One of the most well known parts of the Bible is the series of statements known as “The Beatitudes” with which Jesus opened the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:2-12). Each Beatitude declares those who have a certain personal quality to be “blessed” and promises them a particular reward. The Gospel of Luke also contains a version of The Beatitudes. It is less famous than Matthew’s version, probably because it is shorter (four Beatitudes instead of nine). However, there are other important differences. While Matthew’s Beatitudes focus mainly on character attributes, Luke’s focus on what might be termed ‘circumstances of living.’ Luke’s Beatitudes are also intriguing in that they are followed by “Woes” or (to coin a phrase) Bewaritudes, which are the opposite of Beatitudes. These sayings of Jesus read as follows in the English Standard Version:
Luke 6:20-26: “20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. 22 "Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! 23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. 24 "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 "Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. "Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. 26 "Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”
The word ‘woe’ isn’t one we use every day, but the Greek word behind it is an exclamation of grief, like “Oh no!” or “What a pity!” As we read these words of Jesus an obvious question presents itself: “Ummm…What?” Jesus describes circumstances that we typically describe as “less fortunate” or “underprivileged” (poverty, hunger, grief and rejection/unpopularity) and calls them blessed. Then he describes circumstances that most people envy and aspire to (wealth, feasting, laughter and fame/popularity) and calls them less fortunate. In other words, we should feel sorry for the celebrities who grace the covers of lifestyle magazines and music videos on MTV, and should envy despised, brokenhearted beggars.
It sounds crazy, but the key to understanding this message is time. Seen through God’s eyes, this life is just a blip, and the next life is what it’s really all about. Wealth, fullness, laughter and popularity tend to blind people to their need for a relationship with God, and distract them from the far greater blessings that could be theirs in the future. By contrast, poverty, hunger, grief and unpopularity cause people to put their faith in God and the everlasting reward that he offers. This is precisely why the Christian faith is on the decline in affluent Europe and North America but thriving in the developing world.
So what does all of this mean in practical terms? Should we sell off our worldly possessions? Not necessarily. There are poor atheists and there are wealthy saints. What really matters is where our heart is; but we should recognize that poverty and hunger are more conducive to godliness than wealth and feasting. So if you’re breathing a sigh of relief that you can keep your beloved Mercedes-Benz, maybe you should think about how attached you are to your possessions. After all, Jesus did command one wealthy young man to sell everything and donate the proceeds to charity as a prerequisite for being a disciple (Luke 18:22).
What about the persecution bit? Should we go around seeking persecution? We should not seek it, but it will find us, as Paul’s ‘Law of Persecution’ states: “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). If we take a stand for Christ and against evil with courage and integrity, there will be people who will make life difficult for us – maybe even from our own family (Matthew 10:34-36).
As for grief versus laughter, Jesus may have been alluding to the words of Ecclesiastes 7:2-3: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.” In this context, we are probably talking about the kind of laughter associated with partying. Sorrow builds character and perspective; laughter (especially of the alcohol-induced sort) does not. This life is about building character; there will be plenty of time for laughter in the next. As the saying goes, “He who laughs last laughs longest.”
In summary, the heart of a Christian is not focused on materialism or enjoying the finest luxuries in this life. He/she doesn’t have a list of “1000 things to do before you die” because death is not the end, so what’s the rush? Nor is he/she focused on “winning friends and influencing people” like Dale Carnegie’s adherents. He/she is mainly concerned with loving God and loving others, and rejoicing in the grace and promises of God. I feel this message is à propos because of the “prosperity gospel” which has spread from America to a growing global audience.
The prosperity gospel says that good Christians should expect to be rewarded by God in this life with money. Some proponents go as far as to claim that those who tithe to the church can expect financial reward from God in return. Worst of all, they make the poor to feel guilty and inadequate. After all, if faithfulness to God leads to financial gain, then poor people must be unfaithful to God, right? Some prosperity preachers are getting rich by guilt-tripping the poor into giving their money to the church. They are replacing the Good News of the Kingdom of God with the American Dream. They view their own wealth as a mark of divine approval, but they need to reread the Bewaritudes.