Looking at his disciples, [Jesus] said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
I have often seen these first three verses from our featured passage on literature for poverty relief organizations. Ripped out of context and applied literally, this would mean that Jesus is saying that the physically poor, the hungry, and the depressed somehow have more merit in the eyes of God, and that rich, chubby, happy people are doomed. Hmm. Seems to me there must be something more here than meets the eye–the spiritual eye!
The first four verses are easily recognized as a parallel passage to the beatitudes of Matthew, chapter 5. A key to understanding this passage is looking at the similar one. Matthew 5:3 states: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Jesus must be referring to poverty of spirit, not physical poverty. He is talking to people who recognize their spiritual need, their spiritual poverty in the sight of a holy and righteous God, because they will depend on Jesus for salvation. They rely on God’s mercy and grace, his spiritual charity, and not their own righteousness, and so the kingdom of God is theirs (Romans 3:21-24).
In verse 21 above, it is again not literal food Jesus is talking about. Matthew 5:6 speaks of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. How often Jesus spoke of himself as being living bread and living water! (John 6:51; John 4:10) Similarly, it is not those who are unhappy about justifiably sad events, but rather those who mourn over and regret their sin that are comforted. (Luke 18:13)
Verse 22 is the key to the whole passage. When are people especially blessed? When they have physical needs? No. Here, Jesus makes it clear he’s talking about his followers. It’s when we are hated, insulted, and called evil because we bear the name of Jesus. Just like the prophets and Jesus himself, every one of us who commits our life to glorify God will suffer. But even though we suffer here for a little while, Jesus reminds us to rejoice because our reward in heaven is eternal.
Unlike the passage in Matthew, Luke adds four woes to show a reversal of fortune in the spiritual realm. The first woe is to the rich. Does that mean that wealth is bad? No, some notable examples of faith were very well-to-do, including Abraham. Again, this must be taken in the spiritual sense: those who consider themselves wealthy before a holy God because of their own righteousness. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day felt like they were pretty righteous folks, and relied on their own interpretation of their Law for their feeling of spiritual security.
Again, Jesus said, woe to the well fed, or those who didn’t eat up Jesus’ parables or drink in his spiritual words. Woe to those who joke about or make light of their sin, and who want everyone to speak well of them in public, instead of saying what is true and right. Just like the false prophets in the past, they will tickle the ears of their listeners, seek glory for themselves, and lead people away from God. Woe, Jesus says, for the day is coming, if they do not heed his warning, when the tables are turned, and they will be without comfort, they will go hungry, and they will mourn and weep.
There’s a similar reversal of fortune found in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31:
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Again, there is a tendency to just read this as a parable about the rich not lifting a finger to do anything for the poor.
This cannot be simply a parable about how the poor go to heaven and the rich go to hell. As mentioned previously, Abraham himself was wealthy beyond imagination. Here in this parable he is comforting Lazarus at his side. So if Abraham is in heaven, why and how did he get there? Why is the other rich man in hell? Why is Lazarus in heaven?
Throughout the bible, Abraham is held up as a model of faith, not in himself, but in God. The bible says that when God promised Abraham a son in his old age, that he “believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the night sky. Abraham’s spiritual children are all who, like him, believe God, and are credited righteousness: “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).
We know Lazarus did not go to heaven on his own merit. Poor people are just as needy spiritually as you and me. So here’s the deal. Did you know that the name Lazarus means, “whom God has helped?” Lazarus is just like those in our featured passage who are poor in spirit. He is hungry for God and covered with all sorts of spiritual sores that need healing. Even the dogs have more empathy and spiritual sense than the rich man!
So who is this rich man? In context, Jesus had been talking to his disciples, sharing another parable, and when the Pharisees overheard it, they sneered at Jesus, because they loved not only wealth, but also their way of life, their practices, their culture, their own wisdom, their own selves more than the lives of those around them. Jesus said to them: “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16: 15). They were supposed to be Israel’s religious leaders and teachers, but they held sinners in disdain and refused to help the most spiritually needy right under their upturned noses.
It would be like people today, especially modern-day religious leaders, who get wealthy without giving a crumb of real spiritual food to their flocks. Or individuals and religious leaders who weigh down people with many “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” before helping them understand Jesus’ only required work for entrance into heaven: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29). Or individuals and religious leaders today who like to mix extra-biblical material with orthodox Christian thought, polluting the faith with heretical ideas that do not glorify God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, but rather man. Simply put, the rich man is a pseudo-religious figure who cares nothing for the eternal well-being of the wretched soul lying just outside his doorway.
Am I trying to minimize the role of humanitarianism and the importance of aiding the poor in society? Never! Jesus himself tells us how we should care for and have friendship with the poor and disabled in our communities. He said, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed” (Luke 14:13-14). I’m only pointing out the spiritual overtones of these passages. God does not want us to look at our own works and say, “Well, I have gone to church every Sunday, I have given so much to the poor–hey, I’m a pretty decent and kind person. Thank God I’m not like [insert least favorite political candidate]. I’m sure he will let me in heaven.”
That is the attitude of Luke 18:9-14:
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Note the reversal of fortune at the end? We seem to have it all backwards, upside-down, & inside-out! Isaiah 64:6 states it best: “How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” So, no. God doesn’t want us to rely on or boast about what we do. He wants us to say, “I believe in Jesus. I’m sure he will let me in heaven because I know he died for me . . . even though I missed church about half of the Sundays this year and I didn’t give five bucks to that homeless man today because I thought he would buy a bottle of cheap booze with it. Dear Jesus, forgive me. What should I do?”
Jesus: “The next time you see the homeless man, at least buy him a sandwich and a soda. I would prefer that you do this though, because the kingdom of God is all about relationship with me and other people: The poor and disabled are not just projects. They are potential friends. Eat with him. Listen to his story. Tell him about me. The sandwich will be gone in fifteen minutes. You’ll leave him in sixty minutes. If you and my other children keep doing this and more for him until he believes in me, then he will not only be off the street, but he will also be with me forever in eternity, just like you, and you will have gained a new friend. You will be so moved by the whole experience that you will actually look forward to worshipping me on Sundays and doing more.”
When you think about it, don’t you just want to tell everyone you can about Jesus? Don’t you wish everyone could experience the grace of God and come live in heaven with you? I do. Ahem. Let me say that I have not always had that attitude. God matured me over the years (yes, years!), and has helped me understand him in such a loving way that I want other people to know my God in all his awesomeness. Let’s pray for the heart to want to take as many people with us to heaven as we can, with God’s help. Hey. Even the rich guys dressed in purple and fine linen need our prayers, too.