The preacher has a clear focus on the blessings and woes named by Jesus for the crowds who have come to be healed and to hear him. These verses put today’s hearers on a level plain/playing field (verse 17) with all those to whom Jesus once spoke: the twelve, the crowd of disciples and the “multitude” from all over the area. All these people, including us, whatever our commitments to Jesus as teacher or master, whatever our understanding, get to hear Jesus open such a different world view from our own that it still leaves us gasping, both stirred and shaken (apologies to James Bond).
There are two reasons that Jesus’ words can leave us shaken. First, there is real power behind them, power to make things happen in his time and in our here-and-now. Before this teaching about God’s reign and the way of being expected of all who are in relationship with God, Jesus is on the mountain, a place of closeness to God, praying.
Prayer guides his next steps, the choice of the twelve and descent to the masses of folks waiting for him at the foot of the mountain. At that point we hear that “power came out of him” and healed everyone (dynamis, verse 19). Power flowed from Jesus, and not just any power, but the power of God. And that power was all about healing and restoring those who had come for help.
The multitudes and we dare trust Jesus’ capacity to speak truly of God for he demonstrates God’s power for good in healing and casting out demons. In verse 20, he spoke to his disciples (a larger group than the Twelve but including them). The blessings and woes that follow describe a world that reverses almost everything they (and we) know of how things work. Hearers of Luke’s gospel could recall Mary’s words in 1:46-55. Even before Jesus was born, she was inspired to speak of a great reversal in the physical circumstances of God’s people. Mary’s words are a patchwork of references from her scripture, recalling God’s promised mercy, so long awaited.
In Jesus’ own inspired speech in Nazareth in Luke 4 (see verses 1, 14, 18-21), he used prophetic words from Isaiah and language from the Jubilee year to promise fulfillment of God’s promised healing and freedom from captivity. Now in this third major presentation of Jesus’ messianic purpose, he once again describes a world shaped by God and not human mores.
Jesus’ speech in these verses is quite direct. Note all the “you” and “yours” (in the plural form) for both the beatitudes and the woes. His speech is also rhythmic. Those who are blessed and those who hear the prophetic “woe” find that their circumstances will be reversed. Poor and rich, hungry and filled, weeping and laughing, hated and admired are in the very process of being reversed or will be.
Justo Gonzalez calls this a “hard-hitting gospel”1 in that God’s good news to the poor is also tough news for those who are not poor. For God’s reign to be good news for the well-fed, rich, laughing, and admired, they will have to wake up and change their ways. We dare not overlook or spiritualize this aspect of Luke’s gospel. It is a gift he brings to us. Consider the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:14-31 or the man who would build two barns in Luke 12:16-21. Here riches distract from heeding the ways of God and lead these men away from life with God now and in the hereafter. Also consider Zacchaeus in 19:1-10 who is declared to be “a child of Abraham” after he explains his generous re-distribution of his wealth.
One danger for the preacher is to allow these words to imply that it is better to be poor, hungry, and the like than to be rich, well-fed, and the like. Does God only love us when we are miserable? That is not the brunt of these words. They are promises to those who are suffering in this world that God still sees them, loves them, and is intent on their thriving. Jesus’ words are also warning calls to his hearers that they are called to live with attention and generosity toward their neighbors, even as God is attentive and generous.
God is creating a realm, bringing it to life among us by that same power that emanated from Jesus, in which no one is hungry or mourning or poor or disregarded at the very same time that others are abundantly well-fed, rich, laughing, and respected. It’s the contemporaneity of these two opposite circumstances that God promises to remedy, and we are called to address in our own lives.
The gospel was written for Christians living a generation or two after the first groups of believers had gathered. In this teaching of Jesus, as so often in his gospel, Luke reminds his hearers that they are all called to continue to live lives “rich toward God “(Luke 12:21) no matter how long it seems to be taking for God’s reign to be fully present. That is an important word also for us.
The “wealth gap,” “food deserts,” the “education gap,” the “health gap,” and myriad other gaps and failures around the globe mark the two sides of the blessings and woes. It’s the gap we are called to address by this passage for God’s sake and our own. It’s what children of God do and what they repent of not having done, confident that God gives new opportunities to live with generosity and attention.
This passage goes to the heart of biblical teaching, standing in dialogue with other passages and making important contributions to the discussion. The passage exhorts the reader to trust in the Lord. The issue of trust in the Lord comes up throughout scripture, in various ways and with many nuances. The terms “trust,” “have faith,” and “believe” reinforce each other. As greeting cards and coffee cups remind us, the sage counsels the reader to “trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight” (Proverbs 3:5).
