Today I would like to invite you to join me in reflecting on the gospel lection during the sermon time. I will first offer you a contemporary theological interpretation of the Gospel. Then, to the accompaniment of music, individually we will quietly reflect on what we have heard. The question I would like us to consider is: “Who should be the first recipients of Jesus’ blessings in Vancouver today?”
Two weeks ago, after our celebrations of the Lunar New Year, Catharine Chu wrote many Chinese characters on the beautiful calligraphy paper. Catharine learned calligraphy in Taiwan before she came to Canada and she writes beautifully. With my limited knowledge of Chinese characters, I tried to understand the meaning of her chosen characters. I think they are all related to blessings and best wishes for the New Year. Certainly, Catharine blessed us with her beautiful calligraphy. We were reminded that we are all blessed by each other and that we will be blessings to others.
When people of European background greet each other at the beginning of the new year, we usually say “Happy New Year.” When people of Asian heritage greet each other during the lunar New Year celebrations, we share blessings too. According to Korean cultural customs, we may share a rather lengthy ritual. During the Lunar New Year celebrations, as Stephany and I showed you, we may give or receive a Korean bow (sabae 세배); the younger members of the family bow to the older members of the family. After the sebae, usually performed in Korean dress, the two parties share spoken blessings.
Blessing is an intentional, deliberate act by speech or gesture whereby one person expresses one’s concerns for another person’s wellbeing. In our Judeo-Christian culture, we bid God’s blessing as a way of celebrating God’s good and fruitful world. We believe that God worries about our well-being and straightens up the mess so that all of groaning creation including human beings will be set free.
Out of God’s concern for cleaning up the mess, Jesus shares God’s blessing with the gathered people. In his famous sermon on the plain, Jesus speaks about “Blessings and Woes” (Luke 6:20-26). Today’s scripture reading is well-known, but it has been overshadowed by Matthew’s version, “the Sermon on the Mount” (5:1-12). It is unfortunate that Luke’s Beatitudes, probably closer to Jesus’ original speech, is hidden behind the more frequently read record in Matthew’s gospel.
In Matthew’s version of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, Jesus goes up into the mountain and his disciples join him. In his sermon, Jesus delivers his message to his hand-picked disciples like a party leader speaks to his or her fellow MPs in the caucus. This is a closed gathering on the mountain: let’s keep in mind that it was held on the mountain. According to Matthew, in the first line, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). Matthew spiritualizes “the poor” in Jesus’ sermon by saying: “the poor in spirit.” When poverty is spiritualized there may be no critical reflection of the suffering of economically destitute people. In Matthew’s version, the poor are not necessary economically poor.
With this in mind, let us return to today’s reading. Luke reports that Jesus’ sermon takes place not on the mountain but on a level place and is not intended only for his disciples but for a great multitude of people. The real difference between Luke and Matthew is that Luke does not spiritualize the poor. According to Luke Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (6:20).
At this point my main concern is the meaning of “poor” in the time of Jesus. When Jesus speaks about the poor, he uses the Greek word πτωξος (ptochos). It is commonly translated as poor in English. However, the meaning of ptochosis different from the translated English word “poor.” Typically, the Greek word ptochosdenotes absolute destitution. As theologian John Dominic Crossan says, “The poor man has to work hard but has always enough to survive, while the beggar has nothing at all.” Jesus, in other words, does not declare the lower class in general to be blessed, but he specifically blesses the homeless, the afflicted, the outcasts, those with no means of self-sufficiency.So, Jesus does not simply bless the poor, since if they work hard they have a chance to improve their lives; Jesus blesses the destitute such as beggars, for they have no hope for the future.
Last week I learned a saying from Linda and David Wang describing this situation: “水深火热”[“shuǐ shēn huǒ rè”] (“the water is deep and the fire is hot”). The meaning describes the situation of those who live everyday deep in the abyss of misery or suffering. I relate it to the context of people who live without hope for tomorrow.
As we began our journey through this season of Epiphany we heard the voice upon Jesus’ baptism declaring: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). And we were reminded of Jesus’ declaration of Jubilee in his first sermon: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor (ptochos)” (Luke 4:18). And then, from last week’s reading, we remember Jesus’ concern over those who are in “deep water” (Luke 5:1-11). Now he radicalizes his message to those who are destitute. For the destitute there is no help, only God. So, in Luke’s Beatitudes Jesus blesses the poor; he becomes their mother and father for them.
Now we will have a time of reflection, accompanied by music. After listening to the music, I would like to invite you to share with us your thoughts about who the FIRST recipients of Jesus’ blessings should be in Vancouver today.
Now would you turn to your neighbour and share with each other? Who you think should be the first recipients of Jesus’ blessings in Vancouver today?
John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography(HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 62.