Have you ever walked into a convenience store and found an unexpectedly long line? Chances are good those people aren’t lined up because there’s been a sudden run on milk, bread or overcooked hot dogs. They’re interested in buying something far less tangible: a sequence of numbers embedded in a distant and very secure computer. When they finally reach the head of the line, they’ll hand over a dollar or two – or possibly a good deal more – for a slip of paper with some numbers on it. They’re buying lottery tickets, of course.
If ever you find yourself in such a situation, take a glance at the lottery marquee displaying the size of that week’s jackpot. With lines like that, chances are it’s valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Only jaw-droppingly big numbers like that bring out the long lines. Mathematically speaking, the more people who buy tickets for any given drawing, the more likely it is there will be more than one winner, splitting the jackpot two or more ways. That really huge number may not, for the lucky winners, prove to be as mind-boggling as advertised.
But who said lottery tickets are about reality? Dollar for dollar, they’re one of the worst investments you could possibly make. Lotteries are not about reality, but fantasy: the pipe dream of instant, undeserved wealth. Currently, 45 U.S. states operate lotteries. Each one is counting on a large number of residents sharing that fantasy.
Haven’t you felt it? Whether or not you’ve ever lined up to purchase a ticket yourself, haven’t you ever daydreamed about what it would be like to win over $100 million? How different life would be! Oh, the things you’d buy, the places you’d go!
Most of us consider wealth to be a blessing. But Jesus doesn’t see it that way in this week’s gospel lesson: “Blessed are you who are poor,” he teaches the crowd, “for yours is the kingdom of God.” Then, a little later, he has these choice words for the wealthy: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
This is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. It’s strikingly different from Matthew’s better-known version. To begin with, it takes place in a different location. In Matthew, it’s the Sermon on the Mount, and in Luke, it’s the Sermon on the Plain. But the biggest difference for Luke, compared to Matthew, is that Luke includes statements of woe. Not only is Jesus blessing certain people; in Luke’s version, he also curses others. Jesus blesses the poor, the hungry and those who weep. He preaches woe to the rich, the satisfied and even those who laugh.
It’s no wonder most folks prefer Matthew’s version! Luke’s raises troubling questions: Is it wrong to be rich? Is it a sin to be successful? And what’s Jesus got against laughter, anyway?
A cynic may criticize Jesus for playing to the crowd. If this is a gathering of common folk – of the poor and nearly poor – then what better way to curry favor than to blast the rich?
Jesus is doing more, though, than simply telling the mob what they want to hear. He’s imparting a great spiritual truth. It has to do with the nature of blessings.
In times of trouble, a well-meaning friend may counsel us: “Just count your blessings. Look on the bright side. Concentrate on the good things in life; look away from the bad!”
The world is always eager to count blessings. How blessed are they, with the fine house, the classy car, and high-tech gadgets to play with. And what a good-looking bunch their family is!
Even those who have little in the way of material goods are quick to count – in some very conspicuous ways – what blessings they do have. How else to explain the exorbitant prices charged for certain designer basketball shoes? One person’s pair of Air Jordans is another person’s Mercedes-Benz.
Counting blessings is really what lottery players are doing – only they’re counting their blessings before they hatch!
The world has its own set of beatitudes, in contrast to Jesus’ list: Blessed are the rich; the famous; those who have big houses on the beach. Blessed are those with perfect children; who move and shake even the movers and shakers; who have their photo on the cover of People magazine. Blessed are those who know what they want – and take it!
As Luke tells it, Jesus has no time for any of this. In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus turns the world’s values upside-down. He blesses those whom the world calls accursed, and He preaches woe upon those whom the world admires. Those Beatitudes of His are revolutionary stuff!
Jesus’ words may pinch at times. In our deepest moments of clarity and insight, we realize He’s right. “Money can’t buy happiness,” the old proverb contends. Good health can’t buy happiness, either; all of us know people who’ve never spent a day in the hospital, yet who seem not to enjoy an ounce of self-esteem. Harmonious family life, a meaningful job, creature comforts, and leisure time to pursue hobbies do not guarantee happiness either. You can have all of them, and still feel empty inside.
When Luke reports Jesus saying, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation,” it’s a very unusual Greek word he uses for “consolation.” It’s a commercial term that means, literally, “having received what is due.” It’s the rubber stamp impression at the bottom of an invoice: “Paid in full.”
