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Would You Rather?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

A sermon on Luke 6:17-26 [An audio file of this sermon can be accessed here]

Have you ever played the game “would you rather?” It’s a game of hypotheticals, in which you are presented with two options, and you have to pick one.

For instance, would you rather never get to eat chocolate for the rest of your life, or eat nothing but chocolate for the rest of your life?

Or, would you rather have perfect health for the next 20 years but not much money, or have a million dollars a year for the next 20 years but not great health?

Or how about: would you rather discover the solution for world peace, or discover the cure for cancer?

Would-You-Rather is a great game for starting conversations, because it pushes us to think about what we really value, what’s most important to us.

You could say that there’s a subtle game of “would you rather” in the backdrop of today’s gospel reading. Jesus’ sermon to his disciples seems to start with a loaded choice: Would you rather suffer now and be comforted later, or be comfortable now and suffer later?

I have to admit that I squirm away from this way of reading the blessings and woes. I don’t like the either or choice, and I’m not entirely sure that it is… But one of my go-to commentaries on the gospel of Luke (a deeply researched and thought-provoking study by one Jewish and one Christian NT scholar)[1] pushed me to confront this “pick your poison” way of reading this gospel. The authors (Levine & Witherington) argue that the way Jesus addresses his blessings and woes directly to the different categories of people, forces listeners to decide which side we’re on.[2] Jesus isn’t talking generically about “the poor” and “the rich.” He’s saying “blessed are you…”, “woe to you….” The implication is that his listeners fit in one or the other of these categories, and that begs the question of which is preferable? Which would you rather…?

Option one is clearly negative in this present moment: poor, hungry, weeping, and hated.

Anyone like that option?

Of course, the promise of the blessings is a promise of reversal: You will be filled. You will laugh. Your reward will be great in heaven. And in some way, you even get your consolation now, because “yours is the kingdom of God.” God sees your suffering and God will redress it. As Levine & Witherington explain: “because God is fair, those who lack status or are economically deprived will have enjoyment later.”[3]

It’s a classic worldview with plenty of support in scripture, especially in the bits that scholars describe as “eschatological” – the passages that focus on the end times when God will engage in a cosmic rebalancing of our broken world. And it’s a comforting teaching for those who are currently poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled. There’s a very real and needed hope in the promise that conditions will be reversed when God takes over.

But this worldview can also be problematic from an ethics perspective, because it suggests that we don’t have to do anything about current conditions. As that argument goes: God has a heavenly reward for those who suffer, so why would we do anything about their suffering now? It’s all part of God’s plan.

In a context like the first century church, where people were expecting the end times any day now, and the church lacked the power to address the root causes of suffering, a word of eschatological comfort made sense. But we make a big mistake when we read in that word of comfort a justification for the existence of poverty, hunger, or suffering. When we assume it’s all part of God’s plan.

And that becomes obvious if we think of the blessings and woes in the context of “would you rather.” Because, who would choose to be poor, or hungry, or weeping, or hated/excluded/reviled/and defamed? The blessings are a comfort if that’s where you find yourself, but they don’t make it good!

But, the other option in the would-you-rather game doesn’t sound that great either. I mean, being rich, well-fed, laughing, and well-regarded sounds pretty good. But these are the folks to whom Jesus addresses the “woes.” Jesus is issuing them a warning:

Don’t be too satisfied with your lot in life, because you already got yours. The final future has nothing for you. Even worse: hunger and misery are coming. You are identified with the false prophets, who are NOT part of God’s kingdom.

Ummmm. No thank you. That’s not a good choice, either.

And, you know, it doesn’t exactly sound fair. I’m going to be punished for having enough to eat?! And for laughing?! What happened to “a joyful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22)? And, you know, Luke is all about describing all the unexpected people that Jesus liked to eat dinner with – tax collectors, and sinners, and even pharisees. How do we get from there to – “your future is hunger and mourning”? This seems inconsistent. What happened to God being fair?

Of course, those who starve when others are feasting might be justified in thinking turn-about is fair play. That’s the basic plot of Jesus’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (which appears in the 16th chapter of Luke’s gospel). The blessings and woes from this sermon are exactly how things play out in the parable. And, in the parable, the final reversal makes sense because the earthly conditions of the two men are linked. The rich man’s conspicuous consumption, his refusal to acknowledge the claim of his neighbor’s need, is the reason that Lazarus is hungry. The rich man’s wealth and feasting are not morally neutral. His excess is unjustifiable in the face of Lazarus’ deprivation.

