April 6, 2003

BACKWARD BLESSINGS

“Blessed are you who are poor … who hunger … who weep… Blessed are you when men hate you… Luke 6:20-22

If you are dirt-poor while someone else has lots of money, which of you is better off? If you hunger for a better life while someone else is well-fed and secure, which of you is better off? If your heart is broken and your eyes are filled with tears while someone else is laughing and partying, which of you is better off? If you are mocked and attacked while someone else is praised and pampered, which of you is better off?

In each case, the answer seems so obvious that it’s hardly worth asking the question. Of course the rich are better off than the poor! Of course the secure are better off than the hungry and desperate! Of course laughing is better than weeping! Of course the popular are better off than the persecuted! It seems too obvious to talk about—but Jesus seems to think otherwise.

Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor… Blessed are you who hunger… Blessed are you who weep… Blessed are you when men hate you… and insult you.” What in the world does he mean?

Where’s the blessing in poverty, in hunger, in crying, in being unpopular and under attack? It sounds crazy. It sounds like Jesus has it backward.

If Jesus were to say, “Blessed are you who are rich,” we could understand, but “Blessed are you who are poor”? “Blessed are you who are secure and well-fed” we could understand, but “Blessed are you who hunger”? “Blessed are you who are happy” we could understand, but “Blessed are you who weep”? “Blessed are you who are admired” we could understand, but “Blessed are you when men hate you?” Aren’t those the most backward blessings you’ve ever heard? How can Jesus say such things?     To understand these backward blessings, we must understand that Jesus is the king of a different kind of kingdom.

Kingdom and King

When Jesus began his public ministry, he declared, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). Jesus was announcing that the reign of God–the Lord’s dynamic, kingly rule–was coming close, and people had to turn and go in a new direction. That’s what the word repent means: turn in a new direction. Stop trusting your own resources, and trust God’s mercy. Stop doing your own thing, and start doing what God wants. Turn in a new direction! “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.”

Now, who is more likely to believe in God’s kingdom as good news: those who like the present world system or those who want God to shake things up and start a new era? Who is more likely to repent and turn in a new direction: those who like their life the way it is, or those who are desperate for a change? If you like the status quo and are pleased with yourself the way you are, you won’t want big changes. But if you’re tired of this world’s ways and want your life to be different from what it has been, the backward blessings of Jesus will sound like good news.

With the coming of Jesus, the kingdom of heaven has come near because the King of heaven has come near–right among us, in fact. Jesus brings God’s rule to bear among us. In the Bible Jesus says, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God… because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43).

Whenever a ruler takes power, people wonder how he’s going to run things. Whenever there’s a change in government and a new power takes over, we wonder what’s going to happen. Who’s going to benefit? Who’s going to come out ahead in the new order of things? Sometimes people who prospered under the old order have big problems in the new order, while those who were at the bottom of the old order benefit enormously under the new order.

When Jesus preaches “the good news of the kingdom of God,” for whom is it good news? Who is going to benefit? And who is going to lose out? The winners will be those who trust Jesus and follow him, though their life might be very hard for now. The losers will be those who see no need for Jesus, though at the moment they may seem very well off. In Luke 6 the Bible says,

A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over… who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.

Looking at his disciples, he said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.

     Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.

If you fit in with a world system dominated by sin and everything seems to go your way, watch out! It’s a sign that you’re more in tune with the kingdom of this world than the kingdom of God. But if your longing for God’s kingdom and your loyalty to Jesus make your life difficult, be glad! It’s a sign that you’re a child of the King and part of the kingdom of joy that lasts forever.

When Jesus takes over and God’s kingdom comes near, it means no more business as usual. If you’re pleased with yourself, if you’re happy with things just the way they are, if you believe in survival of the fittest (and you feel mighty fit), if you have no sense of desperate longing for something better, then Jesus isn’t for you, and his words will sound like nonsense. You may think, “Who wants to be poor, hungry, sad, and unpopular? I can do without such backward blessings!” But if you’re spiritually bankrupt and you know it, then Jesus’ blessings are music to your ears. Before you can live in God’s kingdom and enjoy his blessings, you must first realize that people need the Lord.

Blessed Are You Who Are Poor

When Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” he’s not saying that everybody with a money shortage will go to heaven. But people who are headed for heaven may have to face financial hardship for Jesus’ sake before they enter into eternal riches. Also, when Jesus announces blessings for the poor, he often means not just those poor in money but those who are “poor in spirit,” as he puts it elsewhere.