Paul considers faith the proper response to God’s grace and uses it as a basis to accept uncircumcised gentiles into the church (Romans 4:13-16). Paul cites Abraham as the example of faith, “he did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead” (19). An examination of the Abraham cycle reveals a mixture of trust/faith and doubt/laughter (Genesis 17:3, but see verse 17; for Sarah’s laughter, see 18:12).
In the Gospel of John, the proper response of a disciple to Jesus’ presence and signs is to believe. The disciples believe after the miracle of water into wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2:11). Even though the disciples believed at the first sign, they believe again at the empty tomb (20:8). Belief is not a static condition. Some of the characters in John come to believe only after a long process (9:38). The concepts of trust, faith, and belief intertwine. All three involve intellectual ascent and visceral response. All three prove elusive and difficult to define precisely. Yet the entire biblical witness seeks to inculcate and develop trust/faith/belief. This passage from Jeremiah adds its insights to the rest of scripture.
The immediate context of the passage from Jeremiah involves the strategy of Judah’s leaders to form an alliance with Egypt against the Babylonians. Jeremiah’s message to Judah and its leaders was to trust in the Lord, not in political and military alliances. As it turned out, the attempt to fight back prompted the Babylonians to tighten their grip, eventually destroying the city and temple and sending the Judeans, including Jeremiah, into exile. In the contemporary world, countries regularly form alliances, sign treaties, and cooperate both militarily and for trade and commerce. In national and international matters, the parties involved should reflect on the ethical and moral dimensions of these alliances. The preacher can speak to such matters and point out unethical strategies. A preacher would have a harder time determining how these alliances involve a lack of trust in the Lord.
The preacher’s real task in using this passage is proclaiming how people and churches can trust in God. Although the passage cautions against trusting in people, individual Christians and churches enter into relationships that involve trust in people. The real key to the passage may come in the line about turning our hearts away from the Lord. The preacher can talk about ways that interacting with others involves turning away from God.
Commentators have noted the similarity between these verses and Psalm 1. Both set up a sharp contrast. Psalm 1 contrasts those who follow the law or teaching, and those who do not. The comparison to a tree planted near water is a common theme (Psalm 1:3, Jeremiah 17:8). In both cases, those who follow the teachings or trust in the Lord bear fruit. Both the wisdom tradition and the Deuteronomistic theology set these kinds of sharp contrasts, and promise prosperity. Proverbs 3:9-10 promise barns filled with plenty and vats bursting with wine. Deuteronomy 28 promises success to the obedient and failure to the disobedient.
Within the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament comes a challenge to such either/or thinking. Job and Ecclesiastes teach that life does not work out so simply. In the contemporary world, life teaches the same thing. Obedience, trust, wisdom do not lead to outward success or prosperity. The passage from Jeremiah seems to support the idea that life does not work out so simply. The passage acknowledges that drought and heat will come. Those who trust will survive and bear fruit despite the poor conditions.
Verses 9-10 seem out of place following the exhortation to trust in the Lord. Old Testament scholars do not consider verses 9-10 as an integral part of this passage. It seems to start a new thought. In verse 9, the prophet speaks to the Lord. He laments the perversity of the human heart. The Lord then responds affirming the divine searching of the human heart and mind. The Hebrew of the passage uses the terms for heart and kidneys, reflecting the ancient pattern of placing thought, emotion and will within the human gut.
Modern medicine teaches differently, but our thoughts and feelings affect the whole body. What happens in our gut affects our thinking. We can see the insight of the Hebrew understanding of human nature. Even though scholars separate these parts of the passage, one can see the connection. The first part of the passage encourages trust in the Lord. Verse 9 recognizes the complexity of human thought and emotion. Things happening in our hearts and “kidneys” can prohibit our trust. Pain from the past, the memory of betrayal, depression, anxiety can derail our attempts to trust.
Perhaps the assertion of the Lord holds a promise. God searches our heart. God understands our struggles to trust. God, in giving “to all according to their ways,” may enable us to trust. The whole witness of scripture teaches that trust, faith, and belief are complex. Some people, such as the blind man in John 9, need time to get there. Others, such as Abraham, show faith and doubt side by side. God works within this situation to draw out trust. Trust does not ensure outward success. Trust enables the individual Christian and the church to rise above despair and cynicism. Trust keeps us connected to God, even in the most difficult of situations. Trust produces fruit even in what looks like unproductive soil.
Who are the wicked? Who are the righteous? Who are the blessed ones? How does one know the difference? Am I among those who would be called wicked? I have been called by many names over the course of my life. On occasion I have been called each of these.