The parable pushes us to recognize that wealth and poverty are not separate realities. And if we read the blessings and woes from this perspective, even the laughter of the second group can take on an evil tone. Levine & Witherington point out: “to laugh when others are starving, to laugh in the presence of injustice – not to mock injustice and so critique it through satire, but to find it funny – deserves its eschatological reversal.”[4] That isn’t the laughter of a joyful heart, but of a callous one.

At the same time, there’s a danger here also for those who long for the reversal. Because if what we seek is not justice, but vengeance… if we find delight in the promised punishment of those who currently enjoy unjust wealth, then this too is laughter at another’s expense…. And the promised reversal might just turn around on us too!

So, what are we to do? There doesn’t seem to be any good option in the would-you-rather game.

In fact, I don’t think there is. I don’t think Jesus actually wants us to pick a side. I think he is telling us the truth about God’s justice. I think he’s describing the way that God’s kingdom DOES reverse the inequalities that leave some poor, and hungry, and mourning, while others have more than they need. But I don’t think he’s telling us that we should wait until the end times for that reversal to take place. I think he’s telling us to actively change the terms of the game.

That challenge is built into final blessing, and the final woe. The fourth description in each of the lists points us to the prophetic tradition. Jesus reminds us of how the prophets and false prophets have historically been received, because the prophets have a whole lot to say about the connection between rich and poor, hungry and well-fed.

And what they have to say is: “don’t wait for the judgment to come; get to work now!”

The prophets pose plenty of would-you-rather scenarios, but they are a little more direct about it. Their choice is usually along the lines of “would you rather wait for God’s judgment to decimate your society, or else get your act together and start taking care of each other now?”

There is a third way in Jesus' would-you-rather sermon that’s not about picking a side, but rather changing the game. Instead of settling for a reversal in the end, the prophetic path calls for a leveling of the playing field.

And, just as an aside, I find significance in the geography Luke describes for this sermon. Jesus “stood on a level place” (Luke 6:17). He picked a location for this sermon that draws our minds toward reducing inequalities. Because that’s how the poor and hungry get helped now, instead of having to wait until the end times.

Now, Jesus is NOT saying that such a change of the game is easy – he references the prophets because the prophets remind us how this kind of leveling work usually goes.

Those who speak against the system get reviled, excluded, and defamed. People – at least the people in power – usually don’t want to hear that society is broken, and that the existence of poverty is an indictment on everyone who benefits from the current system. Those who are winning the game (or at least holding their own in it) don’t want the game to change, because the status quo is working for them.

Except it’s not! And not just because of the future cosmic reversal. But also because the idea of “other people’s problems” is a lie. None of us are immune to the consequences of a society that leaves people behind.

Jesuit priest, Fr. Gregory Boyle, has spent a lifetime encountering that truth in his work with Los Angeles gang members, gangs being one of the consequences of systemic poverty. In his book, Barking to the Choir, Boyle challenges us to appreciate just why we need to be part of breaking down that status quo. He encourages us to ask:

How do we awaken from the dream of separateness, from an abiding sense that the chasm that exists between us cannot be reconciled? … How do we tame this status quo that lulls un into blindly accepting the things that divide us? And keeps us from our own holy longing for the mutuality of kinship, a sure and certain sense that we belong to each other.”[5]

The problem with seeing Jesus’ sermon as a would-you-rather choice, isn’t ultimately a problem of there being no good options. It’s the problem that focusing on the choice reinforces division. It sets us up in two opposing groups, each trying to get the benefit on our side.

But it’s the division that’s the problem. The willingness to divide humanity into “us” and “them” is the reason why there is poverty in a land of wealth, and hunger in a land of plenty.

But we don’t have to fall for the us/them division. We don’t have to try to win the game.

We have another choice: to listen to the prophets like Gregory Boyle who remind us of our common humanity, and who actively work to reverse the conditions of poverty, and hunger, and suffering NOW, not just in the hereafter.

I don’t know about you, but that’s what I would “rather.”

Thanks be to God for that option.

[1] Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington II, The Gospel of Luke: New Cambridge Bible Commentary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

[2] See Levine & Witherington, p. 176ff.

[3] Ibid, p. 177.

[4] Ibid, p. 179.

[5] Gregory Boyle, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, introduction.

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