When it comes to art history, I’m pretty much a beginner. Part of this might have to do with the fact that the last class I ever took related to art appreciation was in my sophomore year of high school. Since then I have picked up different odds and ends of knowledge of the art world, and have come to enjoy different features of some of the different movements in art history. One of these movements that caught my attention at some point was the Cubists. Now again, I don’t know a lot about the Cubists, but one aspect of these works I find quite interesting. My understanding is in the period before the Cubists, artists in Europe basically portrayed an image in an ordered, logical way from a single, fixed point of view. Then, about 100 years ago, some artists had the notion that the essence of an object can best be captured by portraying it from multiple points of view simultaneously. This became Cubism. One of the first Cubist paintings I ever saw that really stuck in my mind had a cup in the middle of the picture and half of the cup was as if you were looking at it eye level and the other half was as if you were looking at it from above. Same cup, two different angles, side by side.
In studying and reflecting on the lectionary gospel text this past week, I found myself resorting to a sort of Cubist mentality. There are a number of ways to approach this teaching of Jesus and resorting to just one angle feels like it leaves out too many other important perspectives. So I would invite you to go ahead and open your Bibles to Luke chapter 6, page 939 in the pew Bibles, and attempt with me to look at this passage the way a Cubist might.
This text is part of a section of Luke known as the sermon on the plain, appropriately named because of verse 17 which says that “Jesus came down with his disciples and stood on a level place,” and started teaching, so…sermon on the plain. This section of teaching is parallel to a section in Matthew’s Gospel commonly known as the sermon on the mount, where, surprise, Jesus goes up on the side of a mountain and teaches. These blocks of teaching are ones that Mennonites have held as absolutely central to our faith, something like a Christian manifesto. And this particular section of the Sermon includes Luke’s version of the Beattitudes. The meaning of Blessedness.
What does it mean to be fortunate, happy, blessed?
One of the angles to view this teaching is the view from above, looking down. This perspective sets us over the text. This view assumes that we can see things that the text can’t. We can see further and wider. We can see ways that this teaching doesn’t match up with our life experience. We are free to criticize and question and raise doubts. Put simply, this is the eye of the honest skeptic.
In Matthew, Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” in Luke he says, “Blessed are the poor.” Both are important teachings, but Luke carries the emphasis on economics. Honestly, it’s pretty hard to believe that the poor are blessed as Jesus says. It’s just as hard to accept that the hungry and the mourners are blessed. It simply doesn’t match up with the way the world is. During this last week of cold, I’m not sure that the poor were blessed. I’m not sure that our friends who occasionally come to community meal and have been living in a tent by the railroad tracks a couple blocks from here would consider themselves blessed and fortunate. When major natural disaster hits it is always the poor who are hardest hit. This was evident in Hurricane Katrina and holds true in other cases. Blessed are the poor? For yours is the Kingdom of God? When I read that every day 16,000 children die from hunger, one every five seconds, it doesn’t seem that the hungry are being filled. Families in Iraq and America who are mourning the losses of family members have little reason for laughter these days. Blessed are the hungry? And those who weep? For you will be filled? You will laugh?
Calling the poor blessed can easily lead to sentimentalizing poverty. To believing there is some kind of glory in involuntary powerlessness.
Jesus also offers a word of warning to the wealthy, the well fed, and those who laugh. I would have to put myself in this category. Personally, I like having enough food. I don’t consider myself a wealthy person, but I know in comparison with most of the world I am quite wealthy. This is the way the world is at this point and it is not helpful for me to feel guilty about it. And I have come to see how wealth can be used to lift others up. The opportunity for education is one of the realities of wealth and I have found that by increasing my own wealth of skills and understanding and compassion I am able to share this with others. So I can’t completely accept this warning of Woe to you, for you have received your full.
The view from above looks down with a skeptical eye and won’t accept a certain interpretation that doesn’t match with experience and doesn’t lead to a healthy spirituality. It’s part of this Cubist perspective on the Beattitudes.
Another view is one on level ground with the teaching. This perspective sees us and the teaching as equal conversation partners. We believe we have something to learn from the text, and believe that we have something to contribute to the text. From this angle, the beginning of verse 20 stands out, “Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said, Blessed are the poor.” We’re on that level plain with Jesus, looking each other in the eye, listening and offering our own thoughts.
One of the things I hear when I start to listen deeper here is the lament over a world of extremes, where there are only rich and poor with very little middle ground. In Jesus time this was very much the social reality. The ancient Israelite vision of Jubilee living where everyone lived on and cultivated their own land was long gone and fewer and fewer people were controlling more and more of the resources and were benefiting at the expense of the poor. This might sound somewhat familiar.
