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The Sixth Sunday of Epiphany
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; I Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26
In the earliest years of the Church, one of the major criticisms that many would make against the followers of Jesus was that so many of them were at the lowest levels of society. Widows, orphans, slaves, the poor, the uneducated, the disenfranchised; and this is because, frankly, so many who did follow Jesus were of this level of society. A man who was a slave might become a bishop! And, more to the point, so many of those who didn’t believe, who were rich and powerful, gained these things by the oppression of those on the bottom of society.
Does that mean there were not wealthy or powerful people in the Church? There were, oftentimes throughout history; but more often than not, it is the very wealth and power they possess that was the most powerful temptation to deny Christ, to reject a gospel that demands humility, submission to God, recognition that you need Jesus Christ and his work because you on your cannot attain to share in the life of God without Him.
Jesus lays this out in this sermon, a shorter narrative of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew. In it, Jesus speaks of two kinds of people: He blesses those who are poor and oppressed, and condemns those who are rich and powerful. Consider again his words:
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“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.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, 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, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
The challenge here is for each of us to ask ourselves, what kind of life do I intend to live? Am I willing to forsake the world to gain Christ? Or will that which pleases me now blind me?
Even if one wasn’t poor and oppressed, to become a Christian in the early days it might mean becoming one. If you weren’t the father of a family, they could reject you if you became a Christian; if one was wealthy, they were expected to help lift up those who were not, even sometimes to the point of giving up all they owned, like the Rich Young Ruler, or Zaccheus, who gave back 4 times what he owed to those he extorted as a tax collector. It is not impossible for the rich or the powerful to become Christians. God loves them. But it is harder for them to love God.
Jesus encourages the oppressed here, and challenges the comfortable, to, again, ask them what kind of life do they intend to live? This overthrows the equilibrium of our world. It is not simply a battle of wills, or strength. It is in humility, faith, wonder, and hope that freedom is found, not bought by money or prestige.
Because, and this is key, to become wealthy, powerful, popular, so often requires behavior that is antithetical to the Christ-shaped life. Who wants to be humble? Who wants to suffer indignities? Who doesn’t want to be wealthy and influential, or if you are not, to bow to those who have power over you (Greg in Succession)?
God loves all, but it is hard for many to love God. This happens to us too. How many of us will take the easy route to make a little extra money, cut a corner here or there, or sacrifice time with family or our health to work more? Would you be willing to compromise your integrity, just a little, to be thought well of by others? Have you ever treated someone, less than you in status or social standing, or vulnerable in some other way, just a little bit less, or looked the other way when someone else did? At the end of the day it isn’t wealth or power that makes people evil in this way, it is a heart that covets wealth and power and influence.
Are you familiar with the story of the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov? It is a story told in the middle of the book, from one brother hostile to religion to another who is deeply religious. In the story, during the Inquisition in Spain, Jesus Christ returns to earth. He is quickly captured by the Grand Inquisitor, who informs him that they do not need Christ anymore, and in fact that the Church has learned that His message, that all people are free, is too great a burden for the masses. We have learned, he says, that what the people want is what the Devil offered; they want bread, and miraculous signs, and to be led and controlled. Jesus, he says, was wrong to hold man in high esteem. Rather, the Inquisitor tells him, people need to be dominated and controlled, but given just enough to comply with the powerful, if the world is to function properly. “Enslave us, but feed us!”. So, he says, we shall use power, and violence, and wealth to master, control, and direct these people, and we do not have any need for you. That is the world: the powerful oppress the powerless, and the powerless either grovel or rage against the world, neither of which is freedom. Christ tells us to trust in a future hope, the freedom that comes from recognizing that you bear the very image of God, and the dignity that comes with it which no one can take from you. True freedom is to be in Christ, as St. Irenaeus said, “the glory of God is a person fully alive,” in Christ.
Freedom, true freedom, means holding all things of this time and place lightly; and to love the Christ who gave all for our salvation is ever-challenged by the temptations to power, to bread, to popularity. God loves all, but to love God places the immense challenge before us to answer the question, what kind of life do I intend to live?
One of faith, the surrender of self, and the denial of what the world tells us will make us free? Or one that either attains those things, or covets them, and makes us slaves to our baser desires, to the temptations of sin?
A life that believes the gospel that Christ died for you, rose for you, intercedes for you, and that to follow him you must pick up your own cross?
Or a life that says, no, let us eat, drink, and indulge, because tomorrow we die and today we must live for ourselves?
What kind of life do you intend to live?
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