It seems there is no shortage of those who are ready to label someone as wicked and slow to name someone as righteous (except perhaps those who think and act as they do). Maybe this has always been the case. However, our contemporary period seems to be more pointed and acidic than at any time in recent history, or at least since the 1950s and 1960s (Stephen Brookfield, co-authored with Mary Hess), claims:
“I wish I could claim to have a fully developed antiracist identity, but I don’t think that lies in my future … This is because the white supremacist ideology I’ve been brought up in is just too deeply embedded in me … I’ve assimilated a set of paradigmatic assumptions that have seemed to me to represent such commonsense reality that I’ve mostly regarded them as empirical truth rather than assumptions. Chief among these are the following: Leadership is white; Intelligence is white; Objectivity is white; Rationality is white; History is white; Geography is white.”1
I resonate with Brookfield’s comments and contend that undoing the wickedness of white supremacy is a lifelong process.
Discerning that which is wicked and that which is righteous is more complicated than it may appear at first glance. The Psalmist invites readers into complicated spaces of personal reflection to examine themselves and their own unexamined assumptions about what is right, good, true, and worth doing. Psalm 1 provokes an internal conversation about who we are and who we think we are? It invites readers and hearers into spaces of discomfort and personal recognition as related questions arise in the mind. Who are the wicked? Who are the righteous? Is this an either/or proposition? Can one be both wicked and righteous at the same time?
Questions abound when engaging Psalm 1. At first glance, it appears there is a clear separation between that which is wicked and that which is righteous. Those that are wicked are living a life that leads to destruction and those that are righteous are living lives that lead to blessed life lived under the watchful eye of God.
However, discerning who is wicked and who is righteous is no easy matter. Even if they are clearly aligning with one path or the other there seems to always be some type of commingling of motivations and desires. The Apostle Paul in Romans 7:15-16 echoes this conundrum when he states, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.” The one who meditates on the law day and night will potentially have a higher capacity for discerning what is right and good from that which is wrong and wicked. However, any span of living will also disclose to us that knowing and doing are not always in alignment with one another. Yet, knowing can aid us in choosing that which is right, good, and true. Sometimes we know what is wrong and we know that doing it will also be wrong.
Certain actions could be seen as wicked since they counter that which might be regarded as a fundamental truth or good. For example, children separated from parents at the southern U.S. border because of not entering the United States by legal means could be regarded as fundamentally wicked. The foundation of a family is rooted in the parent-child bond. To tear that asunder for political reasons without a plan or capacity for reuniting them could be countenanced as wicked. The family broke US law to enter the United States and the United States could be found guilty of transgressing a higher law (God’s law) when the government chose to separate and destroy families.
Perhaps the contemporary clash of ideas about what might be wicked and righteous stems from battles external and internal about these questions and other ideas that bump up against core convictions about what is right and wrong, good and evil, valuable and invaluable, and so on. Shifts in human understanding brought about by science and technology have resulted in countless revisions of what connotes human sexuality, human reproduction, the human genome, and even human flourishing. For some, questions about human sexuality are settled questions and for others the questions are highly unsettling.
The rise of relativism and related ideas about truth or the slippery nature of truth may be also responsible for a blurriness about what is wicked and what is righteous. Is the law of God relevant in all matters of human existence? The complexities of what we know through contemporary science and technology only complicate our meditation on the law. They don’t negate it. They invite deeper levels of reflection.
What was the world of the Psalmist like? What were the conditions in which they were writing and what were they trying to express to those who would listen? I think the answers lie beyond our capacity to know with certainty. However, I think we could suggest that the friction caused by the law of God itself and difficulties with adherence to that law within human experience have been present since it was first articulated and shared. The law of God might be seen as a stream of cool water that slakes the thirst on a hot day. It is that which brings freedom and flourishing. Wickedness promises these things too, but it cannot deliver that which brings contentment and joy. It might bring fleeting happiness, but not contentment and wellbeing.
The Psalmist recognizes the frailty and precariousness of life outside the law of God and invites singers and hearers into a world where delight is found not in material things, but in the law of the LORD. Meditation on God’s law during the day and night can bring about wellbeing and thriving even in places of scarcity and in places where easy answers to complicated questions are elusive. It brings about wellbeing not just for individuals, but in communities and webs of relationships.
In poetic imagery the writer evokes images of trees planted next to streams of water and whose roots always find nourishment to yield fruit. The water is like the law of God that becomes part of the tree itself and causes it to flourish. It becomes part of its very existence and without it the tree would potentially fail. Meditation on the law of God is regarded as something that gets inside of us like water and brings refreshment to the parched places. It can produce the conditions necessary for the bearing of fruit. Drinking from the stream from which the law of God flows can strengthen people so that they might discern that which is wicked and choose against it. The Psalmist is inviting people corporately and individually to live life in all its fullness by allowing the law of God to permeate them completely. It is a goal and we are invited to the journey toward that goal.
