During my last year at Luther Seminary, I had to write a senior thesis. The course was called “Systematic Theology.” The goal of the class was for each student to lay out their personal theology. I was in a liberal mindset even back then. And internally I was struggling with my sexual orientation and how to justify that within a theological framework. Of course, no one knew I was gay in seminary. If I had come out, I would have been expelled.
So, I decided to write my paper about liberation theology. About how human sin is not just an individual issue, but also imbedded in social structures. I had read books by Latino liberation theologians, like Juan Luis Segundo—as well as others like James Cone, who wrote theology books from the black experience.
When the day came for me to present my thesis to my classmates, I knew that I might face criticism. But I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of unbridled anger and hostile condemnation that I heard in response. When I started talking about God’s “preferential option for the poor,” I might as well have thrown a grenade into that classroom of seminarians.
The phrase “preferential option for the poor” was coined in 1968 by a Jesuit priest, Pedro Arrupe. A term later used by Catholic bishops in Latin America. The concept is based on many parts of the Bible that talk about God as protector of the vulnerable. Where God has a preference for powerless individuals who live on the edges of society. Liberation theology fully embraced that concept—linking it to passages in the Gospels that connect the poor and marginalized with Jesus.
Today, liberation theology—including queer liberation theology—is taught in our seminaries and church colleges. Andrés Albertsen, a gay Argentinian Lutheran pastor I know, just started teaching a class at St. Olaf College, called, “Reading the Bible through the Eyes of Latin American Liberationist Christianity.” But my initial interest, 30 years ago in seminary, was way ahead of its time.
I was reminded of that senior paper when I read today’s Gospel lesson. This reading is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. But the word “beatitude” does not appear in Bible. The term comes from the Latin word, “beati,” that begins each verse, and translates as “blessed” or “happy” or “lucky.” “Beatitudes” is what we call the unique blessings spoken by Jesus. If you Google it, almost every site refers to the list found in the Gospel of Matthew.
Most Christians assume that the Beatitudes are the same in both Gospels. But they’re not. In fact, they are radically different. In Matthew, there are eight blessings spoken by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s version has a definite spiritual flavor, like: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” or “Blessed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” or “Blessed are the pure in heart.”
Luke, on the other hand, has only four beatitudes, that obviously highlight social justice issues, stating: “Blessed are you who are poor,” and “Blessed are you who are hungry,” and “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, and revile you….” Notice that Luke also changes the focus to “you.” Instead of saying, “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus speaks directly to them, by saying, “Blessed are you who are poor.” However, when Jesus uses the word “poor,” it’s not the working poor that politicians like to talk about. The Greek word here means “destitute”—who today would be the homeless, the indigent.
Luke also adds four curses to the Beatitudes. The New Revised Standard Version in our lectionary, starts these out with the word, “Woe.” But a couple translations use much stronger language. Like “Cursed are you rich.” My favorite is the one that says, “damn you”—curse words we don’t normally use in church. Words more likely heard in a bar, or on an urban street, or maybe from a preacher like Nadia Bolz-Weber, if she were here today. Shocking words that I believe convey what Jesus originally intended—where he might say, “Damn you rich! You already have your consolation! Damn you who are well-fed! You will be hungry! Damn you who laugh now, you will learn to weep!”1
When I read the Beatitudes like that, I find them to be intense and raw and inescapable.
As an artist, I like to see things visually. Here, I can imagine Jesus painting two pictures for us. One painting is of a group of poor, hungry and sad people standing in front of a hut in a Third World village. Or maybe a drug addict on a street corner of one of our cities. People who are outcasts. People to be pitied. Yet, Jesus looks at them and says, “Blessed are you! You’re the lucky ones!”
Then there’s a second painting. It’s a group portrait of our community. Looking happy and healthy, with nice clothing. No matter how we rationalize or deny it, most of us Americans fit that picture. We have jobs. We have places to live. We’ve got money to buy food. We’re self-sufficient. We are blessed and, gosh, everybody likes us. Right?
But when I read these crazy Beatitudes in Luke, my eyes are opened. I see own portrait, painted by Jesus. For Jesus takes all my self-perceptions and desires, and politely blows them to pieces.
Is anybody else bothered by that? I know I am. It’s no wonder my seminary friends got angry. But that’s exactly the point. For if we’re really reading it, we should be disturbed. Sometimes, art and scripture do that to us.
Today, faced with this text—with these Beatitudes—I believe we have two simple options. Option 1 is for us to take these blessed sayings and explain them away—gradually watering them down, to dull their bitter taste. For most people, that’s a pretty compelling path. The path most pastors and Christians take. In Option 2, we let these words interpret us. To change our vision of ourselves as Christians. Or as the theologian Walter Brueggemann once said: “The prophetic tasks of the Church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that lives in denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.”
Our calling is to ask ourselves the hard questions, like: What is Jesus saying to me in these words today? What if I could let Jesus challenge my ideas about what the good life and success are really all about? What if our idea of church could be infused with that vision, and focus not on wealth and buildings and church growth, but on the poor and marginalized of our community?
Thankfully, I believe that here at St. Mark’s we share that vision already, at least in part. That’s the blessing (and the curse) of us no longer owning our own building. We live with the uncertainty of life. The challenge for our church is that there are always new things for us to see and new ways to look at issues like poverty and racism, sexism and homophobia. And new ways to read the Beatitudes today. Something, maybe, like this:
- Blessed are you poor, for in your face we see the eyes of God.
- Blessed are you hungry, for we are called to feed you.
- Blessed are you who feel rejected by our society, for this is a place where you are welcome.
- Blessed are you who weep, for we are here to cry and laugh with you.
- Blessed are you who are separated from us by walls and fences, for Jesus calls us to tear them down.
- Blessed are you who march with Native American women, queer people, refugees, and others hated by this world, for together we shall be called “children of God.”
Today, we are blessed to have a place and community like this. A place where we can talk about how we see ourselves. A place to think about who we want to become.
A place to listen to the words of Jesus. A blessed place, to see God walking beside us.
Even when we don’t know exactly where we are going. Amen.
1 The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus; Robert Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar; Macmillan Publishing House, New York, 1993; p. 289.
+ + +
GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 6:17-26
Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
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."