Jesus tells the parable of the farmer with a bumper crop who decides to build larger barns to store it all in only to have God say, “You fool, this very night your soul is required of you.” He tells the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor. After that encounter, he said “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus is not saying it is difficult for a rich man to enter into God’s kingdom. He is saying it is impossible. A camel cannot go through the eye of a needle. Are the wealthy doomed to spend eternity in torment along with Lazarus’ rich man? In all of this Jesus is exposing a danger; a danger that is often very hard to see. Wealth is seductive and often entraps people in a hazy bog in which they are convinced that their wealth is all they need. They have food; they have joy; they are content thank you very much. What else could they need? And ruin dances on the horizon.
Jesus lifted up his eyes and took notice of his disciples in the crowd. It is specifically to them that he directs his teaching. And he begins with “Blessed are the poor.” The word “blessed” refers to a state of being happy. It does not imply the expectation of some kind of favorable attention – it is not that kind of blessing. It is about an attitude of being happy right now. Is Jesus making this blanket statement about how happy poor people are? The word “poor” means “destitute, reduced to begging,” and it can refer to “being worthless.” If this is about the physically poor and afflicted, it would be about poor disciples. But there is this passage in Isaiah 66:1-5 that bears many points of similarity to our passage. And in Isaiah 66:2, God says, “I will look upon the humble, the poor (contrite) in spirit, and the one who trembles.” Often in Isaiah, the poor are those who are humble; those who trust in God rather than themselves or their wealth. I believe that it is this kind of poverty that Jesus is lifting up. People who are destitute are those who trust in God – and this is why they are happy. And this is why they are in the kingdom of God. They know they need God. They are not blinded by their own wealth; their own ability; their own anything.
And blessed are those who hunger. Hunger can refer to a physical gnawing, but it can also refer to any strong desire; a hungering for something. But there is this reality: It is often those who don’t have enough food to eat, who know they need God. They will be satisfied – have enough to eat – but they are happy now. Their blessing does not come when they finally fill their bellies. It comes because their hunger drives them to the throne of God. It is the same for those who weep. This word implies a loud wailing; an intense grief breaking out from the depths of the soul. They are blessed now. They will laugh later, but that is not the source of their blessing. The source? Their grief breaks them into little pieces and they cry out to God. We are talking about disciples, remember? Oh, and if people hate you and exclude you from their group and denounce you and throw out your name or reputation as evil, you are blessed. But only if these things are done because of your association with the Son of Man. In that day you should be glad and do a happy dance. The rejoicing and dancing is because of anticipation of heaven. No matter what is done to you here, you have a reward in heaven. And you are in good company. The prophets of old were treated the same way.
Jesus follows these four beatitudes with four woes. The word woe means “horror, disaster, ruin.” And the four woes match the four beatitudes. Ironically, the rich were actually ruin. They are ruin now even though they experience encouragement. It is implied that the encouragement they have now is all they will receive. And the well-fed are satisfied now, but later they will hunger. Those who laugh now will mourn later. Those who are praised by all now are just like the false prophets of old; the men and women who would spout whatever the multitude wanted to hear. Woe! Horror! Disaster!
What do you turn to in the midst of the darkness? If you rely on your wealth; your having plenty to eat; your enjoyment of this life; your reputation, well then, horror is yours because these things cannot sustain you. And generally speaking, the more people have, the more they tend to rely on what they have. The truly happy person is the one who humbly understands that he stands empty before God. You need Jesus. And that need is what will bring you joy – real joy. So, let go of all the stuff. Stand humbly as a beggar before God, knowing that you have nothing of value. You need God! Trust in him. Be happy! Grace.