Luke 6:17 – 26
Picture this vast throng of people, gathering out here on a flattish piece of ground, somewhere near Nazareth. Some of them have travelled for days to get here! How did they even know where to come? We don’t do this sort of thing now, really put ourselves out in order to go and hear someone speak. We simply catch up with the latest political sound-bite on television news. But years ago, public speaking was an event! People would gather to stand in the open air, not to watch a football match or attend a rock concert; but to listen to long, political speeches. A century ago, David Lloyd George, the Welsh Wizard, could pull thousands to hear him, and be caught up by his oratory. Even President Jimmy Carter’s celebrity status was enough to draw a fair few hundred to hear him speak in central Newcastle, when he visited Tyneside in the late 1970s. Forty years earlier of course, much bigger crowds converged on a town called Nuremburg. The speaker at these rallies had mastered the art of public speaking. His oratory changed the history of the world, and cost the lives of millions.
How does it work, this persuasive, rhetorical manipulation? Get them on your side! Tell them what they want to hear! Explain how all their problems, all the injustices they suffer, all the humiliations they endure, everything that is wrong with their life is the fault of some other group of people! Everything that is wrong with the world can be blamed on this pernicious, malevolent, self-serving minority. Who are not, of course, given a platform from which to put their side of the argument. So if we want to put right whatever is wrong in our lives; if we want to enjoy unnumbered blessings, we need to take back control! We need to deal with these people. We need to implement the final solution. If you know your craft, soaring rhetoric and crowd dynamics will soon deliver you a messianic fervour.
They are already sympathetic to Jesus, these people who gather in Galilee today: they’ve already made all this effort to come out and hear him. They’ve travelled some considerable distance, some of them; they’ve brought lunch, they’ve corralled the children, they’ve made a day of it; and some of them have already been healed. They may even have taken a bit of a risk: large public meetings never pass off un-noticed by those in authority.
So there is a palpable feeling of excitement, a wave of anticipation, as Jesus prepares to preach. The disciples try to make him some space. People begin to settle down, to find a spot from where they can hear, and see, and mull over what’s he’s about to say.
He gathers his thoughts. And gazing round at them all, hushing each other quiet, turning their eager faces to look at him, Jesus begins his address. ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven…’ This is good. The first rule of rhetoric here: he establishes a connexion. He’s on our side, we can already tell. He makes it clear that he understands us, and the pains we suffer. Carry on like this, please.
But Jesus doesn’t do what demagogues down the ages do. Jesus doesn’t blame it all on the Romans, acknowledged villains of the day. ‘Blessed are you who are poor, yes; but woe to you who are rich! Blessed are you who are hungry, but woe to you who are satisfied. Blessed are you who mourn and weep, but woe to you who laugh. Blessed are you who are reviled, certainly; but woe to you who are thought respectable.’
This is not at all what we have come all this way out here to be told! This isn’t about evading responsibility and blaming other people; this is about examining our own lives, and being honest with ourselves! And it’s difficult and perplexing, because it isn’t simple to answer the questions that Jesus is posing. Am I poor, or am I rich? Am I hungry, or am I satiated; am I mourning, or am I complacent? Well, it depends…
Do we begin to mutter to each other, then; and grumble, and begin to drift off home, disenchanted? Most of us probably didn’t come out here to be challenged like this. Most of us probably came to have our prejudices confirmed, our lifestyle affirmed, and excuses found for our failures.
But Jesus’ message today: isn’t this part of why we became disciples, back here, twenty centuries later? Because, unlike so many who compete for our attention, starting movements and influencing the lives of others, Jesus challenges us? Because he’s unfailingly honest about what it means to be human? Because he cuts through our sleight-of-hand that would make too many excuses, and rush to blame others, though we know it is we who need to be changed?
How often do we actually have a deep, honest conversation, even with people we know and love? We can’t discuss Brexit, unless we’re certain that the person we’re speaking to agrees with us, because opposing views about Brexit could spell the end of a beautiful friendship! Ditto, talking about our faith, for many of us. And we could so easily fall out with each other about global warming, about what we should be eating, about how we should be governed. And we could shock and appal each other by delving into how much we drink, about the sort of programmes and films we watch, about how much we spend on a holiday, about the pleasures we enjoy, the fears and worries that trouble us. Even how much we earn, we keep private.
And in much of the Church of England, we don’t go in for sacramental confession, as they do in the Roman Catholic Church. So there is no tradition of owning up to the mistakes we’ve made; or dare I say it, the sins we’ve committed. There is so much that has to tip-toed around; so much that has to be massaged for public consumption, so much that we have to filter or conceal, so much that we don’t open up for discussion. Or honest reflexion. Part of a huge crowd, we stand; but in parts of our lives and our thoughts, we are entirely on our own. And sometimes: it is wearisome.
But we followed Jesus, because he truly knows us. We have no need to wear our public face with him, the mask that helps conceal our inner self from public scrutiny and disapproval. Being truly known. It is a challenge. But it’s also a huge relief. To be truly known is to be truly blessed.