The self-satisfied high rollers, in other words, have been paid in full. They’ve been given much in this life, but they won’t receive a penny more.
There’s an old parable from the Jewish tradition describing a wealthy farmer who was visited by the prophet Elijah. (In Judaism, as you may know, Elijah’s something like the Holy Spirit; he can drop in and visit any time – which is why, at the seder meal, a seat is always left empty for him.) On this visit, Elijah’s accompanied by a young rabbi, who wants to observe how the prophet metes out divine justice.
The two arrive at the farm disguised as poor and weary travelers. The farmer banishes them to the barn, with only bread and water for supper. He has no time for visitors, he gruffly explains. He must dig a well the next day.
After a cold and sleepless night, Elijah arises before dawn. He goes out from the barn and digs the farmer’s well.
“Why did you do that?” his young protégé asks him later. “Our host is cruel and heartless. He neglects the sacred laws of hospitality. But you have blessed him by digging his well!”
“It’s true that I’ve dug his well,” Elijah admits. “And the place where I have dug it will yield sweet water for many generations. What you don’t know is that this farmer was planning to dig the well in another place: a few feet below the ground in that location lies a secret treasure. Because I’ve dug his well, rather than he, that treasure will go undiscovered for a hundred years: long after our host has gone to his grave. What seems like a blessing is not always a blessing!”
The rich farmer has received his consolation. The debt owed him has been paid in full, and then some. But now that it’s been paid, that’s all there is. Beyond his present wealth, there’s no promise of future blessing.
It’s kind of like that classic TV beer commercial – the one with a group of men sitting around a campfire, doing the male-bonding thing. Their canoes are pulled up on the beach, their tents are pitched, their dinner is cooked, and there’s a gorgeous sunset on the horizon. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” one of them contentedly exclaims, before cracking open his beer.
How sad. It’s good where they are. Very good. There’s food and fire and friendship – and yes, even cold beer. Yet, if it truly doesn’t get any better than that – if there’s nothing more to life than a tasty meal, a fleeting sunset and a few cold ones consumed in good company – well, woe to them, for they have received their consolation!
Oscar Wilde once quipped: “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants; the other is getting it.”
The wonder of God’s power to bless is that it happens regardless of our circumstances. It was Helen Keller – the blind and deaf mute who triumphed over her disabilities – who wisely pointed out, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” God’s way of blessing us, sometimes, is not to remove the cause of our complaint, but to give us power to prevail over it. It’s like the remark of the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “It is the wounded oyster that mends its shell with pearl.”
Who’s to say what’s a blessing and what’s a curse in the great scheme of things? From our human perspective, what looks like the greatest of calamities may, in a God’s-eye view, really be our salvation.
There’s an old story – a true one – about a man who had a hard life. When he was 7 years old, his family was evicted from their home. When he was 9, his mother suddenly died. At 22, he lost his job as a store clerk.
He’d always wanted to go to law school, but his education wasn’t good enough. He went into business instead, and at age 23 became a partner in a small store. Three years later, his partner died, leaving a huge debt that took him years to repay. At 28, he asked the woman he’d been courting for years to marry him. She said no.
For a moment, his luck seemed to change. At 37, he was elected to Congress on his first try! But then, two years later, he was voted out. At 41, his 4-year-old son died. At 45, he ran for the Senate and lost. At 47, he failed as the vice-presidential candidate. At 49, he ran for the Senate again and lost. Then, at age 51, he was elected president of the United States.
His name was Abraham Lincoln. Some people get all the breaks, don’t you think?
It really doesn’t do us much good to count our blessings. Nor does it help to count our misfortunes, either. The Bible, in Romans 8:28, promises that “all things work together for good for those who love God.” Somehow, we’ve got to learn to trust that word, as hard as it may be to do at times.
When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor … the hungry … and those who weep,” He’s bearing witness to the truth that God is in charge of creation, and that God isn’t finished with us yet. God will inevitably bless us if we have faith. God may bless us some day with what we most desire. Or, perhaps more likely, God may bless us through what we desire but don’t receive.
It’s not counting our blessings that’s important. It’s the blessing itself that counts: God’s blessing, that sojourns with us through wealth and poverty, health and sickness, laughter, and tears. Praise to God, for knowing us better than we know ourselves, and for blessing us in every circumstance!