The gospel appointed for this Sunday is both disturbing and comforting. It is a mix of "blessed" and "woe." What is more bothersome is that the blessed conditions hardly seem blessed at all and the woeful situations seem very desirable. Jesus frequently does this in Luke's gospel. It seems as if Jesus is setting out to do what one famous preacher described as "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." The word "blessed" can quite appropriately be translated as "happy." The word "woe" is used as a warning. There is a sense of doom about it. Jesus seems to be saying "you who are really in hard places are happy." And, "you who are comfortable are doomed." This is not good news for those of us who are on a quest for comfort and entertainment in our lives. Is it necessary to be poor to be happy? Is being well-fed a sign of doom?
There is a story told by a person who felt both messages in this gospel in a very personal way in an experience. This person was connected to a congregation in the United States that had a pattern of doing short-duration mission work in a Latin American country. The mission work in this instance was the funding and building of a clinic in a very poor community. Before the clinic was built, the people who lived in the community had no access to even the most basic types of healthcare. There wasn't even a place to buy aspirin. As one visitor to the community had said a few years before, "if a sick child doesn't get well because it is loved and prayed for, then that child doesn't get well." It was this observation that motivated the leadership of the congregation to build the clinic.
So, the clinic was built. And the community had a basic health resource for the first time ever. Lives were saved and changed in the name of Jesus.
A family that lived in the community decided to thank the members of the congregation who had been there building the clinic. They decided to have a meal to honor the visitors. This family was very poor. The guests at the meal found the host's home to be three non-mortared walls of cinder blocks. The roof was corrugated metal, laying on poles, held down by rocks. The kitchen was outside and consisted of a hearth with a grate and a clay oven. There were no chairs, no table. The plates were metal.
The food was glorious. There was chicken and rice, beans, well seasoned avocados, a fresh salsa, tropical fruits, and sugared pastries. There were fresh, hot, hand-made tortillas. To drink, there was Coca Cola and a bottle of brandy.
During the meal the guest realized that the cost of the food was equal to more than six weeks of income for the hosts. The guest also realized that was more money than that was on his person. The first thought was to give the hosts the money after the meal. But upon reflection he concluded that the gift would be patronizing and would dishonor the hosts. The next thought was to give the money to the priest who was pastor of the congregation so that the pastor could slip the money to the hosts. But again, upon reflection, he could only conclude that the action would dishonor the hosts. Finally, he decided to simply enjoy the meal with profound appreciation and gratitude.
Later, the guest said this about the experience. "It was the greatest honor I have even received. That family spent six weeks of income to thank and honor me. No one else has ever come close to that. I realized that the host family is the richest family that I know. They are so rich that they can spend six weeks of income on a banquet to honor someone that they will never see again in this world. I only spent about a month's worth of income to celebrate our child's wedding. And that marriage has given me grandchildren who are the dearest things in my life. I am poor and stingy. My hosts are rich and generous.
In some ways, God acting in Jesus is like the rich, poor, host. Jesus, Lord of all, makes himself poor, even to the point of the worst kind of death to generously, lavishly, give love and forgiveness to all of us. What are we to make of this?
First, we must accept that God's ways are not our ways. God's wisdom seems foolish and contradictory to most of us. God gave us love and forgiveness in a lavish fashion. God did not give us this gift because we did something for him. In fact God's giving of love and forgiveness coincides with a horrible offense against God, Jesus' death on the cross. This is very different from the way most of us are. We try to reward those who do us great service in the cheapest way possible. We seek bargains in our expressions of gratitude.
Secondly, There is no way we can repay God for the gift of lavish, unconditional love. There is also no way that we can earn or deserve God's lavish, unconditional love. It defies logic. But, it seems that God loves the worst, most notorious and evil sinner in history as much as the most sacrificial saint. It appears as if God loves Stalin as much as God loves St. Clare of Assisi.
Finally, since we can't really understand it and really can't deserve God's love, we are called to sit quietly and enjoy it. We are to accept it. Only when we accept that we are absolutely, unconditionally, loved by God and then live in that love, can we begin to gain some understanding of Jesus' teaching and then begin to live with some of the freedom of the rich, poor people. Then, and only then, can the paradoxical, contradictory teachings of Jesus begin to make sense to us. Then and only then can we truly be blessed. Amen.