(A) Introduction (Read the passage.)

This passage bears a striking resemblance to Mt5v1to11 - the first part of the Sermon on the Mount. Luke sets the scene by saying: He (Jesus) went down with them (disciples) and stood on a level place. v17 It is possible that Jesus was still on the mountain side but at a lower level bench or terrace. The other possibility is that Luke is describing a different occasion to Matthew but one where he gives very similar teaching. Itinerant preachers have been known to repeat a well-crafted and polished sermon from church to church!

I have dealt with the 'Blessings and Woes' thoroughly in my series on the Beatitudes. So there will be a certain amount of repitition in this exposition.

(B) It is better to be poor than rich!

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. v20. But woe to you who are rich for you have already received your comfort. v24.

(1) Some clarification

This statement of Jesus seems absolutely crazy to modern ears. Million upon million play the lottery every week in Britain in the hope of getting rich. The dominant desire of so many is for Lady Luck to make them millionaires.

Christians in the Third World don't like being poor. There is year on year anxiety about the bare necessities of life - food, water, fuel and clothing. Poverty is restrictive - it is the rich who are free to pursue their interests and pleasures.

I imagine Jesus received lots of questions when he spoke about the blessedness of the poor because to the Jews prosperity was a mark of God's favour. Jesus responded by specifying that the poor he had in mind were the poor in spirit. So Matthew was able to write: "Blessed are the poor in spirit." Mt5v3. Jesus contrasts the poor in spirit with those who are pleased with themselves - the rich. Paul describes the arrogance of the Christians at Corinth like this: Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings - and that without us! 1Cor4v8.

(2) The characteristics of the rich.

Three characteristics of the rich are illustrated in Scripture. They are:

    (a) Self-congratulatory. Jesus told a parable about a highly successful farmer who benefited from a bumper harvest. The response of the rich fool was to think: "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years .... ." Lk12v19. He was congratulating himself on being financially secure for years to come - little knowing his death was imminent.

    (b) Presumptuous. The rich farmer planned to: "Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." He presumed that his goods - stored away in bigger barns - made him secure.

    (c) Self-indulgent. In the parable of 'The Rich Man and Lazarus' Jesus briefly but graphically described the self-indulgence of the very wealthy: There was a rich man who .... lived in luxury every day. Lk16v19.

A self-congratulatory and presumptuous spirit is not confined to the materially rich. In, 'The Innocents Abroad', Mark Twain described what it was like to experience a very rough sea in the Atlantic. By happy good fortune Mark Twain wasn't seasick and was able to sit on deck watching the ship leaping and plunging through the waves. A little old man lurched across the deck. Mark Twain greeted him, "Good morning, Sir. It is a fine day." The only response was, "Oh My!" as the old gentleman reeled away clutching his stomach. For an hour Mark Twain was bombarded with little old gentlemen whose only attempt at conversation was, "Oh My!" He writes: 'I knew what was the matter with them. They were seasick. And I was glad of it. We all like to see people seasick when we are not ourselves.'

Most of us are like Mark Twain - we are pleased that there are people worse off than ourselves. One of the reasons the poor whites in the southern states of the U.S.A opposed the abolition of slavery was because so long as black slaves existed they were not on the bottom rung of the ladder.

We see the great dangers of this tendency in Jesus' parable of the 'Pharisee and the Tax Collector.' The Pharisee prayed: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men - robbers, evildoers, adulterers - or even as this tax collector." Lk18v11. The Pharisee was deluding himself. The very best of men are like all other men. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Rom3v23.

(3) Their woe.

Those who are self-congratulatory - whether over their success in life, their wealth and self-indulgent lifestyle or their virtue and reputation - have had their reward. There is nothing more to come. Jesus said: So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. Mt6v2.

The rich man with the beggar Lazarus at his gate was appalled to discover after death that he had received in life all his good things and there were no more to come!

(4) The characteristics of the poor in spirit.

    (a) The materially poor have no possessions to show off. A family living in a packing case home in one of the shantytowns of Calcutta would have very little to be proud about. There would be no gadgets in the kitchen - and no kitchen either; no exotic shrubs in the garden - and no garden; no expensive pictures on the wall - not even a drop of paint. The poor own nothing to impress; they can boast no status symbols to demonstrate their worth to society.

