Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
March 3, 2019
Texts: Isaiah 58:6-12; Luke 6:17-25
When asked what Bible verse is most familiar, a recent survey of Americans indicated that it is the verse from Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus admon-ishes his disciples for complaining about the woman who poured expensive ointment over his feet, stating that “the poor you will always have with you.” Pulled totally out of context, that statement attributed to Jesus has been used by the wealthy as an excuse to make sure that the poor will always be with us.
Jesus may have used that as a description of how the wealthy treat those without money, but it is certainly no proscription of what the world is sup-posed to be like. In fact, just about every statement attributed to Jesus of Nazareth makes it clear that the existence of the poor is an indication that some-thing is very, very wrong with our world.
Jesus was born into the family of a poor carpenter in a backwater town under the heel of an oppressive power. Herod Antipas, the king during much of Jesus’ life was a client king of Rome. His father Herod called the Great had sent his sons to Rome to be educated and when they returned to claim their principalities, they despised the people they ruled and extorted taxes, tributes, and tithes to the point that most farmers lived barely beyond a subsistence level.
From the very beginning of his public ministry, Jesus challenged his world and tits rulers. Reading from Isaiah, he said that God had anointed him to bring good news to the poor and let the oppressed go free. There could be little doubt in the Galilee of Jesus what he meant.
When we hear the words from this morning’s reading, “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God,” it’s easy to spiritualize these words, but Jesus was not talking about some after-life. He was talking about the here and now. And he went on: “Blessed are you who are hungry now for you shall be filled.” In other words, the world would be topsy-turvy, turned upside down.
Try to imagine yourself in first-century Pale-stine. There’s no middle class, just the corruption of the super-rich court and their collaborators and the vast number of the poor. Hm-m-m, doesn’t sound so different from today with the income gap between the one percent and everyone else.
You’re lucky if your children survive the first year of life; You hope that the Roman soldiers won’t barge into your village, assaulting women and tramp-ling the few crops you managed to grow. Most of you in this room would be dead already since the aver-age age of death was between 35 and 45. You pray that the sicari who killed the Roman soldier did not come from your village so the Romans do not burn it to the ground. You are just able to secure enough grain to make it to the next harvest. These were the people Jesus came from and spoke to.
Jesus also addressed others, like the scribes and Pharisees, most of whom were seen as collab-orators with the hated Romans and the Herods, possibly even more hated than the Romans. The Gospels only make fleeting references to the turmoil that existed when Jesus was alive and preaching. In the story of the healing in Capernaum, the people are amazed and recognize that Jesus had real, legit-imate authority rather than the pretended authority of the scribes and Pharisees who served their masters in Jerusalem.
The world is turning upside down because Jesus through his acts of healing and the words he says in Luke’s version of the more familiar sermon in Matthew tells people that power, real power and authority will rest in the people of God who act as the people of God.
The words of this morning’s reading reflect the words of possibility as sung by Hannah as she learns she will have Samuel and the words of prom-ise as sung by Mary as she learns she will have the baby Jesus. These songs become words of realiz-ation here in Luke’s Gospel.
These words are blunt, not yet softened by the writer of Matthew. The people are not poor in spirit but really poor and really hungry. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, some people are so hungry that they cannot see God except in the form of bread. Jesus here turns the world upside down, telling the people they will have bread and that those who have oppressed them will lose in the end.
His words here are more than words of consol-ation; they are words of promise for he speaks with authority. He speaks as a prophet, declaring that the Kingdom of God is at hand. He provides a message of hope to the people and, as we will see when Jesus goes to Jerusalem, Jesus is a clear threat to the ruling powers, the Romans and their collaborators.
Over the centuries as the promise of the Kingdom that Jesus preached to the oppressed people in Galilee and Judah has become spiritualized. There are several reasons for this, some of which only make sense in the context of Jesus’ time. In his time, calling for the Kingdom of God over and above the kingdom of this world ruled by wealth and illegit-imate power was more than an act of rebellion. It was a call to reverse the social order.
Jesus’ call became Christianity after Paul and Constantine’s victory against his challenger for emperorship at the Milvian Bridge, resulted in a Christianity that became institutionalized and rich. The words of Jesus here bristle in the ears of the rich and the powerful. They should bristle in our ears because as a Nation we live with the same dichot-omies as did the ancient Palestinians.
The so-called social safety net doesn’t really work. We have the hungry and the homeless among us, and charity is not the answer. Martin Luther King once wrote that being the Good Samaritan on the road is only the initial step; the real goal should be to eliminate the power of those who rob and destroy people on the Jericho Road. “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.”
William Barber, that prophetic voice from North Carolina, established what he called “Moral Mondays,” days when good church people went to the State Legislature in Raleigh to lobby against the restriction of voting rights and cuts in social pro-grams. A good deal of that paid off in the 2018 election to the point of calling for a new election in one Congressional District, electing Roy Cooper as Governor, and breaking the reactionary supermajority in the state assembly.
Breaking the power of illegitimate authority is not easy. Here in New Jersey we have had some battles of power and wealth against the people. The PennEast pipeline is a good example of just that issue. After a federal judge ruled with oil and gas interests in December that people had to permit Penn East access to their land to survey, the State finally stepped in to appeal the court’s ruling.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal argued that the state was immune from suits by private citizens like PennEast based on the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution. Sounds obscure, to be sure, but the pressure from activists who have decried the use of wealth and power to desecrate the Pinelands finally got somewhere in New Jersey, and it may in Pennsylvania.
Wealth and power exert themselves against people and the poor all the time. As followers of the One who told us that we would be fed and filled, we should also remember that we too can become the rich and powerful subject to the same admonitions against wealth and power as well. Charity to the poor – I hate the phrase “less fortunate” – is not what we are called to provide.
As followers of the One who called for a topsy-turvy world in which not just the fortunes of those who are rich and powerful would be reversed, but also for a society that truly cares for the poor by eliminating poverty, we are admonished to change the very structure of society.
We should remember that after Jesus tells the poor they will inherit the Kingdom, a kingdom where they will be filled, Jesus tells the collaborators with an unjust society that they will be hungry and will weep because they have betrayed God’s command-ments to create a just and equitable society.
In his song, “If the Poor Don’t Matter,” folk singer, Tom Paxton, lays it out: “If the poor don’t matter, if we chase them away, we’re going to see them again on the judgment day, on the day we die. If the poor don’t matter, then neither do I”
God’s commandments are also reflected in the reading from Isaiah, a call to the land to which the Babylonian exiles returned. “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke . . . to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house . . . .”
The challenges to our wealth and power as a Nation and a society never end, for there is no real equity in our society. We call ourselves followers of the One who called us to not just share our bread with the hungry but to create a more just and equitable society. The challenge for us is how to establish that society, the Kingdom of God on earth. May God give us the wisdom to accomplish that.
Let us come to God in prayer: God of justice and righteousness, help us to determine the paths you call us to walk in so your Kingdom may indeed come as we pray the words of Jesus of Nazareth. Amen.