Jesus’ teaching here offers a way of getting unstuck out of that. The poor aren’t stuck in being poor, but are members of the Kingdom of God. There is movement, there is potential for a new way. The rich aren’t locked into their position. There is a giving up of privilege that can happen. There is an emptying and a letting go that can take place.
What I would like to introduce into this conversation is another Beattitude that points to some middle ground. Blessed are those who have enough. The blessing of enough cuts both ways. Having enough means that those in poverty come to have enough food, enough warmth, enough medical care, enough of what they need to live healthy lives. Living with enough also speaks to those with wealth. There is a point when enough is enough. When all of our basic needs are met and we are able to live healthy, quality lives with room for pleasure and enjoyment, and we know where to draw the line with keeping our lives free of clutter and chronic busyness and simply live with enough. Blessed are those who have enough.
I believe this extra beatitude is right in line with the vision of scripture. Similar to when the Israelites were collecting manna in the desert each day and it says “Those who gathered much had nothing left over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.” They each learned to gather enough.
In Adult Forum we have been reading a book by Shane Claiborne called the Irresistible Revolution and he has a line at the end of a chapter that speaks to this blessedness of enough. He had experienced the bipolar world of poverty and wealth in an extreme way by spending a summer in Calcutta, India with Mother Teresa and then coming back to the US and doing an internship with Willow Creek Community church, a large wealthy megachurch in suburban Chicago. Understandably, he found it difficult to deal with the stark contrasts. But he was able to find God’s grace and blessedness present in both the poor and the well-off. He ends one chapter by saying this, “I truly believe that when the poor meet the rich, riches will have no meaning. And when the rich meet the poor, we will see poverty come to an end.” This points to the blessedness of all living with enough.
Another angle in this picture is the view from below, looking up, putting ourselves under the authority of the teaching. Here we assume that Jesus knows something we don’t, which is a pretty safe assumption. This view is not so much us reading the text, but letting the text read us. Believing that the contradictions we see are not so much in the teaching, but in our own lives and in our world as it is. From this view we surrender our assumptions and preconceptions and let ourselves be examined and changed by what Jesus has to say.
From this angle, we may take better notice of what has been happening right before Jesus began teaching. In verses 18 and 19 people are coming to Jesus from all around and being healed and he has power coming out from him. The poor are blessed when Jesus is present and those who mourn find joy. For Jesus this teaching of Blessedness was not merely an exercise in wishful thinking – wouldn’t it be nice if the world was this way, but a description of who God is. God blesses the poor. God fills the hungry and consoles the weeping. Jesus partnered with God and calls us to do the same.
I feel myself in need of grace and forgiveness and in need of new energy for living the way of the Kingdom.
The warnings from Jesus highlight that wealth can be a false salvation, especially when it separates us from others – allows us to be content while others suffer. I wonder how my own wealth is a false shield of security.
I notice v. 25 “alas to you who are full now, for you will be hungry,” and I think of those things in my life that simply fill up space. I want to be empty enough to be ready to receive. I want my mind to be quiet enough to be able to listen to the nudgings of the Spirit.
I notice v. 26 “woe to you when all speak well of you” and I realize my own need for social approval. I wonder how much I say comes out of a desire to be accepted and well-thought of. I want to speak truthfully and transparently like Jesus.
I look also at the Psalm that was read and think that this all cuts much deeper than simply economics. We can all have what we need physically and still be starving emotionally and spiritually. The Psalmist sees blessedness for those who meditate on God’s ways. This is like being a tree planted by streams of water, “which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not whither.” This is the kind of blessedness I would like in my life. Being healthy and alive to God and bearing fruit in its season.
Looking at a Cubist painting is a little dizzying for me. I usually have to look at the title to get an idea of what I’m looking at. With all these different angles and slices of images next to each other they have a way of making the mind disoriented from the usual way of seeing something.
It’s a similar feeling looking at the Beatitudes from these angles, all at the same time. It’s a little disorienting to be skeptical, conversational, and confessional all at the same time. But in the spirit of the Cubists, the picture would not be a complete one without these different angles. Each one gives us some kind of insight and adds to the overall picture of what it means to be Blessed of God.
People: Forgive us when we grasp on when you tell us to let go
People: Help us to live within the blessing of enough
Leader: Yours is an economy of compassion and righteousness
People: Give us the courage to be disciples of Jesus.
Words of Assurance: God hears and forgives. Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice. For you will be filled.