    (b) It is possible to be abjectly poor without being poor in spirit. Even amongst the impoverished there is a pecking order - some are more destitute than others. So even the poor have their pride.

    (c) The genuinely poor in spirit don't congratulate themselves on anything. They have no competence to boast of and no virtue to parade. Theirs is the prayer of the tax collector: "God be merciful to me a sinner."

    The poor in spirit: esteem others better than themselves, never court attention and make no effort to acquire a reputation. They are the wipers of feet and the bearers of burdens.

(5) The threefold blessing of the poor in spirit.

    (a) The humble hearted have the entry qualifications to the Kingdom of God. They possess the key to the Kingdom. Jesus said: "I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." Lk18v17. A little child does not expect to earn good gifts from its father. A small boy simply asks and relies on his father's love to provide.

    (b) Jesus said of the poor in spirit: "For theirs is the kingdom of God." Mt5v3. What does this rather enigmatic phrase mean? I think Jesus is saying that the poor in spirit make the kingdom of God what it is. The kingdom of God is theirs in the sense that its reputation depends upon them. C.S.Lewis explores this idea in his essay, 'The Inner Ring'. He writes,'If in your working hours you make the work your end you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters........ This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with.....the Important People or People in the Know...... But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys.' So in the same sort of way the poor in spirit keep the church sweet, preserve its wholesomeness and maintain its good name.

    (c) The poor in spirit possess the good pleasure of the King. There used to be a little museum at Tring in Hertfordshire and probably there still is. I spent a happy afternoon looking round it many years ago. I was intrigued by a display of stuffed dogs. All the different breeds were represented. I have always admired the collie and so I stopped to read what was written about it. I read, to my surprise, that the Border collie, although one of the oldest breeds of dog in Britain, was not recognised by the Kennel Club for it was not a show dog. (This has since changed.) At that time a collie could never be Grand Champion of Cruyfs. It was never even placed because it was not a show dog, it was only a working dog. But the collie, then as now, was a happy dog. It was happiest in the hills working the sheep with its master. The collie was happy at the end of a hard day as the shepherd stroked its head in appreciation of all its willing efforts. A double blessing!

    So there is a double blessing for the poor in spirit: the happiness of serving the Master and the ultimate joy of his, "Well done, good and faithful servant! ... Come and share your master's happiness."- the Divine caress.

(C) It is better to be hungry than satiated.

"Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied." v21. "Woe to you who are well fed now for you will go hungry." v25.

(1) Clarification.

Once again this statement of Jesus is ridiculous if it refers to hunger for food. It is a terrible thing to be hungry and to have no food to eat. We have all seen pictures of starving people in Africa. They are emaciated, listless and finally apathetic about food itself. There are other starving souls - and none of them happy: Women starved of a man's love and children's affection because of physical deformity, societies misfits starved of respect and recognition, the hopelessly inadequate starved of success.

The way football managers like Arsine Wenger talk about their football team may help us to understand what Jesus means. If Wenger speaks about the hunger of his players we know what he is referring to, namely, the desire for success. A team with no hunger will be satisfied with average performances - just doing enough to remain mid-table - high wages compensating for lack of honours.

Jesus was talking much like a modern football manager except the object is different; he wants us to desire righteousness. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled." Mt5v6.

(2) The characteristics of the well fed now.

The 'well fed now' have no desire to do good. They are only interested in their own well being. Their overriding characteristic is selfishness. The well fed have satisfied their desire for comfort, security, success, wealth, possessions and pleasures. It is these they seek rather than the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

(3) Their woe

In the end the 'well fed now' will go hungry. They may have satisfied their hunger on earth for personal happiness and the good life but in the day of reckoning all will be lost. In the parable of the 'Sheep and the Goats' the King condemned those who ignored the hungry, thirsty, refugee, poorly clothed, imprisoned and sick. He said: "'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' Then they will go away to eternal punishment." Mt25v45.

(4) Characteristics of the hungry now.

What does it mean to hunger after righteousness? It doesn't mean to hunger to be good. This can be the most terrible hunger of all. In the Middle Ages many in Europe longed to be good because only the good enough could escape the fires of hell. When the murdered Thomas Becket's body was prepared for burial by his monks they discovered beneath his splendid robes a shirt of the coarsest haircloth and beneath this a grey but writhing undergarment of lice! The lice had been cultivated to mortify the flesh; as an antidote to pride.

