God bless you! When are you most likely to hear that? While we should hear it a lot in church, you probably hear it more when people sneeze. This tradition goes back thousands of years. The ancient Romans would say “Jupiter preserve you” when someone sneezed. Arabs often say “Praise be to God.” Other cultures have more secular responses such as gesundheit, which means “health.” Almost every culture in every generation has some sort of good wish or prayer in response to a sneeze. Our familiar “God bless you” has been attributed to Pope Gregory the Great who said it during the bubonic plague outbreak in case the sneeze was the beginning of something more serious. This blessing generally emerges out of fear. Some feared that when you sneezed, your soul temporarily left your body and the blessing was needed to stop the devil from grabbing it. Others feared the devil got in with a sneeze and the blessing kicked him out. More recently, people feared your heart stopped during the sneeze and the blessing would get it going again.
That’s all very interesting but what is a blessing? There are a number of blessing lists in the Bible, including the beatitudes. If you compare this version in Luke with that from Matthew 5, you will notice they are similar but different. Why is this? I suspect that Jesus taught on this subject a number of times in different places. He would adjust the message according to the context and what we have in Luke is specific to this context.
But we still have not defined what a blessing is.
A good definition of blessing that I found is “the distinctive religious joy which accrues to [people] from [their] share in the salvation of the kingdom of God.”
The Greek word was used by Homer to speak of the gods in their contentment and happiness living with no fear or want. Later it began to be used more for people, in the ways that we typically think of it today. It was for the rich and powerful.
But that is not how it is used in the Bible as we will see. In fact the Bible seems to be responding to the popular ideas of blessings. I will also say that blessing is almost always referring to a person rather than a thing. It is people that are blessed and not things.
How Does the World Identify the Blessed?
Aside from people who sneeze, who would we identify as those who are blessed? One way to think about this would be to imagine God coming to you and saying, “I want to bless you, what do you want?” I think that many people would want financial independence. It doesn’t have to be a billion dollars but being rich would be nice. They say money can’t by happiness, but not being able to afford to pay the bills is not so fun. Lotteries do a great job of leveraging this desire within us with their message of “Imagine the freedom.”
What else could we want? Good health would be a great blessing. As someone who has had some serious health concerns, I am pretty thankful when doctors and medication can get me back on track. When I hear about people getting good reports from the doctors, I am very happy. This is what we want to hear. When you talk to a young couple who are about to have a baby, they will often say, “We don’t care if it is a boy or a girl, as long as the baby is healthy.”
What other things would we consider blessings? I think popularity would be one. No one likes to be unpopular. Most people want to have friends that enjoy their presence and don’t just tolerate it. Another blessing would be approval or respect from other people. I took a course at Brock and the professor announced to the class that most people failed the major paper. I picked up my paper and I received over 90% and so I looked for every opportunity to drop my paper grade side up for people to see. What about the work world? It is nice to have a job with good pay and benefits. But it is also nice when your boss promotes you to a higher position with greater authority and prestige.
In our passage from Luke, Jesus gives us a good list of who the world would consider blessed, a list that fits with ours. Jesus speaks of the rich, the well fed, those who laugh and those who are spoken well of. That sounds like a pretty good life to me. Unfortunately, Jesus moves that list from the blessed category to the woe category. That is concerning and requires a closer look.
How Does Jesus Identify the Blessed?
In the beatitudes, Jesus seems to turn everything upside down. He puts those we think are blessed in the woe category and those we would normally think of as unfortunate as blessed. The first thing that we have to realize is that this is not about Jesus having a bad day. Turning things upside down is what Jesus does. Who are the great leaders? They are the servants. Who are the great in the kingdom? Those who are considered the least. Everything is opposite.
We looked at the one list of people that Jesus gave in the woes and the list of the blessed are the exact opposite. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping and the hated. Probably none of us want those experiences and yet they are identified as the blessed. What do we do with this? When people come here for Out of the Cold, should we withhold the meal so they can be blessed with hunger while we are cursed with full stomachs? You can see how hard it is to interpret this and put it into practice.
Is it always wrong to be rich? There were wealthy people who helped support Jesus’ ministry and even provided for his tomb. There are people today who are gifted to be successful in business and are intentional in using their wealth to fund ministries, support charities and give to churches.
Is it always good to be poor? What about a person who refuses to work, not because they have a problem but because they don’t feel like it. What about those who put all their money into habits that damage their bodies and their relationships?
Is it really wrong to laugh? When you see your child or grandchild do something cute and you laugh out of sheer joy, have you sinned? Do we need to be crying all the time, no matter what the circumstances? Billy Graham is respected and spoken well of by many people, even outside the Church. Is that bad? There are politicians who are hated and who seem to enjoy getting people upset. Are they blessed?
We must be very careful in interpreting this passage but at the same time we dare not reject it because it seems counterintuitive.
A basic interpretation step is to read every passage in its context. Luke is nice enough to give us the context in which Jesus gave this teaching. We are told that people from all over, even from outside Israel, were coming to him. They cam to him to hear him, which is good. But it is obvious that they were looking for more than just a Bible study. They were also coming to have their diseases cured. What was the stronger impulse? If you were sick, what would you be more interested in, a sermon or a healing?
Healings were not a bad thing. Jesus would not have performed them if they were. Jesus had compassion on the sick and he healed them. But even more than this, the hearings were signs of the kingdom of God, or the reign of God breaking into the world. Miracles were meant to point to the kingdom and not to be an end of themselves. The danger was that people could interpret the hearings as God’s primary desire from them to be comfortable and have an easy life. The people were ready for a message in which God would give them the things they had always wanted in life.
The people they wanted to be was the rich, fed, laughing and those that people spoke well of. But these were a specific kind of people. These were rich and fed by taking advantage of the poor and withholding the resources they had. They were laughing, not because they were filled with joy, they were laughing in mockery of the people who they say as be less than them. People spoke well of them, not because they deserved the respect, but because people would flatter them into getting what they wanted. These were the people who felt self-sufficient and in control. Woe to them.
The blessings are for those who are a part of the kingdom of God. You do not have to be poor or starving to be a part of the kingdom but you can’t be self-sufficient in your own strength, nor can you climb on the backs of the poor to get where you want to be.
The key is the kingdom of God. How are we to understand the kingdom of God? This is not a simplistic idea of everything will be all right in heaven. There is a great reward in heaven as Jesus shares here. But that reward is one that benefits us now. We live not just in the hope of heaven but in the light of heaven. Those in the kingdom are blessed now, because simply being in the kingdom is a blessing. When we are in the kingdom, we receive all that we need from God. We live in a state of full reliance of God, trusting in his provision rather than in our own confidence.
As with all things of God, reality is not defined by what we see on the outside. David did not look impressive as a king and Jesus did not look impressive as a messiah. God works in a different way and it throws our world upside down.
I want you to go from this place blessed. But that does not mean I want you to leave the building poor, hungry, weeping and hated. I want you to leave this building as one who fully embraces the kingdom of God. If we submit to God in every area of our life, it does not matter if we we are rich or poor, full or hungry, laughing or weeping, respected or hated. What matters is that we look to God for our strength, live according to his will and seek to spread his kingdom.