What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Maybe the best way to get a grip on it is a story Jesus told about a respected religious leader and a rotten crook. The respected leader was part of an elite group called the Pharisees, and the crook was one of the low-down, sinful tax collectors. Jesus said,

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you [said Jesus] that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The tax collector was poor in spirit. When you’re poor in spirit, you know that you have nothing to offer God except the sad fact that you’re a sinner. You don’t tell God how good you are; you plead for his mercy. You don’t brag; you beg. And in doing so, you receive God’s forgiveness and blessing.

You don’t have to be poor in terms of money to be poor in spirit, but sometimes it helps. Jesus said that it’s hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Why? Because he tends to be so pleased with his financial and material success that he never realizes his spiritual poverty. Jesus told a story about a rich man who said something like this: “I’ve got so much stored away that I think it’s time to take an early retirement. From now on it’s parties and travel and golf for me.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” “This is how it will be,” said Jesus, “with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” (see Luke 12:19-21).

People with less financial wealth aren’t so likely to be pleased with themselves or to focus only on this life, and so they are more likely to welcome the message of God’s rule as good news. It’s often easier to be poor in spirit when you’re poor in your pocketbook. You’re less likely to be self-satisfied and to think you’ve got it made.

Still, financial poverty doesn’t guarantee that you’re poor in spirit or that you see your need for God’s forgiveness and help. Ultimately, being poor in spirit is always a blessing and miracle of God’s grace.

Can you say with the poet, “Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to thy cross I cling; Naked, come to thee for dress; Helpless, look to thee for grace; Foul, I to the fountain fly; Wash me, Savior, or I die.” If you can say that, congratulations! “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” The fact that you are poor in spirit, that you see your need of God, is a sign that God’s reign is already at work in your life. The kingdom of heaven is already yours even now. You are exactly the person Jesus came to bless and to transform and enrich.

Blessed Are You Who Hunger

A second backward blessing announced by Jesus is, “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.” Here again Jesus is not just talking about food shortage among people in general but about hunger among his followers. Remember, Jesus was looking at his disciples when he said this. Sometimes the cost of following Jesus is not having enough to eat. If the only way to put food on the table is to do wrong things, or if enemies of Christianity try to starve Christians into submission, then followers of Jesus end up getting hungry. But it’s better to lack food and have Jesus than to lack Jesus and have food. Someday those who are hungry now will be satisfied, while those who compromise with the sinful world and have plenty to eat now will end up forever deprived of the bread of life, Jesus Christ.

When Jesus speaks of hunger, he often means spiritual hunger for the things of God. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). What is righteousness? Well, first of all it is God’s gift of a right relationship with him. When you hunger for righteousness, you hunger for God not to hold your sins against you but to put you in a right relationship with him. If that’s what you hunger and long for, says Jesus, then you are going be filled. Because Jesus lived a perfectly righteous live on our behalf, and because Jesus died in our place to pay for all our wrongdoing, God freely forgives the sins of those who trust him and gives them a right relationship to him.

But the hunger for righteousness doesn’t end there. Once you know you God has forgiven and accepted you because Jesus suffered and died in your place, you’re still not satisfied. You don’t just want to be free from the penalty of sin. You want to escape the pollution and power of sin. You don’t just want Jesus to rescue you from hell. You want to become like Jesus. You want your character and conduct to be Christlike. You hunger and thirst to be perfectly righteous like the Lord himself.

On top of that, you hunger and thirst for righteousness to fill the whole world. You mourn over sin and injustice, over evil and oppression, and you hunger for God to straighten it all out. Jesus says that God is going to satisfy such a hunger. As the apostle Peter puts it, “we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13).

When you hunger and thirst for righteousness, you don’t just think it sounds like a nice idea. Your soul groans for it even more than an empty stomach groans for food. You are famished, and the righteousness that God provides is the only thing that will ever satisfy you. Indeed, the only answer to your hunger is Jesus Christ himself. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).

A healthy spiritual appetite isn’t obsessed with food and clothes and earthly treasure. Jesus said, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). Seek God’s rule and his righteousness; hunger and thirst for it. And he will satisfy your longings.

Jesus highlighted the blessed result of hunger in one of his stories. He told of a son who left his home and his father and went to a far country. There he squandered his wealth in wild living. Then one day he found himself with no money and nothing to eat. He got so hungry that when he saw some pigs eating their slop, his mouth started to water. That’s when he finally came to his senses. When pig slop starts to look good, you’ve got a problem! He said to himself, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” He decided to go home and admit his wrong to his father and offer to be his slave. But his father, seeing his hungry son stumbling home, threw his arms around him and threw a feast.

