The Good News is being declared to them. But the flip-side of that good news is that all those who are secure inside the old boundaries had better watch out. Again, they just may find themselves suddenly on the outside of Jesus’ redrawn boundaries, weeping and gnashing their teeth!
Then, finally, in the fourth blessing and curse, Jesus cuts right to the heart of the matter. Again remember that the “Age to Come” has been inaugurated by Jesus. The “Present Evil Age” is passing away, but that doesn’t mean it won’t put up a fight on its way out. The Jews expected the Messiah to come and end the Present Evil Age by destroying all opposition in one fell swoop and in doing so to usher in the Age to Come. But God didn’t do that. The Jews had kept his message of reconciliation to themselves. They started seeing the pagan gentiles as the enemy when, in fact, sin and death were the real enemies—and enemies of both Jew and gentile. Because Israel had kept God’s saving message to herself, the gentile nations hadn’t heard it. Salvation was supposed to be for everyone. And so Jesus came and defeated sin and death. He dealt a death-blow to the Present Evil Age, and ushered in the Age to Come, but he didn’t destroy the outsiders and enemies of God in that one fell swoop. Instead, he inaugurated the new age in such a way as to give time for the letter, stuck in Israel’s post office, so to speak, to once again make its way to the world. He’s come to inaugurate a kingdom of grace by giving an opportunity to all the outsiders and all the enemies of God to join him in his new kingdom. But that also means that in this “in between” time, as Jesus’ people carry his message to the world, they (we) will face persecution. And so Jesus warns and exhorts his people at the same time. “Blessed are you when people hate, exclude, revile, and call you evil on my account. Yes, it’s going to happen and it won’t be pleasant. But when it happens, don’t mourn. Rejoice! You may not realise it in the midst of persecution, but your persecution is evidence of your faithfulness in following me.”
Consider that already, even at the beginning of the story, we’ve seen Jesus interrogated, rebuked, and reviled by the Pharisees. He ate and drank with sinners, he plucked grain on the Sabbath, and he healed on the Sabbath. In doing those things he showed—he lived out—the new kingdom, the new Israel. The Pharisees didn’t like it because they were entrenched in and found their security and their “inside” status in the old kingdom. They couldn’t accept Jesus’ redrawing of the kingdom boundaries and so they reviled him. And as we all know, it’s going to get much, much worse for Jesus as the story unfolds. And yet as Jesus was vindicated by his Father in his resurrection, Jesus’ people—you and me—will be vindicated too. Even as we are persecuted and perhaps even martyred on account of Jesus, we are still those made rich, filled, and laughing in the new kingdom. And Jesus reminds us of the faithful prophets who delivered God’s rebukes to Israel and the nations: People entrenched in the old ways—the people rich, full, and laughing today—can’t stand the thought of anyone upsetting their values and their kingdom. It was those people who persecuted the prophets, but God has vindicated the prophets and he will vindicate you too. Persecution becomes a cause for joy because it authenticates our being Jesus’ people; it authenticates the hope we have in him.
And, on the other hand, he says, “Woe to you—beware—if you’re not persecuted.” Jesus’ people, if they’re truly living out his kingdom, will invite opposition and persecution. If the people who are rich, full, and laughing today are speaking well of you, then you aren’t living out Jesus’ values; you’re living out the values of the evil age that’s passing away. Woe to you, because one day you’re going to find yourself on the outside.
Brothers and sisters, we need to ask if we’re hearing and living out these kingdom values. Are we like Peter, not only hearing Jesus, but doing what Jesus has said? That’s the rock on which Jesus is building his kingdom. It’s a struggle. We still live in this in-between time. The new age is here, but the old age hasn’t quite died yet. It’s tempting to join with the old kingdom so that we’re rich, fat, and happy today and so that no one speaks ill of us. It’s even tempting to convert the church into just such a society: a social club that hears what Jesus has to say, but ignores it. We’ve been given the letter containing God’s message of grace and reconciliation made manifest Jesus. Our mission is to carry it to the world. But it’s very easy now that we’ve received it and benefitted from its message to keep it to ourselves. It’s easy to hunker down in the church, fearing the world’s condemnation, waiting and praying for Jesus to come back and bring the old kingdom to an end—to wait and pray for him to come back and smite all the sexually immoral people out there, all the followers of false religions and false gods, all of our “haters”. But that was the mistake Israel made. That’s how she failed in her mission. Our calling is to proclaim to the world that Jesus is Lord, that he has conquered sin and death, that his kingdom is here and now, and that in acknowledging and submitting to his lordship, all those outsiders may have a place in his kingdom. As Jesus brought healing to the leper and welcomed tax collectors and sinners, inviting them to become insiders, so our mission is to go to the outsiders of our own community with the message of grace, forgiveness and healing that has already transformed us. It’s to invite all those still subject to sin and to death to come in faith to Jesus that they might be cleansed, forgiven and made free to live in holiness and new life.
Let us pray: Lord Jesus, thank you for the gifts of forgiveness and new life that you’ve given us through your death and resurrection. Teach us to follow you as Peter did, being not only hearers of your words, but doers of them. Teach us to see those outside your kingdom the way that you do. Let us never keep your grace to ourselves, but give us a love for sinners and courage to share your grace even in the face of persecution. We ask this in your name. Amen.