Blessings and Woes
While it does not seem like it at first glance, our passage really is a Christmas text. The themes that are addressed here are basic to Luke’s story of Jesus and so he began to develop those themes with the telling of the birth of Christ. You will recall that the angel Gabriel had gone to Nazareth to tell Mary that she was to bear the Messiah. With his birth the kingdom of God would be inaugurated.
What would characterize that kingdom? We begin to learn of that when Mary goes to stay with her cousin Elizabeth who was at the time six months into the pregnancy that would culminate in the birth of John the Baptist. After receiving a powerful greeting from Elizabeth, Mary launched into the song that has become known as the Magnificat. Among other things she said of God,
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53).
In other words, the coming of the kingdom of God was to bring about a great reversal. The poor, the hungry, the mournful, and the persecuted would be blessed. The rich, the full, the laughing, and those well spoken of were to be pitied because they would stand under the judgment of God [see I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 255].
This is all so opposite of the way that the world thinks, but then that is exactly the point. Listen to how Malcolm Tolbert put it.
Blessed denotes the happiness or good fortune of those who receive God’s salvation. In the beatitudes Jesus defines what happiness is. But he does so in a way that completely contradicts the ideas and values of a materialistic, sensual society which equates happiness with house, car, or bank account [Malcolm O. Tolbert, “Luke,” Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol. 9 (Nashville: Broadman, 1970), p. 58].
This series of woes, found only in Luke, is a prophetic condemnation of the limited perspective of people who are controlled by purely secular values. Jesus declares that the miserable, unfortunate people are those who are rich, who are full now, and who laugh now [Tolbert, p. 60].
How do we think about all of this? There are perils along the way, after all. There is nothing inherently good about being poor or being hungry or being mournful or being persecuted. There is nothing inherently evil about being rich or being full or laughing or being well thought of. Indeed, we have to be very careful not to say something that this text does not say; we can’t draw the conclusion that poor people are better off than rich people and so let’s keep them poor and we can’t draw the conclusion that rich people are destined to be lost and so let’s just write them off. That’s not what is going on here.
I believe that it all boils down to your choice of citizenship: of what kingdom are you going to be a citizen, the kingdom of this world or the kingdom of God? Are you going to be inside the kingdom of God or outside it? Are you going to be saved or lost? Who are you going to be? On what are you going to base your life? These are the important questions; these are matters of life and death.
It may be that the first beatitude and the first woe in their respective series are meant to control the way that we look at what is being said here. The first beatitude says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (v. 20). The first woe says, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (v. 24). The difference is a matter of reality and then a matter of perspective.
The poor, Jesus says, belong to the kingdom of God now, in the present. That is the reality. Their perspective is that they have come to understand that they are utterly dependent on God for life and for eternal life. They are able to understand that because they are unable to secure much for themselves.
The rich, on the other hand, “have received their consolation.” That is, they have settled for the kingdom of this world; that is their reality. Their perspective is that they have secured what they have for themselves and they have convinced themselves that it is enough. What they can get for themselves is enough.
How sad. How limiting.
Again, this does not mean that poor people are automatically in the kingdom of God and that rich people are automatically excluded. Rather it means that if you are a citizen of the kingdom of God then no matter what your circumstances are you will still know the truth and act in light of it.
No matter how rich you are, you will still know how truly needy you actually are.
No matter how full you are, you will still how know how dependent on God you are for absolutely everything, especially the things that matter the most.
No matter how happy you feel over your personal circumstances you will still be mournful over your sins and over the state of the world and the problems of the people in it. A Christian must mourn as long as there is one hurting or lost or lonely or desperate soul on the planet, and there are in fact billions. Even when people speak well of you the knowledge that you are one unpopular stand or one faithful act away from losing that popularity is never far away from you.
Blessed are the realists, blessed are those who know the truth about themselves, God, and the world, we might say.
And woe to those who will always have their heads in the sand.