Expositors of the fourth beatitude generally argue that Jesus is promising holiness to those that yearn for it. Well I want to be free from my temper, lust, inertia, sloth, pride and the spirit of retaliation. What Christian wouldn't! I haven't noticed any significant improvement during the last thirty years and nor, probably, has anybody else. I have also observed in other Christians the persistence of obvious weaknesses rooted in their temperaments and dispositions: vanity, meanness, a critical or unforgiving spirit, touchiness, lack of integrity.... These failings persist from year to year. This is a serious problem and it is infrequently addressed. There is a great temptation to pretend that Christians are better than they are. I can understand this because if Christians are demonstrably more righteous than non-Christians it is good evidence for a new birth. The great danger of this approach is the effect it has upon those Christians whose longing to be good remains unfulfilled. They may conclude, either that they are not Christians at all, or that Christianity does not work. Such an one was Leon Tolstoy who tried his hardest to put into practice Jesus' Sermon on the Mount with such signal lack of success it made him and others miserable.

I believe Jesus is referring to the hunger to do good. This is manageable! We can all in some measure do those things mentioned in the parable of the Sheep and Goats.

(5) The threefold blessing.

    (a) If you hunger to do good the food is plentiful. There are literally hundreds of charities all of which need money. There is no shortage of old, sick and lonely people to visit - our community is full of them. There are Christian workers at home and abroad who would value a letter of appreciation and encouragement. The prisons are full. Injustices remain to be righted. Old and incompetent widowers abound who are just waiting to be baked a cake. When my mother was a pastor's wife in Suffolk she used to say, "There is someone I could visit every day...... if only I had the time." The food is wonderfully abundant - it is like the manna in the wilderness.

    (b) The food is remarkably filling. Have you ever noticed that you don't have to do much good to be full right up. We are easily satisfied. Peter thought he would be surfeited to the point of sickness if he forgave his offending brother seven times in one day. Jesus rebuked him for his poor appetite.

    I visit on a regular basis the elderly at home and in hospital. Unless they are particular friends I find that six visits per person, per year, more than satisfies my appetite. I don't have to give much more than a few hundred pounds away to deserving causes before I am pretty full! My mother in the last years of her life used to enjoy entertaining. She had a few old ladies she was kind to. Even my hospitable mother who loved the elderly would say after a busy session, "I've done enough entertaining for one week." She was replete with good works - almost uncomfortably full!

    (c) Many years ago, during a Geography field trip to North Wales, I arrived with my students at the end of a raw, wet, day at the cheerless Bryn Hall Youth Hostel. By the time the bell sounded for the evening meal I was ready for it; faint with hunger, still damp, cold and almost ill with exhaustion. The soup was served - and I wasn't satisfied. The main course that followed was insubstantial and forgettable. And then..... the warden set before us the largest rice pudding I have ever seen. It was hot and steaming, sweet and milky, and stuffed with fat sultanas. That rice pudding wrought a dramatic transformation. At last I was filled, warm, content and at peace. For the first time that day I was overwhelmed by a sense of well-being. I exuded good will to all. I felt sleepy, dreamy and slightly euphoric. There is bliss in being filled.

    After we have done good there frequently follows a feeling of euphoria, a warm glow, a sense of utter well-being and true peace. We are filled and the satisfaction is a concrete experience. I can honestly say that when I leave hospital after making a visit that Satan has tried hard to prevent I am almost singing for joy. No, it is not for relief that the visit is over - but for joy. I am satisfied and it is wonderful; it is bliss.

    What is even more marvellous is that the satisfaction and contentment is short lived for the hunger returns. There is the recurring pleasure of satisfying it. There are many fillings. Surely Jesus is dealing with the bliss of the man who has a good appetite and gets his meals regularly.

    If we hunger to do good we shall get our meals regular. However much we hunger we shall be filled. The fiercer the hunger the keener the joy at being satisfied. Jesus commends to us the bliss of the much maligned, 'do gooder'.

(D) It is better to weep than to laugh.

"Blessed are you who weep now for you will laugh." v2. "Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep." v25.

(1) Clarification.

Not many people would agree with Jesus although the writer of Ecclesiastes said something very similar (See exposition on Ecc7v1to10.) :

It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting.

Sorrow is better than laughter, because
a sad face is good for the heart. Ecc7v2and3.