Years ago an actively engaged congregational leader confided that Easter was his least favorite Sunday “because you can’t escape the idea of Jesus’ resurrection on that Sunday, and I can’t make myself believe in it.” This week falls in the Epiphany season, not Easter, but if the Apostle Paul has his way, there’s no Sunday of any season or any day at all where one can escape the reality of resurrection. For Paul, without it, we’ve got nothing (15:17).
It’s worthwhile to look at what Paul does and doesn’t say about resurrection or how resurrection manifests itself in our lives.
In this passage, Paul offers three arguments about Jesus’ resurrection. Or more precisely, he makes one argument twice (15:13-14 and 15:16-18), and he makes another—and more important—argument once (15:15).
It’s important to note that his arguments do not try to prove the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. The reality of resurrection constitutes his arguments’ starting point, not their conclusion. He points us beyond what we might or might not believe, aiming to reach deeply, as far down into truth as we can go. For Paul, this is not an abstract theological argument, some early version of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Resurrection lies right beside love at the concrete, indispensable center of the Law, the Prophets, the Writings, and the Gospel.
He argues that resurrection exists as one of life’s fundamental realities, whether anyone believes in it or not. He’s not as concerned about what we believe to be true, as he’s concerned about what is true and why it matters. He wants us to understand that we can stake our lives on the reality of resurrection.
In response to an objection raised by some people in the Corinthian congregation—“some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:12)—Paul, twice, bluntly states a crucial problem with that view of reality: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised” (15:13). “If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised” (15:16).
Again, he doesn’t make this as a theological argument. He’s not saying, “Our theology requires that Jesus was raised from the dead, so if we don’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection, our theology collapses. So, you have to believe in Jesus’ resurrection; otherwise you have no legitimate theology.” His argument is not “without resurrection, your theology collapses,” but “without resurrection, everything collapses, our lives collapse.”
He’s not worried about doctrinal consequences but existential consequences. Without resurrection, “our proclamation has been in vain,” “your faith has been in vain” (15:14), “your faith is futile,” “you are still in your sins” (15:17), and “everyone who has died in Christ has perished” (15:18). If God is not—at the very heart and center of God—a God of life, who above all else desires life for every created being, and who not only wants it but has power to give and sustain it … if that is not true, then, yes, the Corinthian objection would be true. And its consequences would mean no resurrection, no resurrection of Jesus, no redemption of our bodies, nothing of lasting importance here and now or hereafter (15:19).
But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on, asserting, not arguing, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (15:20). How does he so confidently assert that resurrection is real, not just resurrection in general, but specifically Jesus’ resurrection and our own?
How resurrection manifests itself in our lives
By reversing the order of Paul’s other argument in this passage, we can see its logic (13:15). Paul asserts (starting at the end of the sentence and moving backward), “If it’s true that the dead are not raised,” then God did not raise Christ, and we are misrepresenting God by saying that God can give life to the dead. Without resurrection, our proclamation and our testimony would stand as lies, falsehoods, misrepresentations of who God is and what God desires for us and for creation (15:12, 14, 16). By word and deed, we would be bearing false witness against God (13:15, Greek, pseudo-martures), taking God’s name in vain.
Why does Paul say that so emphatically? What is his basis for such a claim?
We see the major grounds for his claim in the verses immediately preceding this pericope (15:1-11). First, he cites as reliable the eye-witness testimony of Christ’s resurrection by original followers, including the apostles (15:5-7). Second, Paul asserts the reliability of his own vision of the resurrection “as one untimely born” (15:8); see also 1 Corinthians 9:1; Galatians 1:13-17). But, third, he doesn’t expect people just to take his and their word for it. We can also see the reality of resurrection in the reality of changed lives—like his own, in being transformed from persecutor to apostle (15:9-10a). And, fourth, we see that reality not only in one-time moments of conversion, but also in the ongoing growth and transformation that flows out of the ongoing grace of God (15:10b).
Finally, resurrection lies at the heart of the proclamation of scripture and the church (15:3, 4, 13, 14, 15). Again, this happens not for the sake of supporting theologies. Resurrection lies at the heart of scripture because those who have seen resurrection at work in people’s lives have preserved those stories, passed them down as reminders of the possibilities that God provides for all people and for all time (15:20). People continue to proclaim those stories because they see resurrection at work in their own day, in their own lives, and in the lives of others around them.
It’s not possible to proclaim that “there is no resurrection of the dead” once we have seen resurrection made visible in people whose actions bear witness to God’s life-giving power. We don’t have to make ourselves believe it. It speaks for itself all around us and among us, from creation to Exodus, to prophets, to Jesus, until now and forever.