When I began my journey into ministry, a clergy friend gave me a book of quotes and stories about being a pastor. There’s one quote I’ve heard repeated a number of times, and it has always stuck with me: “A preacher’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
That quote came to mind as I thought about Jesus’ words from our passage today, because I think that’s exactly what Jesus was trying to do—comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And, I started to wonder who coined the saying in the first place, because I knew it wasn’t in Scripture. It turns out that it wasn’t originally about preachers at all!
In 1891, a Chicago-based author and humorist named Finley Peter Dunne began publishing one of the first nationally-syndicated newspaper columns. It was called “Mr. Dooley.” Mr. Dooley was the fictional owner and bartender of an Irish pub on Chicago’s south side, and in the column, “Mr. Dooley” shared his views on the political and social issues of the day.
Dunne also wrote books of Mr. Dooley’s observations. One of them included Mr. Dooley’s take on newspapers. He said (among other things) that it’s newspapers that “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Somehow, that responsibility eventually got passed on to preachers.
Although the quote might be original to Mr. Dunne, the idea behind it certainly isn’t. Just read any of the prophets. They seesaw between God’s words of assurance and promise, and accusation and threat. Anyone from those ancient times who was self-aware enough to recognize the role their own comfortable sinfulness had played in the downfall of Israel and Judah could hardly avoid feeling afflicted. Those afflicted by unrighteous priests and self-centered kings and greedy merchants would have been comforted in equal measure.
Luke’s gospel, like the prophets, is also a story of reversals which offer ample comfort to the afflicted and should afflict the comfortable. Mary sings of her unborn son in Chapter 1: the proud will be scattered, the powerful will be brought down, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled, and the rich sent empty away. The promise of reversals continues with Jesus’ first sermon, when he declares that he has been anointed to announce good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.
Eventually we get to Jesus’ words in our passage today. Hopefully, they will be words of comfort to those of us who need it. But, they should make many of us feel less comfortable and more than a little afflicted. That’s probably why we would much rather read Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes. Luke confronts us with the cold, hard reality of poverty, hunger, and sorrow so great that it leads to weeping. But, Matthew puts a more spiritual spin on Jesus’ words. He talks of being poor in spirit, not poor in the material necessities of life. He speaks of a hunger for righteousness, not growling stomachs. He speaks of mourning the loss of a loved one rather than the weeping that comes with loss and grief of all kinds. If we are among the materially comfortable, Matthew gives us a way to stay that way. But Jesus in Luke doesn’t gloss over the very real difficulties faced by the afflicted, and he doesn’t give the comfortable any outs.
This is especially clear when we get to the list of “woes.” These suggest that if we are financially secure or better, if we are well-fed, if we are having a great time, if everyone has a praise to heap on us, we’re in trouble. Here, Jesus hands us another set of reversals, one that would have completely upset his original listeners’ world view that health and wealth and status are signs of God’s favor. It may upset our own as well.
So, what are we to do with these blessings and woes? How can or should we apply them to our own lives?
First of all, we should understand that Jesus did not glorify poverty or hunger or sorrow or exclusion. These are not experiences to seek out. They don’t automatically confer holiness. But they are situations many people find themselves in. And, as Jesus pointed out repeatedly, the poor—the materially poor—are often able to forge a greater dependence on God for the simple reason that they don’t have the safety net of a healthy bank account, or good health insurance, or connections with the right people that tempt them to rely on something other than God.
This is why Jesus can say to the poor, “You are blessed now; the kingdom of God is yours now.” The belongings that pull the rich away from following Jesus don’t stand in their way. Their path is clearer because the simple fact of their material poverty means less stuff is blocking their way to the kingdom.
Does that mean that those of us who do not bear the burdens of poverty are doomed to suffer the woes that Jesus speaks of? No. But it does mean that we need to be intentional about removing the obstacles that stand in our way. This requires a hard look at our own lives, to see where our wealth is contributing to the poverty of others.
All the woes that Jesus levels are ones that result from improper treatment of others—treatment that can result in poverty and sorrow and exclusion. The full stomachs Jesus speaks come from the exploitation of others—from ignoring the dire need of those who pick and process our food. From blithely shopping for healthy food in our convenient grocery while ignoring the inner-city food deserts where fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive or nonexistent. From refusing to buy less-than-perfect produce so that farmers have to leave imperfect crops in piles to rot. From buying products from other countries where farmers are paid so little for their crops that they live in continual poverty.
Jesus isn’t suggesting that we all go on a starvation diet. Jesus doesn’t even require that we give away all we have. But Jesus does warn us that if we focus on filling ourselves, while leaving others to go hungry, we will one day find that we are the hungry ones.
Jesus isn’t anti-laughter. We’ve talked about his sense of humor before. But, laughter that lets people know they are not welcome or tells them that they are “less than” will lead to sorrow o them. And, laughter at the expense of others—laughter that causes others to weep in pain—will one day turn to both mourning and weeping for the ones presently doing the laughing, and the name-calling, and the denigrating.
Those whose wealth comes from taking advantage of others and disrespecting God’s creation will find that there is nothing for them in God’s kingdom. This kind of wealth has such a strong pull on its owners that following Jesus without a second thought is impossible. The owners of these riches will enjoy it for a while, but ultimately they will find that it is fleeting and worthless.
So, are you feeling comforted or afflicted right now? Maybe you’re feeling defensive, trying to convince yourself and God that you’re not in the “woes” category. These verses do call us to some serious self-examination. But, if you find yourself in the “woes” category, or have a sneaking suspicion that you ought to be, it’s not all bad news. The good news is that we can make changes, and there’s help available for us as we do.
One of the greatest sources of help we have is the example that has been set for us by the saints who have gone before us, and the saints who walk among us today. As United Methodists, we believe that saints are simply faithful people who have devoted their lives to God’s service. They have allowed their lives to be transformed by the redeeming love of Christ. In response to God’s gift of salvation, they try to live lives worthy of the Gospel, in spite of their human limitations.
Who are the saints who have helped to form you, or who can help re-form you? Perhaps they are the ones we can read about—the missionaries and the evangelists and the martyrs of the early Church. Maybe they are saints from the recent past—people who are recognized world-wide for their devotion to serving God by serving others. Or, maybe they are quieter saints—the ones whom you’ve known who lived the Gospel every day—friends, family, hopefully even a preacher or two, people who act as mirrors that show us not only who we are but also who we can be.
Finally, and best of all, Jesus tells us how we can live as saints in his kingdom. We are simply to do to others as we would have them do to us. This simple rule can actually put into effect the positive reversals that Jesus promises. When we provide to others the kinds of material resources we want for ourselves, empty stomachs are filled and laughter takes the place of weeping. When we offer to others the same respect and welcome we want for ourselves, exclusion and scornful laughter ceases. When we extend the benefits of our riches to others, we will find a more lasting blessing.
We are blessed when we allow Jesus’ words to comfort us in our affliction. But we are also blessed when we allow his words to afflict us in our comfort. We are blessed when we live as saints—not holier-than-thou types who stay busy polishing their haloes, but saints who respond to God’s gift of salvation by trying our best to live lives worthy of the Gospel. We are blessed when we become the channels through whom the reversals Jesus promises come to pass, here and now. We are blessed when we allow our lives to be transformed by the redeeming love of Christ and then, like the saints who have gone before us, be the means by which Jesus blesses all. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young