The Sermon on the Plain
The Sermon on the Plain Luke 6:17-26
Bishop Dominic Walker, St Thomas’ 17th February, 2019
1. Forty years ago a film came out called The Life of Brian. It was of course Monty Python’s parody of the life of Jesus and many Christians condemned it and attempted to have it banned and no self-respecting Christian would have gone to see it – but if they had, they would have seen a wonderful sketch where a group of political activists called the Jewish Liberation Front were having an argument about what the Romans had ever done for them.
2. The scene went something like this: One man asked ‘But what have the Romans ever done for us? And someone suggested sanitation and another fresh water aqueducts. ‘But apart from that’ someone asked, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us? Others suggested education, medicine, public order, irrigation, roads and peace. But the original questioner persisted with ‘But apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, fresh water and public baths what have the Romans ever done for us? It is of course, the cry of the poor and the oppressed that political leaders never do anything for them and although The Life of Brian is a parody, there may well have been many in Israel in the time of Jesus who felt that no-one ever did anything for them.
3. There would have been those who were looking for a great warrior king who would raise up an army to defeat the Roman occupiers. Others were looking for a Messiah who would usher in an age of holiness but the ordinary folk – those who were poor, or sick or on the margins would not have expected their lot to be changed so they must have been astonished to hear the teachings of Jesus that turned the values of the world upside down. Not only that – but he had credibility because they had seen him heal the sick and seen him drawing the crowds.
4. Today’s Gospel is a summery of this world turned upside down and the words are familiar because they echo the teaching from the Sermon on the Mount with a series of Blessing (Beatitudes) and Woes. Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God, Blessed are you who are hungry now for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now for you will laugh and Blessed are you when people hate you, exclude, revile and defame you. Rejoice for great is your reward in heaven. And then there are the Woes – Woe to you who are rich for you have received your consolation, woe to you who are fed for you will be hungry, woe to you who are laughing now for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you.
5. So what are we to make of all that because we don’t believe that there is anything virtuous in being poor, hungry, or to be mourning or persecuted – and what about those of us who are not poor and even rich by some standards and who are well fed and enjoy a good laugh? Well, it would be very easy to misinterpret this teaching.
6. You may understand it as saying that in the next world the tables will be turned so the poor will be rich and the rich will be poor. The hungry will be fed and those who are fed will be hungry. If you had a Mercedes in this life you will have a bicycle in the next; if you visit food banks in this life, you will dine in gourmet restaurants in the next. Indeed, some religions teach something like that, so they believe that how and when you are reincarnated will depend on what kind of life you have lived here. If you are rich and mean in this life you will come back to earth poor and despised and so you are punished or rewarded in the next life according to how you lived this life. There is in that something of a double whammy because if you are poor or disabled it is punishment for the way you lived your previous life and now you have to beg, and people give alms to beggars because next time round they fear that it could happen to them. But of course Christians do not believe in reincarnation.
7. The key I believe to understanding today’s gospel is to recognise that the poor, the hungry and those who mourn and those who are persecuted are often close to God because they have nowhere else to turn in their need. We sometimes hear desperate people on the news saying that they can only turn to God for help whereas the rich, the well fed and the satisfied often feel that they have no need for God – life is just fine and they never give God a thought – but Jesus is saying that the state of blessedness is to know your need for God and that by crying out to him we shall be fed, looked after and comforted.
8. Now it would be very easy for us just to sit back and say well we shall always have the poor with us and if they are blessed we don’t need to help them but of course the point is that we are called as Christians to work with God to be a blessing to others – as St Teresa of Avila famously said God has no hands but our hands, no feet but our feet and ours are the hands with which he blesses the world and our eyes are the eyes with which he looks with compassion upon the world – and elsewhere Jesus teaches us that when we visit the sick, feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger and visit those in prison we are doing it not only for him – but to him as well – because he dwells in the hearts of those who in their need cry out to him. Our task is to recognise Christ in them and to bless them, not out of fear that we could end up like them, but out of love. Amen.