Luke | The level playing field

Jesus invites us to join him on a level playing field, where all may be healed. (Listen.)

So Jesus and his disciples were praying on the mountaintop. Then they came down to the level place smack bang into a crowd, and Jesus was mobbed. People from all over were there, and everyone wanted a piece of him: because they knew that hearing him and being touched by him would heal them of their diseases and unclean spirits. Dis-eases: the things which unsettled them, made them ill-at-ease and anxious. Unclean spirits: the internalized powers which drive people apart. But Jesus’ words and gentle touch healed them all. And when they were healed, Jesus turned to his disciples, and he taught them, and he said: “Blessed are you who are on JobSeeker or NDIS: for yours is the culture of God.”

What?! As anyone who’s on one of these schemes knows, this means being constantly humiliated. It means being treated with suspicion and turning up to pointless interviews and jumping through arbitrary hoops and filing endless paperwork—and periodically having your benefits cut anyway. How could this be God’s culture? How could this be blessed?

It’s not that Jesus valued poverty and suffering for their own sake: he’s just spent hours healing people of every form of misery. Nor does he value humiliation, since he spent his life protecting and aligning himself with those being cast down by others. Maybe we can understand if we keep reading. So what else did he say?

“Blessed are you who are hungry, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for joy comes in the morning. Blessed are you who are hated on my account, and excluded, and trolled. When this happens, party, jump for joy even! Because all heaven sees truth-tellers and celebrates: and this is what happens to prophets.

“But … there’s trouble ahead if you’ve got a good job and super, for you’ve received your comfort; you’ll make no room for God. There’s trouble ahead for you who are full of yourselves, for soon enough you’ll be empty. There’s trouble ahead if you’re relentlessly positive: suffering is on its way. There’s trouble ahead if you’re popular. Everyone loves a false preacher, but your job is to speak truth.” (Luke 6:20-26, paraphrase).

Those of us with good jobs and super tend to switch off at these words; so, too, those who are happy and popular. But those of us on disability or who have known exclusion and rejection prick up our ears. That’s the thing with Luke’s telling of the beatitudes: how we hear them depends on our life experience.

Because to some of us, the beatitudes sound like a threat, or, like Matthew and the NIV, we feel the need to spiritualize them: because surely Jesus is not referring to actual poverty and actual shame! To others of us, however, Luke’s beatitudes sound like a surprising, joyful promise, a grace-filled world to enter into. An economy where nobody has to choose between food and medicine. A God who turns tears into joy, mourning into dancing (Ps. 30). A saviour who shares in our rejection and shame.

Do we hear these words as judgement? Or do we hear them as promise? Is this a world we want to enter into, or a world we shy away from? Where do we need Jesus’ healing touch?

Because healing is what kicks the beatitudes off. Remember? Jesus comes down from the mountain; and there on the plain, everyone on a level playing field, he heals people. He drives out the forces which possess and unsettle them, making room for the holy breath: and, if we take a birds’ eye view, we see that in Luke those evil forces are intimately linked with wealth.

There’s a rich man who is possessed by his possessions. There’s another rich man who ignores Lazarus, a sick and hungry beggar who is lying at his gate. There’s the young ruler who cannot let go of his things and follow Jesus: “for he was very rich.” There’s the rich man who is swindled by a praiseworthy steward. And so on and on. Indeed, Luke’s Jesus speaks plainly: “You cannot serve God and wealth,” he says (16:13b).

This link between wealth and dis-ease, money and unclean spirits, makes sense, because there is nothing that causes dis-ease quite like disparities in wealth. When rich and poor are far apart, and the middle class is being pushed downwards, unclean spirits abound. People look up the ladder, and they are consumed by envy; they look down the ladder, and they are filled with fear.

We all know about the ladder, because we live in a society which is deeply unequal and rapidly becoming more so. Centrelink payments are viciously small, well below the poverty line; and people who need such support tend to lack not just money, but basic respect. Public figures no longer speak of the ‘worthy poor’ or ‘unfortunates.’ Instead, we regularly hear that some people are wasters, a drain on ‘our’ economy; we’re regularly told ‘we’d’ be better off without ‘them’—whoever ‘they’ are. Inevitably, most of us have internalized this value system in which rich is good, richer is better, and poor is something to be feared and avoided at all costs.

No wonder the comfortable feel anxious in the presence of poverty. No wonder the destitute are filled with hopelessness and rage. Dis-ease abounds, and we are all being attacked by unclean spirits of fear, envy and division.

But on the plain—that flat and level playing field—we can be healed. On the level playing field, the rich will no longer feel anxious; the poor will no longer feel envious: because everyone has enough. Jesus’ words create the possibility of a healthy economy, God’s economy: and therein lies his healing touch.

So why, then, are the destitute blessed? Why do people curse the true prophets? And why is there trouble ahead for the comfortable?

I suggest it’s because almost no one wants to come down the mountain with Jesus. Almost no one wants to relinquish wealth, or challenge the powers which create inequality: because they know that to do so is to become the object of mockery and shame. To refuse to play the game, to give away one’s wealth, to lower one’s status and walk towards the level playing field, will indeed lead to hatred and rejection, because our society hates and reviles the poor.

And so the comfortable strive for the top of the mountain, or at least a high enough midway point, clutching onto their wealth and turning away from God again and again and again: and so they will become hungry; and so they will mourn and weep. On the other hand, the destitute are blessed because they already experience our society’s humiliation, rejection and shame. They already live in God’s kingdom-culture, as embodied by the one who bore our shame and suffering and took it to the cross. They are already treated as if they don’t exist; they are already dead to the world: and so the next step is resurrection.

Indeed, Luke is a hard book for the rich and the comfortable: but for everyone else, it’s an explosion of hope. Maybe there’s a way to live which is not governed by envy. Maybe there’s a way to be which is not suffocated by fear. Maybe the poor and the destitute will be seen, and loved. Maybe there’s a possibility that everyone can have enough to eat. And maybe that will happen on a level playing field, when all people, rich and poor, gather around Jesus.

Because that’s the invitation: to gather around Jesus and let him heal us of all that drives and unsettles us: our love of money, our fear of poverty, our attunement to social status, our avoidance of anything and anyone which might lead to our own rejection and shame. And the invitation is to become a level playing field ourselves: a community where the rich are no longer possessed by their possessions; the poor are no longer alone in their shame; and all people can fully participate in God’s joyful and just economy.

Of course, as a rich person myself, with a house, a job, super, and far too many books, I admit I can be fearful of this place. It means a relinquishment and a dying that I don’t know how to do. But I’ve lived enough and seen enough to know that the promises of wealth are hollow and the effects of disparate levels of wealth can be devastating.

And so I hold fast to another of Luke’s stories, in which Jesus is addressing a rich man. He says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom-culture-economy of God.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be healed?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible for people is possible for God.” (18:25-27).

And so in fear and trepidation, but trusting in God’s power and promise, I ask you to pray with me now: Loving God, your kingdom-economy come; your will be done: on earth, in me, and in us all. Lead us toward the level ground, where dis-ease is cured and evil spirits are driven away. Through Jesus’ words and gentle touch, shape us into your healing community. Make us a place of love and justice where laughter, joy and fullness are guaranteed, and everyone is blessed. Amen. Ω

Reflect: Do you hear Luke’s Beatitudes as challenge or promise? What dis-eases do you need Jesus to heal in you? What evil spirits or divisive forces drive you, and need to be expelled? Pray about this.

A reflection on Luke 6:17-26 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 13 February 2022 (Year C Proper 16) © Sanctuary 2022. Image shows Sermon on the Mount by Karoly Ferenczy found here.


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