Woe Is Me
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Jesus preached the most famous sermon in history in Aramaic; Luke recorded it in Greek, we read it in English, but Rome ran the church for over a thousand years, so most of our important churchy words are Latin, like Gloria, Magnificat, Benedictus, Nunc Dimittis, and Requiem. Also, Beatitudes, from the Latin Beati, the first word in every Beatitude, which means “Blessed,” or “Happy,” or “Fortunate”: “Blessed, Happy, Fortunate, are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
We commonly consult Matthew rather than Luke when we want to think about the Beatitudes. Matthew’s Beatitudes have eight blessings. Luke turns those eight blessings into four “Happy’s” and four “Woe’s.” Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the reviled. Woe to the rich, the sated, the laughing, and the popular.
It’s no mystery why we like Matthew better. Where Luke writes the blunt, impolitic “Blessed are the poor,” Matthew sands off the rough edges and gives us the softer, safer “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Where Luke hammers home his humble homily with “Blessed are the hungry,” Matthew again deflects the right hook by giving us “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” When our third-graders memorize the Beatitudes to earn their Bibles, they memorize Matthew’s version. When sacred music composers set the Beatitudes to music, they use Matthew’s version. Invariably.
Because we can find ourselves in Matthew’s Beatitudes, right? We can be rich but poor in spirit. We can be filled with nourishment but hunger after righteousness. The only place we can find ourselves in Luke’s Beatitudes, though, is in the list of “Woe’s. Woe to the rich. Woe to the popular. Woe Is Me.
Unless you are scraping by on your monthly Social Security check or obtaining your calories from a soup kitchen, there is no place for us among the “Happy’s.” The great Episcopalian preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says we ought to call Luke’s Beatitudes the Woe-itudes.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Luke’s version probably more faithfully captures Jesus’ original words. It’s a fundamental rule of biblical interpretation, perhaps the most important of all. When you have two versions of Jesus’ original words and you’re trying to determine what Jesus actually said way back there at the beginning, the harder reading is probably the correct one.
It’s easier to believe that Matthew tried to soften and broaden Jesus’ difficult remark than that Luke took a fairly benign saying and made it harder and more exclusionary.
So how is this text God’s word of grace to us this morning? We are rich, not poor. We are sated, not hungry. We are happy, not sad. We are popular, not reviled. Solidly in the Woeitudes. Because it seems as if we are blessed, right? That’s how we refer to the good things in our lives. They’re blessings: the homes that shelter us, the schools that teach our children, the communities that keep us safe, the salaries that stock our pantries and our 401-K’s, the sleek vehicles that deliver us wherever we want to go—we call them blessings, because that’s what they are. They are God’s gifts to us. How do they put us in the list of woeitudes?
Yesterday we were walking the dog and a car pulled into a driveway and the car’s tires cracked a coating of ice; it went Pop! Pop! Pop! I said, “It sounds like gunshots.” My wife said, “Thinking of Aurora?” I said, “I guess so.” And then she said, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard gunfire.” And then she stopped herself and said, “Oh, yes I did. Once. In Honduras.” She was on a dental mission trip. It’s such a blessing to live in neighborhoods where, with rare exceptions, you never hear gunfire.
Maybe this text is God’s word for the likes of us in two ways. Two things for privileged folk to remember: the good things in our lives are gifts, not entitlements. And the good things in our lives are not ultimate but penultimate; they are not where our trust should be lodged.
First, the blessings in our lives are just that: Blessings. We do not deserve them. For the most part, we did not even earn them; they were given to us. Oh sure, we study hard and work hard and reach up always toward honor and decency and industry, but most of us were born on third base. These good things do not make us superior to the poor, the hungry, the sad, or the reviled.
Maybe this is God’s word to me today because I do not often pay the poor the respect they deserve. I do not behave as if they are God’s favorites, which is what Luke’s Beatitudes are telling us. I get so irritated when a panhandler approaches my car with a plastic bucket at an exit ramp off the Kennedy.
But maybe Jesus is reminding me today to change my attitude. One of the churches I served was Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Westminster is a downtown church situated solidly on skid row. We were surrounded by single-room occupancy hotels and a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen and a free medical clinic and a couple of establishments with red lights above the alleyway entrance. Many of our neighbors were mentally challenged and on the verge of homelessness.
A couple of them worshiped with us but most of my members drove in from the Winnetka-like suburbs of Grand Rapids. And when they got to church, they had to step over several street people to get inside to a peaceful place where the rich talked to Jesus. We tried to teach our members that a handout is almost never a good thing. No cash. Never enable alcohol or drug addiction. But sometimes their soft hearts got the better of them.
