February 17, 2019

Brief synopsis of the readings: The prophet Jeremiah, speaking for the Lord says this: “A curse on the man who puts his trust in man.” Later he says: “A blessing on the man who puts his trust in the Lord.” In Luke’s Gospel Jesus, with the Twelve, comes to a place where a large crowd has gathered. Echoing Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the crowd that happy are the poor, hungry, and those who weep. Happy also are those who are hated, driven out and abused. They should be happy because they will be rewarded by God. But those who are rich should enjoy their gifts now because their future will not be good.

A few weeks ago I attended mass and the priest said this: “If you want to drive yourself crazy, try to find a consistent theme in the prophet Jeremiah.” He was right. Jeremiah’s career covered nearly 40 years in an eventful time in salvation history. Jeremiah warned bad rulers, complained to God about his calling, and assured the people they would be restored after an exile they deserved. I can’t imagine a more full life or a more dangerous existence.

In today’s reading Jeremiah wrote harshly. He drew a bright line on who we should trust. Anyone who puts his trust in humans will find nothing but disappointment and doom. Even if good things come their way, they won’t recognize it.

Problem is, we have to put our trust in humans if only because we interact nearly exclusively with other humans. Humans are our parents, our aunts and uncles, and our grandparents. They are our teachers, our mentors, our siblings, our friends, and the strangers who wander into our lives and impact us.

So why does Jeremiah curse us for doing what we all do every day? I don’t think Jeremiah wants us to take his words literaly and I don’t think he wants us to hate or ignore our teachers. Instead I think Jeremiah calls us to avoid blindly putting our trust in what we are told. I think Jeremiah calls us to avoid peer pressure and to discern, at all times, what we are told.

Many of us remember this, but in the 1970s a man in California, Jim Jones, convinced hundreds of people that he was a holy man and they should follow him. Under his direction they moved to the South American nation of Guyana. While there he became increasingly paranoid and unstable.

On November 18, 1978 he convinced 918 men, women, and children to commit suicide. Most of them drank cyanide laced with Flavor Aid (some of the children were injected by their parents). Unfortunately the Flavor Aid was mistakenly believed to be Kool Aid and the phrase “drinking the Kool Aid” has become part of our national understanding. Drinking the Kool Aid means that we suspend what we believe or value in the hopes that we will be accepted or included.

I once worked for a company that drank the Kool Aid to a degree that astounded me. Members of management, including people I used to respect, lied on a regular basis in the false belief that their job depended on it. The rest of us were expected to either believe their lies or succumb to their fear. It gave me no joy when the company went out of business and all of us (whether or not we drank the Kool Aid) were out of a job.

And I think Luke continues this narrative. We know much of what he writes because it’s similar to Matthew’s famous “Sermon on the Mount.” This is one of those places where different Bibles use different words.

Here Jesus tells those gathered that “Happy are you who are poor.” Other translations tell us that “Blessed are you who are poor.” Regardless of the choice between “happy” and “blessed” Jesus tells us that it’s good to be poor, or hungry, or weeping. We are also told to be happy/blessed to be hated or abused.

But let’s face it: none of us are happy or feel blessed when we are poor or hungry or weeping. If we live our lives in terms of how we feel we won’t understand how we are supposed to live.

And without criticizing the scholars who translated Scripture, I like the word “blessed” in this context better than I like the word “happy.” Maybe it’s just me, but happy sounds to me like an emotion. Willing yourself to be happy in the face of suffering sounds a little delusional. I can think of a few television preachers who tell their followers to do exactly that: “Smile in the face of suffering because God will reward you.”

I don’t think it’s that easy (or, frankly, childish). But there is truth down that path. There’s nothing laudable about poverty but it does cause us to understand that we are not alone and need help. Wealth can delude us into thinking we are independent. As a hospice chaplain I sometimes find the wealthiest patients the hardest to care for. It isn’t always the case but when they recognize they need help they often get angry: angry with the situation, angry with their caregivers, and angry with me.

We are blessed not because we smile in the face of suffering, we are blessed because God has blessed us. As followers of the Risen Christ we recognize that suffering is real, but not permanent. We recognize that our suffering oftentimes causes us growth or a new way of appreciating what we have. But we can only do that if we hold fast to the fact that we are blessed by God.

We sometimes hear the phrase “poor in spirit,” and while it sometimes gets abused by the “gospel of wealth” preachers, there is truth to poverty of spirit. It knocks down those barriers to recognize God’s blessing and allows us to see more clearly.

Thank you Luke, for pointing that out.