That young man didn’t know it at the time, but his blessings began the moment he gave up on himself. When he became utterly poor, when he was so hungry he could only think of his father–that was when he became ready to receive his father’s love and to feast his goodness.

Blessed Are You Who Weep

That brings us to another backward blessing: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” When you are poor in spirit, you see your desperate need before God. When you hunger for righteousness, you sense how much you need a relationship with God and a new way of living. You don’t just see your sin and how much you need God; you grieve over your sinfulness. The tax collector in Jesus’ story didn’t just say calmly, “I’m a sinner, but so is everybody else. That’s just the way things are.” No, he was so downcast he didn’t dare to look up to heaven, and he beat his chest in sorrow. The prodigal son in Jesus’ story didn’t just say, “I’m in a bad situation, and I’d like to get out of it.” His heart broke as he said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

Weeping over sin is one major difference between a Christian and a cynic. When you’re a cynic, you may see your own moral bankruptcy, but it doesn’t break your heart. It just makes you harder. You figure that since everybody else is just as rotten as you are, you might as well get your unfair share by whatever means necessary. When you’re a Christian, however, you mourn. You cry out with the apostle, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25). The difference between a cynic and a Christian is the difference between cold-hearted “realism” and broken-hearted repentance.

If you’re a Christian, your own sin and the sin of the world are not just facts that sit in your brain. They are tragedies that break your heart. You grieve at your own terrible failings, and you also groan over the evil and misery of other people in this sin-shattered world. When the prophet Jeremiah saw the sin his people were committing and the misery they were suffering, he said, “Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people” (Jeremiah 9:1-2). You cry over the way sin degrades and damages people, and your deepest sorrow is the way sin dishonors the Lord. As one biblical writer put it, “Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed” (Psalm 119:136).

If you’re calm and happy as a sinner in a world full of sin and suffering, you’ve got a problem. “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.” This corrupt world is coming to an end. The kingdom of God is near. God is establishing his reign in Christ. And God’s enemies will have nothing but the unending sorrow of hell.

If your heart breaks over the way sin degrades and damages people and dishonors God, then congratulations! You are in tune with God and his coming reign. Your tears show that you hate sin and love God, and you will be comforted when God takes all sin away and brings everything under his reign.

The day is coming, says the Bible, when it will be said, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). If you grieve over the old order, you will be comforted in God’s new order. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

Blessed Are You When Men Hate You

The final backward blessing is as shocking as any: “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.” We all want other people to think highly of us and treat us well, but Jesus says, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you.”

If you follow Jesus and belong to God’s kingdom, then the kingdoms of this world will oppose you. The sinful world feels threatened by godliness and truthfulness, and it attacks.

If you oppose the killing of helpless unborn children, they label you an extremist. If you support the death of these babies through abortion, they call you a moderate.

If you say Jesus is the only way to God, they call you a fanatic. If you say all religions are good and there are many ways to God (thus calling Jesus a liar for saying he’s the only way to the Father), the world calls you tolerant.

If you challenge dishonest conduct in your company, they call you a troublemaker. If you go along with dishonesty and help cover it up, they call you a team player.

In some parts of the world, if you stand for Christ at all, they call you an enemy of the people. If you reject Christ and oppose the Christian faith, they call you a loyal citizen.

When people hate you and insult you and attack you for following Jesus, congratulations! Don’t be discouraged by opposition. Don’t sulk or try to get revenge. Instead, says Jesus, celebrate! “Leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.”

Being persecuted puts you in the excellent company of the holy prophets and of Jesus himself, and it means you have a fantastic reward waiting for you in heaven.

If nobody ever opposes you, if everybody says nice things about you, then you’ve got a problem, says Jesus, because that’s how phonies, false prophets, get treated. They’re more eager for human approval than for God’s approval. If you please everybody and are popular with them but don’t focus on God’s approval, it may be fun for awhile, but in the end it will be awful. It’s better to have God with you and the whole world against you than to have the world with you and God against you.

You shouldn’t go around trying to make enemies, of course. There’s no blessing in making enemies by being stupid or nasty or obnoxious. But if you are true to Jesus, expect opposition, and expect the blessing Jesus promises.

The backward blessings of Jesus confront you with a choice: is Jesus backward, or is the present world backward? Should you set your heart on being rich, secure, happy, and popular? If that is your ultimate goal, it ends in woe and hell. But if you are poor in spirit, hungry for righteousness, sad about your sin and the decay of the world, and willing to suffer attacks for following Christ, then you are a genuine follower of Jesus, and “yours is the kingdom of God.”

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.