(Deuteronomy 24: 17-22; Luke 6:20-26)
You know what you start to notice the more you read the Bible, especially the Old Testament; something you may not have paid much attention to before? Widows and orphans. It’s true. Everywhere, like the passage Rebekah just read, we find widows and orphans, mentioned over and over again.
And specifically, how people are to treat widows and orphans. Don’t take advantage of widows and orphans. Leave the harvest of the corners of your fields for widows and orphans. Don’t deprive justice to widows and orphans. Kings and governments are grilled by the prophets for turning their backs on widows and orphans. When judgment befalls the Israelite nation, it’s not merely because they were unfaithful, but because they did not take care of…..who again? Widows and orphans!
There is, of course, a good reason for this.. In Biblical times, widows and orphans were the most vulnerable members of society, left to fend for themselves without the kinds of social safety nets we strive to have today. Orphans had no parents to raise them. Widows had no husband to provide for them. Very often they would slip through the cracks; very often they wondered if they mattered. So the Israelites were commanded to care for widows and orphans because that is what people of God do – they care for the most vulnerable members of society even and especially when others do not.
And even though Jesus doesn’t mention them specifically, you can bet he’s talking about widows and orphans, and the rest of society’s vulnerable, in our second scripture reading. It feels a little like Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, doesn’t it? But there are differences. It’s not the “poor in spirit” who are blessed. It’s just the “poor.” Those deprived of life’s basic necessities. The hungry, the thirsty, the needy, the beggars and homeless. Widows and orphans.
There’s another big difference from the Beatitudes, and it has to do with “woes.” Not W-H-O-A but W-O-E. Merriam-Websters defines this “woe” as “a great sorrow or distress.” And to whom are these woes directed? Well, they are directed at the rich, the full and satisfied, the laughing and content – to each of them, Jesus says, “woe!”
Luke has Jesus on shaky ground here, don’t you think? I mean, it’s one thing to lift up widows and orphans, the needy and beggars and those experiencing homelessness. We all want that. No one wants anyone to be poor. But when you start calling out those who are privileged, those who receive benefits by their status or their bank account or their family name – well, that’s when you’re likely to get some pushback – as Jesus most certainly did.
And just between you and me, I gotta say that I’m a little concerned, honestly. Because I think I may be one of the ones that Jesus is talking about! I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily call myself “rich.” But I was able to pay off my bills last month. Full and satisfied? I had breakfast this morning, I’ve got lunch and dinner in my future; and if anything I’m trying to knock off a pound or two. Laughing and content? I mean, I’m a pretty happy guy. I have very little to complain about. Woe to me? That’s not good, is it?
See, this is the kind of conundrum we find ourselves in when we read the scriptures not from a distance but up close; when we check our location in the narrative and who we identify with. The parable of the Prodigal Son – are we the younger son who receives the father’s forgiveness, or the older brother who is angry at undeserved grace? The Good Samaritan – are we the one giving aid to a rival or the one receiving it from a rival? Luke’s version of the Beatitudes – are we the ones being blessed or the ones being “woe-d?” Our tendency is to assume that we occupy the desirable place in the narrative. I have a sneaky suspicion that those in the audience that day on the receiving end of Jesus’ “woes” were certain he was talking about someone else.
In his book Living Biblically, author A.J. Jacobs wrestles all year long with this. What was his place in this law or in that story? Who was he meant to identify as? And part of that journey connected him with circles that stretched outside the Jewish faith. In one such instance, A.J. connects with a Christian group called the Red Letter Christians. I’ll let A.J. tell you about it:
I’d never heard of the Red-letter Christians before my biblical year. They don’t have TV shows with millions of viewers and 1-800 operators standing by. The Red-Letter Christians are a loose-knit, like-minded group of preachers, the most prominent of whom are a Philadelphia-based pastor named Tony Campolo, and Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners magazine and author of God’s Politics. U2’s Bono is an honorary member.
