Here’s a piece of wisdom from a story told by ancient Chinese sages: a certain poor farmer was telling a neighbor about the destruction of his property fence by termites. “That’s terrible! ”the neighbor said compassionately. The farmer continued, telling how he went to repair the fence and while working there captured a wild horse, hoping to domesticate it for work around the farm. “What a blessing!” exclaimed the neighbor. But the farmer continued the story, telling how his son tried to tame the horse, and shattered a bone in his leg when the horse threw him violently to the ground. “That’s terrible!” the neighbor said. And again, the farmer continued his story, telling how the soldiers of the warlords had come to forcibly enlist every able-bodied young man for the army, and thus how his son was spared that awful fate. “What a blessing!” the neighbor said . . .
Well, you get the point. Sometimes it is too early to tell what is good and what is bad, what is a blessing and what is a disaster. It takes time to properly interpret the full impact of any single event in history. How many times have we read of the winner of the grand multi-state lottery, only to hear later how that sudden wealth brought ruin to that person’s life? And similarly, how often have we seen apparently dreadful things occur to someone else, and then see how that very trial brought out the best in that person, or in those around them? Sometimes it is just too early to discern what is blessing, and what is woe.
Jesus makes this same point in our reading today from the Gospel of Saint Luke. He gathered his disciples around him and pronounced a set of conditions for blessing and woe that surprise us, unsettle us, and threaten to turn our worldview upside-down.
The first thing that strikes us in these statements is their reverse logic.
Just listen to the paradoxical language here: happy are the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the hated?! What kind of sense does that make to you? We all want to be happy, but who wants to be poor, or hungry, or sad, or unpopular to get there? In fact, aren’t most of us working at all costs to chase that elusive bird of happiness, thinking it makes it nest out of prosperity and power and popularity? Our nation’s founders wanted a nation where “the pursuit of happiness” was sacrosanct, but even they defined happiness as being “healthy, wealthy, and wise.” So, who wants poor and hungry? Jesus, what do you mean? Like the first disciples, we are left scratching our heads at this one.
But Jesus is using the language of hyperbole here. He deliberately wants to turn our world over, to get us thinking again, and to cause us to realign our perspective with God’s. The point is this: there is no exact correlation between happiness/blessedness and the amount of one’s wealth, or the food in one’s pantry, or the popularity of one’s associations. The abundance of these things does indeed make us feel more secure, and open up many joys in life. But it is a serious mistake to equate this bounty as a sign of God’s approval, or as a sure path to inner peace and happiness. In fact, many are they who have accumulated great wealth and fame, only to become reduced to very insecure and lonely people, perhaps because they fear losing that abundance, or because they have sold their soul and every legitimate relationship of their lives to accumulate that abundance. Even fame has its cost. I heard of a movie star recently saying she would trade it all away for the chance again to live an anonymous life, free to shop and eat in restaurants without the omnipresence of reporters and photographers and autograph seekers. Blessing or curse? Sometimes it is hard to say for sure.
The point Jesus wants to make is simply that we must live our lives without thinking that we are defined by the presence or absence of things, or of public opinion. These factors are not signs of God’s favor or disfavor. And they are not indicators of significance in life. They are adjectives in our lives, but they are not the nouns of our identity. There is only one factor that must define us, and that is whether we belong to God. If so, nothing else can hurt us. And if not, nothing else can help us.
The second thing in these statements by Jesus is that it takes time to ultimately discern what is blessing and what is woe anyway, so it is matter of trust in God.
Did you notice how often Jesus mentioned the descriptor “now” in his sayings? There is no particular blessedness in being poor, or sad, or hungry. Many poor people are very unhappy, and feel very unblessed. But Jesus is reminding us that those who are poor now may be rich in other ways, and given enough time, they may be rich in financial ways too. Colonel Sanders, of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, made and lost millions several times across his lifetime before his began the chicken franchise that bears his name. Sometimes it is too soon to pronounce whether a person is a success or failure. Just give them time.
But a single lifetime maybe not enough time to be sure either. Sometimes a person’s life shows its richness far after that person’s life on earth has ended. Mother Teresa’s work among the poor in India is one example. The richness of her life, though not measured in dollars, is still too early to calculate completely. One theologian stated this truth succinctly:
Any great thing cannot be accomplished alone, by a single individual, And so we are saved by love. And any great endeavor takes more than a single lifetime to accomplish, And so we are saved by hope.
Jesus is asking us to take the long picture, to think of life from the perspective of eternity, to look at things from God’s point of view. When we do, temporary conditions lose their power to define us. All that matters, in the end, and therefore in the meantime, is whether or not we have defined our lives by the primary relationship of them all, God Himself. It will not matter if the entire world applauded our pursuits and accumulations. All that will matter when the final act is played, and the final curtain is drawn, is whether a pair of Divine hands was clapping in the audience.