Only Christians have a true sense of values; their joys and sorrows are not the same as other people’s. The sight of a wounded boxer wearing a victor’s crown would make someone ignorant of the games think only of the boxer’s wounds and how painful they must be. Such a person would know nothing of the happiness the crown gives. — John Chrysostom
To understand what Jesus is saying in Luke 6, says John Pilch, we must understand the realities of the words: “Rich” and “Poor” in their 1st century context.
Rich really means to have a place of high honor and therefore the power, socially and physically, to have riches. It means to have the power to take and to give at ones own choice. To be poor means to not have power to defend oneself. As a poor person, one might have coins or cattle or sheep. Yet, one had these things at the mercy of others higher up on the social, “power food chain.” The “poor” where weak and at the mercy of others.
Power had a way to become rich. One had power and with it came the capability to become rich. Maybe today we think of it in reverse: One makes ones fortune and therefore one can, by virtue of spending it rightly, gain power and become privileged. Campaign contributions anyone?
On the other side of things, if one was to be of a socially unfortunate class in Jesus’ time, one stayed that way. It mattered little what physical fortunes one had. They were at the mercy of those who could get them because they had the power to pretty much seize them without fear of reprisal. If the socially powerful man next door moved the property markers into your field, he would prevail in the ensuing dispute by social clout. It was the breaks
Pilch suggests that though the translations we are used to are not wrong, the proper sense of them is not “Rich” and “Poor,” but “Greedy” and "Socially unfortunate.”
Having lots of things: gold, sheep, cattle, houses, was always a suspect matter. Had one been greedy in getting these things? Had one used ones clout to attain them from those who were defenseless like widows and orphans?
It is not that the economic realities do not matter here. They do. However, those of high esteem could fix their economic situation. Those of low place could not and neither could they rely on any economic good fortune. If they were to survive economically, they had to attach themselves to a defender, a “patron,” one of high social status. “If I do you this favor . . “ anyone?
The vast majority of people in the ancient world were poor. This condition was brought about by the greedy wicked folk, not by an economy gone awry, laziness, or bad luck. God is the ultimate arbiter of true honor, and the honor God bestows is unsurpassable. When God honors the socially unfortunate, everyone will know their true status.
How indeed does God fit into this? I am glad you asked.
Psalm 68:5 A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.
Deuteronomy 10:18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.
James 1:27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Compare that with the proud:
Job 24 “Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment? Why must those who know him look in vain for such days?There are those who move boundary stones; they pasture flocks they have stolen. 3 They drive away the orphan’s donkey and take the widow’s ox in pledge. 4 They thrust the needy from the path and force all the poor of the land into hiding.”
To answer Job’s question: Time is up. Remember “Today this reading is fulfilled in your hearing?” (Lk 4:21) I think these two readings belong to gather. As does the song of Mary:
. . for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. (LK 1:48-53)
If God becomes my “patron,” how will it go for me? Will it be more of the same? I have no idea how resigned to their fate 1st century peasants and fishermen were, yet, certainly they noted that their life was somehow less worthy in some way and may have lamented that estate. Would God consider them lesser as well?
Mary noted that the God of Israel had looked at her lowly estate but that from that day on, generations would call her blessed. (Lk 1:48) Jesus repeats that divine judgement in our reading from Luke 6. The lowly will be lifted up. The mighty will be put down from their thrones. (Lk 1:52, 6:24-26)
We can see this as threat to the rich and certainly it has been used that way. We can also see it as a promise in the light of Acts: 2:44-45 “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” The same Holy Spirit that spoke through Mary and who is alive here, in chapter 6, in Jesus will make it so.
The believers, it seems in Acts, have cast off the entire socially fortunate and socially unfortunate distinction in favor of an embrace of the brother and sister that the Father has bestowed with rings for their fingers, sandals for their feet, and new robes (15:22), along with a celebration of the wholeness of the family. (15:23)The highways and byways have lost the dispossessed and lowly from their margins. They have been called to the feast. (16:24) The just will no longer make a distinction in their own ranks and maybe even beyond. (14:12-14)
Luke does however also sound the warning. Rejecting this new community is possible and deadly. (Dives, Saphira and Ananias, the Older Son)
Luke seems to be consistent in his judgement of humanity: Before God they are all on level ground, there are no distinctions and neither should there be such distinctions. An Israelite was an Israelite and to be treated as a brother or sister, equal in state and worthy of consideration. (13:16) The story of the centurion that follows the sermon on the plane and the story of the Good Samaritan hint at the time that that equality of regard will be extended to all humanity. (Acts 10)
It is certainly possible to read Luke politically as a manifesto of liberation. That has a lot of history to it and can speak for itself. I suggest to it read on the personal level, as a call to human dignity.
What is our dignity based on? The obvious answer is: God holds us in loving esteem and has made us part of his family, his kingdom. This is where our value, our dignity lies. It is not in things or status or even any sense of measured happiness. We can count our “blessings" all we want. Count them one by one for all I care. If we mean by that, the things we own or the spaces we occupy in the world, even the relationships we define ourselves by then we miss the point. Yet, on we sing the song: “Count your blessings . . “
I wonder what blessings the thief who was crucified with Jesus was counting. Had he anything to count? If so — and that is highly unlikely — would it matter? He would be stone dead in a moment. Yet, blessed is he as well, his shall be a place the kingdom or is that paradise, whatever that may be.
What about the Rich young ruler? He had blessings to count even spiritual blessings: He had maintained what might well be described as holy life. He was rich, a fact that would have impressed on the friends of Job that he was righteous.
In the telling of the the story he becomes a signpost at a crossroad. What is it that you place your value on? What tells you that you are worth a darn? What tells you that the God of heaven and earth approves of you? What tells you that the world approves? Which one of those do you listen to?
How do you decide whom to love and value? What must they be like for you to accord them dignity and grace? Likewise: how do you hope to impress others? What do you consider the best foot to put forward when you meet people?
Maybe that it what the sermon on the plain tries to answer.