In their own way, the Red-Letter Christians are Biblical literalists. They probably would avoid that label, since the word has such negative connotations. And, true, they accept more figurative language in the Bible than, say, the Pat Robertson camp. But they are literal in the sense that their goal is to return to the plain, primary, simple sense of Jesus’s words. So – when Jesus said that you should invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind to your banquets, that’s precisely what you should do. When Jesus talked about nonviolence, we should take him at his word. The Red-Letter Christians are antiwar, anticonsumerism, and above all, anti-poverty. They point out that there are more passages in the Bible about the poor than any other topic save idolatry – several thousand more, in fact.
In a conversation A.J. has with Campolo, the evangelist laments that so much of Christianity has been co-opted by political forces, making it more about a party platform than “the radical teachings of Jesus.” He also bashes the “prosperity gospel,” saying, “Christianity is not a watered-down version of middle-class morality.”
And then he offers this gem:
The problem with a lot of religion is that people have “interpreted the Gospel so much, they’ve started believing the interpretations instead of what Jesus actually said.”
Whoa! W-H-O-A “whoa!”
What Campolo and A.J. and Jesus would agree on, I think, is that our Judeo-Christian faith draws distinct lines between two very different kinds of power. One is “power over” – the way much of our society runs, a hierarchy, top-to-bottom, chain of command stuff. The other is “power under” – winning people’s hearts by putting others before ourselves. The first is the world’s power; the second is God’s power, demonstrated most completely in Jesus Christ; and what Jesus actually said instead of whatever the interpretations might be. And those of us in the church are called to a “power under;” serving Jesus not by being more powerful, but by being more faithful.
And therein lies the fundamental difference between “power over” and “power under:”
“Power over” tells us that “the one who dies with the most toys wins.” “Power under” tells us that our worth is not determined by what we own but by who we follow.
“Power over” tells us that strength and might and domination are the name of the game. “Power under” dares to tell us that we are bound together in selfless love.
“Power over” tells us that a person’s identity comes from their place in this world. “Power under” tells us that a person’s identity comes from simply being a child of God.
“Power over” promulgates the lie that one disadvantaged person’s gain means another advantaged person’s loss. “Power under” proclaims the truth that dismantling systemic structures that harm some and benefit others is the only way to bring about the spiritual healing we all desperately need.
The space between these two powers, that is shaky ground. And “power over” will stop at nothing to discount and defeat those with “power under.” I mean, I wonder if back in biblical times there were some who heard all the talk about taking care of widows and orphans and cried out, “hey, wait a minute – what about me? Do I not get taken care of? Do I not matter?”
We hear this echoed in our time from those who say, “but all lives matter.” I think our former Montreat speaker David Lamotte put it best when he said that the three-word slogan spoken through megaphones and painted on streets is not saying “black lives matter more.” It’s simply saying “black lives matter too,” because right now all evidence suggests that they do not matter all that much to us. Lives of the most vulnerable at any given moment – widows and orphans in one era; people of color in another – those lives matter to God, which means as the people of God they must matter to us.
You may have heard back in June that students from Ardrey Kell High School, in the midst of national protests following the killing of George Floyd, painted a large rock in front of the school – one of those rocks that’s supposed to get painted on – they painted it with a “Black Lives Matter” mural Days later, in the true spirit of “power over,” the rock was vandalized and the mural destroyed.
Two days later, the students regathered – a larger group this time – and “power under” painted a new mural even better than the one before. And as she stood back from the work of art and soaked in the moment, senior student body president Kayden Hunt, a young woman of color, took in a deep breath and said, “I guess if there’s a bright side to this, it is that sometimes you have to see hate to be able to fix it.”
People of God, the world is calling upon us to experience the words of Jesus up close and not from a distance; to open our eyes and see hate, so that with God’s help we can fix it. And this is the way of Jesus. This is the way for each of us.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from prop
Featured image from https://qcnerve.com/opinion-cms-continues-to-fail-its-students-through-segregation/