Status Upside Down
Scriptures: Luke 6:20-26; Psalm 1:1-6
This story was passed on to me through the internet, which means its accuracy is highly suspect. However it is still a great story. One weekend in Atlantic City a woman won a pile of quarters from a slot machine. This is back when slot machines still paid out in quarters. She was taking the quarters in a bucket back up to her room when she found herself alone on the elevator with two young African American males, one of whom seemed very tall and both of whom made her feel intimidated. She told herself not to be prejudiced. The two men seemed perfectly nice. But she still clutched the bucket of quarters tightly to her chest, her heart pounding. The elevator doors closed, but the elevator did not move. She began shaking. Then one of the men behind her said, “Hit the floor.” Screaming the woman dropped her bucket of quarters and collapsed onto the floor. One of the men bent over and said, “Ma’am, I didn’t mean you. I meant that my friend here should hit the elevator button for our floor.” They helped her up and helped her collect her quarters. When she got to her floor, they helped her out and wished her a good evening. The next day flowers were delivered to her room—a dozen red roses. Attached was a note that said, “Hope you are okay.” It was signed: Eddie Murphy and Michael Jordan.
Actually, I looked this story up on Snopes, a fact-checking site, and Eddie Murphy denies that it ever happened. So there you are. But still it is a great story, kind of like a parable. Beause Luke 6 reminds us that appearances aren’t always what they seem. Jesus’s coming has turned status upside down. Those who might seem poor are actually rich, and those who might seem dangerous or threatening to us can actually be a blessing.
All through the gospel of Luke there is a pattern of reversal. It begins before Jesus is born with Mary’s song of praise:
God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Already you can hear in those words echoes of Jesus’ beatitudes:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
In Jesus status is turned upside down. The poor are rich, the hungry are filled, and the lowly are lifted up.
The tendency is to think that this reversal happens in heaven after we die. Jesus implies this in the third beatitude when he says, “Blessed are you when you people hate you, exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”
Later in Luke’s gospel Jesus tells a parable about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. Lazarus would have been glad to fill his stomach with what fell from the rich man’s table, but he did not even get that. Eventually both died, and the rich man found himself tormented. We don’t know exactly what that means, but he was tormented. Meanwhile Lazarus was comforted the arms of father Abraham. A reversal had taken place. The poor person experienced blessing and the rich person experienced woe.
In this case the reversal takes place in heaven, but that is not the whole story in Luke’s gospel. For in a surprising way, Jesus says, this reversal has already begun.
Back in Luke chapter 4 Jesus preaches his inaugural sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. He reads these words from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Jesus reads these words and then says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Notice, he does not say this scripture will be fulfilled in heaven. He does not say that this scripture will be fulfilled when I come again and raise people from the dead. He says it is happening today.
To be a follower of Jesus means to be part of something new here and now. In this new reality you can be blessed even if you are poor because yours is the kingdom of God—present tense. Today, even now, you are part of God’ new kingdom breaking into the world. In this new reality you can be blessed even though you are hungry, because you will be filled in ways you never dreamed. You can laugh even in the middle of your tears, because you will comforted in ways you never imagined.
How does this really work? William Willimon, a Methodist minister, tells of a man in his church who served in the army during World War II. This man participated in the D-day invasion of Normandy and the subsequent battles to retake Europe from Nazi Germany. One day he was talking to his pastor about the sufferings, deprivation, and horrors of that experience, but when he finished he said, “Still, I look back on those four years as the very best years of my life. For once in my life I had the feeling I was part of something, part of something bigger than myself. … We had a mission.”
I can’t imagine anyone feeling more poor, hungry, grief stricken, or threatened than a soldier slogging through enemy territory on D-day. And yet this soldier felt blessed. Why? He was on a mission. He was part of something bigger than himself, something that would shape the course of history.
That, friends, is what Jesus is offering us. To be part of something bigger than ourselves, something that can change lives and shape the course of history. And that’s why we are blessed.
In his book The Jesus I Never Knew Philip Yancey writes,
My career as a journalist has afforded me opportunities to interview "stars," including NFL football greats, movie actors, music personalities, best-selling authors, politicians, and TV personalities. These are the people who dominate the media. We fawn over them, poring over the minutiae of the lives: the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the aerobic routines they follow, the people they love, the toothpaste they use. Yet I must tell you that, in my limited experience, ... our "idols" are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met. Most have troubled or broken marriages. Nearly all are incurably dependent on psychotherapy. In a heavy irony, these larger-than-life heroes seem tormented by self-doubt.
I wonder if this is at least part of what Jesus meant in that parable of the rich man and Lazarus when he said that the rich man was tormented. The rich man looked back on his life and saw that it was wasted. It had no meaning. It was not a blessing to anyone, certainly not to the poor guy sitting right outside his gate.
“Woe to you who are rich,” Jesus says, “for you have received your consolation.” It does not matter how much you have if you discover that your life has not been a blessing to anyone.
Philip Yancey goes on,
I have also spent time with people I call "servants." Doctors and nurses who work among the ultimate outcasts, leprosy patients in rural India. A Princeton graduate who runs a hotel for the homeless in Chicago. Health workers who have left high-paying jobs to serve in a backwater town of Mississippi. ... Yet as I now reflect on the two groups side by side, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerge as the favored ones. ... They possess qualities of depth and richness and even joy that I have not found elsewhere. Servants work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, “wasting” their talents and skills among the poor and uneducated. Somehow, though, in the process of losing their lives they find them (pp. 117-8).
That’s a blessing that need not wait until you die.