One Sunday morning a guy on crutches came up to a distinguished, well-dressed elder from my Board of Trustees and said he hadn’t eaten in two days and needed $10 for breakfast. My privileged friend gave him not $10 but $20 and went inside to attend worship.
After the service when he was driving home, my friend saw the mendicant striding briskly into a local tavern with his crutches slung over his shoulder. So far as I know, they did not serve breakfast in this establishment. Remember the lame beggar Eddie Murphy plays in that 1983 film Trading Places? “Praise, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus! I'm healed!” But so what? They’re God’s favorites.
Never disrespect the people God blesses. Maybe we need secure border control, but the vast, vast majority of the people trying to sneak into this country are not drug dealers but families fleeing gunfire in Honduras.
In the summer of 2017, the temperature along the border in Arizona routinely went above 100 degrees. Four women snuck into a wilderness area along the border and left jugs of water and cans of food at sporadic locales in the desert. They were volunteers from an organization called No More Deaths. They were arrested—for trespassing, I think—convicted, and face six months in jail. What kind of country do we live in? What would Jesus think about that?
So never disrespect the people God blesses. That’s the first thing. And the second thing is: I need to keep my priorities straight. Do we own our stuff, or does our stuff own us? We are made whole and hale and well not by the tangible but by the invisible.
Do you know who Gary Shteyngart is? Gary Shteyngart is the Russian-American humorist who wrote Absurdistan, among other witty satires. A while back he wrote an article in The New Yorker in which he admitted to his obsession with wristwatches. Expensive wristwatches. In that article he admitted that when something bad happens in his life, he goes out and buys himself an expensive collector’s watch, usually a Rolex or a Nomos. I don’t know what a Nomos is, but Gary’s watches average $5,000.
I love this guy. I have a mild obsession with watches myself. have about ten. I don’t have Gary’s money, so my watches are mostly under $100, but I understand the fascination. I’m so proud of this watch. My niece gave it to me after I performed her wedding. It’s a Shinola. You know: “Made in Detroit”? In my world, this is a fairly expensive watch.
Anyway, Gary was worried his watch thing was becoming an addiction and confessed it to a watch-geek friend of his, who says this about watch collectors: “There’s some rot in the oak of their soul that can only be patched up with watches.” I am going to try to be careful not to patch the rot in the oak of my soul with stuff.
There was a touching story in Michigan newspapers last week. This happened on Grand Traverse Bay just south of Suttons Bay. A bald eagle was trapped in the ice on Lake Michigan. He had an eight-pound bowling ball of ice frozen to his tail. Eight pounds. Mature bald eagles weigh nine pounds, so of course he could not fly.
Some guys from Wings of Wonder, a raptor sanctuary and rehab center in Empire, Michigan, trapped him and took him home and melted this eight-pound bowling ball of ice stuck to his tail. The eagle stayed in the raptor sanctuary for a couple of days, and then hundreds gathered in the parking lot of Suttons Bay High School to witness his release and cheered raucously as he flew away. It was really moving, this majestic predator of the great blue beyond granted his freedom again.
It reminded me of a story Harry Emerson Fosdick told about 60 years ago. Harry Emerson Fosdick might have been the greatest white American preacher of the twentieth century. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., built Riverside Church in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights specifically for Dr. Fosdick. Mr. Rockefeller thought Dr. Fosdick needed a large and spectacular forum from which to preach the good news.
Dr. Fosdick says that one cold winter day on the Niagara River, a raptor landed on a carcass floating on the river and began to feed. I don’t know if it was a hawk, a falcon, an eagle, or a vulture, but this bird was there riding this dinner/raft in the river for a long time, and when the thunder of the falls grew louder, the raptor tried to fly away, but it was too late; his talons had frozen to the corpse. It prompted me to ask myself: Do I have an eight-pound ball of ice stuck to my tail? Or can I fly away free from the genuinely good things of my life?
We have so many wonderful riches in our lives, some of them necessities and some of them luxuries. They’re all blessings. It’s all good, it’s all grace, and it’s all God. But in his Beatitudes and Woeitudes, Jesus tells us to be more like the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the reviled, because they have nothing solid to rely on but God Godself, but thereby they are among the blessed.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “God’s Ferris Wheel,” in Home by Another Way, (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), pp. 53–54.
Kristine Phillips, “They left food and water for migrants in the desert. Now they might go to prison,” The Washington Post, January 20, 2019.
Gary Shteyngart, “Time Out: Confessions of a Watch Geek,” The New Yorker, March 20, 2017, p. 40.
Aleanna Siacon, “Rescuers Help Bald Eagle Stuck on Michigan Ice,” Detroit Free Press, 02/09/2019.
Harry Emerson Fosdick, Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Man Perplexed about Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), p. 126.