Most people prefer to be happy than miserable. Nor is it true that those that mourn are comforted. Indeed, if indulged in it can spawn a devil's brood of miseries: morbidity, resentment, self pity, anger, gloominess and lethargy - what C.S. Lewis called the, 'the laziness of grief.' The despair at losing one dearly loved can be dreadfully destructive. Alan Lake, the husband of Diana Dors, could not face life without his wife and committed suicide leaving his son an orphan. Acute, unrelieved mourning ruins family life. Queen Victoria's obsessive grief following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, blighted the lives of her children.

Jesus is not referring to this kind of mourning. It is futile longing to get back what can never be repossessed. That is why it is inappropriate to quote this Beatitude at funeral services. Those who mourn at the graveside can never recover their loss.

Jesus is advocating what I would call constructive mourning - grieving for something lost that can be recovered. Last weekend I lost my spectacles. I was very sorry at my loss and hunted high and low because I knew they could be found. Eventually I worked out how and where I lost them. Someone else found them!

(2) The characteristics of those that 'laugh now'.

Jesus is referring to heedlessly happy men and women who have no awareness that communion with God has been lost. They are unconcerned that their relationship with God is broken - that they are estranged from him.

Those that 'laugh now' are like the Prodigal Son in the far country. While the Prodigal squandered his wealth in wild living (Lk15v13) he forgot all about his father. Doubtless he was happy after a fashion so long as he was able to enjoy himself squandering his assets with no thought for the future.

(3) The woe of those that 'laugh now'.

Eventually the Prodigal came to the end of his resources. The day of reckoning arrived as it will arrive for all who 'laugh now'. It really will be a case of play now and pay later.

A day of reckoning will come for all who remain unreconciled to God. They will be lost for ever. God gives us all a finite time to find him. Once that time has expired our opportunity is lost. It is a bit like the lottery winner with a set time to claim his winnings. If the claim is not made within the time limit the fortune is lost.

On that dreadful Day of Judgement when the frivolous, feckless and foolish discover the enormity of their loss there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

(4) The characteristics of constructive mourning.

The woman who lost one of her ten silver coins mourned constructively. Jesus describes her attitude in these words: "Does she not .... search carefully until she finds it." Lk15v8. (See exposition on Lk15v8to10)

A few summers ago I enjoyed a walking holiday in East Suffolk exploring the heaths, estuaries and shingle beaches. I took a friend - an old walking stick. As I strolled along I shared the experience of the Northamptonshire poet, John Clare:

          And then I walk and swing my stick for joy
          And catch at little pictures passing bye.

Well somewhere between Leiston and Dunwich I lost my stick. I mourned its loss and next day set out to search for it but without success. For the rest of the holiday I walked alone! When I got back, home, to Bury St Edmunds I knew what I must do. I bought another; a shiny black stick to swing for joy at all nature's lovely, lovely, pictures passing by. Then I was comforted. That is constructive mourning. The sense of loss led to action that made good the loss.

If a man really mourns his broken relationship with God he will seek a way to mend it. If a man is sad beyond words at his loss of God he will strive might and main to find him.

(5) The blessedness of constructive mourning

The Prodigal Son came to mourn his loss. He realised he would be better off as a slave back home than to remain where he was. Jesus says, "When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father'." Luke15v17and18.

It was constructive mourning; it took him back to a father's love - his arms, his kiss, the ring, the robe and the fatted calf; it restored him to comfort and joy - music, dancing and laughter.

As a small boy I suffered very badly from severe asthma. I was a brave little chap and fought hard to overcome it. There were summer nights, however, when the attacks were very distressing. I would sit up in bed, lean over my knees and struggle for every breath. My face would be suffused with sweat and tears trickled down my cheeks. Gasping and coughing there was just one thing I longed to hear - my father's footsteps on the stairs. Eventually he would come and sit on the bed and begin to stroke my hair. As he calmed me down so my asthma eased. How I mourned his absence and longed for his coming!

Jesus taught us to address God as, our Father, and as our Father he will comfort us. He comforted us when we became Christians. As we mourned our sin, that which distanced us from him, HE RAN TO MEET US. Our Father knows all about our struggles, sorrows, failures, fears and distresses. How wonderful to hear HIS FOOTSTEPS ON THE STAIRS. What comfort to be assured of his presence, to realise that he will never forsake us and that underneath are the everlasting arms.