Sermon from February 13: Through the Mirror

Through the Mirror
Epiphany VI; February 13, 2022
Luke 6:17-26

You may have heard the saying, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It is regularly attributed to Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma, but he apparently didn’t actually say that. He said something similar and, when this phrase became popular, it was attributed to him.[1] Be that as it may, the force of the statement is that if you want the world to change, start living in the world as you want it to be.

I think that line could be a summary of the moral imperative in these words of Jesus. You may have found them unfamiliar; you may be more familiar with the version found in Matthew. For example, in Luke’s version Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” In Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Out of the expectation that some of you, at least, would like a resolution of that conflict, let me share three possibilities that have been offered over the centuries. And then I’ll get back to where the Holy Spirit is leading us today.

One possibility is Jesus said both, but at different times. Matthew describes Jesus climbing a hill and speaking to his disciples from the hill. Luke describes Jesus standing on a plain, a “level place,” and speaking to them from there. So perhaps Jesus gave a “Sermon on the Mount” and a “Sermon on the Plain” and they were different from each other. Another possibility, which John Calvin suggested, is that Jesus said what Luke recorded, but Matthew expanded it to clarify what Jesus actually meant. Anyone who pays attention to the reality of impoverished people knows that they aren’t necessarily blessed: the Cratchit family in A Christmas Carol is certainly blessed – happy – but those scrambling to pay their rent and feed their children are not. So, Calvin suggested, Jesus couldn’t have meant literally what Luke recorded, but what Matthew recorded. A third possibility that’s been suggested is that Jesus actually said what Luke recorded – Blessed are you who are poor – but Matthew “spiritualized” it because he was a tax collector and pretty well-off and didn’t think the Gospel should automatically exclude the wealthy.

I don’t know what to think. I’m not going to worry about it. What I know is that today I’m preaching on Jesus’ words in Luke and so I’m going to deal with them and let the chips fall where they may. And the first thing that catches my attention is that Matthew’s Jesus speaks in the third person, “Blessed are… for theirs…” but Luke’s Jesus in the second person: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” You. Jesus is not giving an abstract moral lesson; he is speaking words of encouragement to people who are listening to him.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. The second thing that catches my attention is this promise that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor. Not “Heaven after you die, pie in the sky, by and by” but the kingdom of God. For Jesus, the kingdom of God is not something that happens just after we die, but the kingdom of God is the reality his people live in already. The theme runs throughout the New Testament and I’m not going to trace it here, but here it is in summary. There are two realities: the apparent one, in which we are born and to which our instincts belong; and the deeply real one, into which we are baptized and in which the ways of God are followed.

The moral imperative in the Sermon on the Plain is to live in the kingdom of God now, even while the kingdom of this world continues to tug at us. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Do not simply sit and complain that the world is not as you want it to be; live in the world as you want it to be. Is that easy? On the contrary, it is possibly the hardest thing in life to do.

I called this sermon, “Through the Mirror” because these words of Jesus portray God’s world as a mirror image of the world we are used to. On this side of the mirror, the wealthy are blessed. They get everything they want. They control the government. They have all the healthcare they need. They are honored for their philanthropy. But through the mirror the poor are blessed, and not merely in the abstract: Blessed are you who are poor. I hope that doesn’t mean that you and I have to intentionally become poor in order to go through the mirror, but it does mean at the least that if we want to live on God’s side of the mirror, we will pay more attention to the poor than we do to the wealthy. We will honor their contributions. We will listen to their voices.

And likewise with the rest of what Jesus says. Through the mirror, the hungry are blessed. Remember the song Jesus’ own mother sang? “God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53). She saw what the birth of Jesus meant to the world: that God was already inviting people through the mirror into God’s world. Now Jesus states it too.

Blessed are not those who laugh, but those who weep. Blessed are you when people hate you, and exclude you, and defame you because you belong to Christ. Ouch. That last one hits even in church. We should expect that if we’re going to live on God’s side of the mirror that the world will speak ill of us, but the reality is that a lot of God’s holy people will speak ill as well. Try to actually live on God’s side of the mirror and a lot of church folks will say unkind things about you, make trouble for you, and call you names.

Unlike in Matthew, in Luke Jesus emphasizes the point by listing a bunch of “woes” as well: Woe to you who are rich, to you who are full now, to you who are laughing now. And the unkindest cut of all: Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. If everyone likes everything you say, if people constantly praise you, then you are simply echoing what we hear on this side of the mirror: blessed are the wealthy, the fed, the admired, the content. There have always been false prophets, those who have consoled the people by telling them that everything is fine, no need to change their ways, their wealth and power are a sign of God’s favor. And then there are prophets such as Jeremiah, who proclaims a curse on those who trust in human power (our Old Testament reading was Jeremiah 17:5-10) and was constantly in trouble.

People of God, I’d love to do a sales job on you and talk about the unspeakable joy of living on God’s side of the mirror, but the promise that people are likely to speak ill of you for doing so pretty much puts the kibosh on that. Probably the most important thing I can say about it is that God’s side of the mirror is the real side, the eternal side, the side that is going to continue to be real when everything that you and I think of as stable crumbles to dust. I don’t want to be poor or hungry or reviled any more than you do; I like to be comfortable, well-fed, and admired. But over and over again Jesus says that if that is your goal then when you achieve it then you have nothing else. Being admired is its own reward. Being true to the ways of God is openness to all the gifts of God, the presence of God, the glory of God, the blessing of God.

Most of us, like Alice, spend part of our life on one side of the mirror and part on the other. I know that. It’s artificial of me to make too sharp a distinction. We seek – appropriately so, I believe – financial security, while paying attention to God’s blessing of the poor. We eat enough healthy food while caring that the hungry are filled. We enjoy a good laugh while weeping with those who weep. And if it should be that paying attention to the truth of God has people calling us nasty names – “woke” or “socialist” or worse – then we shrug it off and hope that we’re more on the side of Jeremiah than the false prophets.

My impression of human history is that the mirror has been moved a little closer over the ages. We no longer take it for granted that the wealthy and powerful should tell the rest of us what to do. We no longer take it for granted that healthcare is a privilege reserved only for the rich. We no longer take it for granted that a certain amount of the population will starve. We think the world should look different, even those who don’t belong to Jesus think that God’s side of the mirror is what the world ought to be, and who do you think they learned it from?

Jesus invites us through the mirror, to God’s side. Everything there is pretty much the opposite of what has been real for us mere mortals for ages. But it is the world as God is making it, the reality of God’s eternity. It is the kingdom of God.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[1] “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”