Perfect Joy by Rev. Richard Hasselbach, Ph.D
There is a Taoist story about a farmer who worked hard on the land for many years: he had one son to help him and one horse to pull his plough. One day his horse ran away and his neighbors, when they heard the news, came to sympathize with him. “such bad luck,” they said. “Perhaps,” he said.
The next day the horse returned leading three other, wild horses. “Isn’t that wonderful,” his neighbors exclaimed. “Perhaps,” he said.
The following day his son tried to ride one of the wild horses, the horse threw him and the young man broke his leg. “How awful,” his neighbors sympathized. “Perhaps,” he said.
The day after that the Emperor’s army came through the village conscripting all the young men of the village into service, but they passed by the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. “Everything turned out well for you,” the neighbors told the Farmer. “Perhaps,” he said.
As Luke begins Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain,” Jesus is at the peak of his popularity. A “large number of disciples,” and a “great crowd of people” had come to Jesus.The throngs of people surrounding Jesus reflect the universality of his mission and message: they are from all over Judea and Jerusalem, and from the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon.” There were city slickers and hicks; Jews and foreigners; the committed and the curious. All came to him wanted something: they came with their broken bodies and suffering spirits hoping for healing, release from bondage, and hope as he proclaimed the nearness of God’s kingdom and the vastness of God’s love.
What Jesus tells Hid disciples about joy (blessedness) is astonishing: different from what we might expect, and from the values this world. In these beatitudes, Christ repeats two words over and over: “blessed,” and “woe.” The Greek word used for “blessed” is makarios, meaning the joy and peace that comes from being in the right place. The word for “woe” in the text is, in Greek, ouai, related to the Hebrew oy, an interjection the prophets used to signal a warning and call to repentance.
“Blessed are you poor,”Jesus starts out, “the kingdom of heaven is yours.” Most poor people don’t feel particularly blessed by their poverty, but Jesus is reminding his disciples that we are all beggars before God. “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return.” (Job 1:21) Poverty is who we are, and when we know that we also know that we need God: He is our wealth and our safety. If we turn anywhere else for our security, we are looking for help where none can be found.
“Woe to you rich,” though. The temptation of wealth is to believe that our riches can save us, but riches are an illusion that only provide the appearance of security. Ask
any wealthy man with a terminal disease how much his fortune matters to him and he will tell you that he would trade all his treasure for health and longer life.
“Blessed are you who are hungry, you will have your fill.” We human beings are infinite emptiness: we want, and we want, and we want. Unable to find fulfillment themselves, those who truly hunger turn to God. Only God can fill the infinite longing of the human spirit, because only God is infinite fullness.
“Woe to you who are well fed now” because when we are well fed we think we can find satisfaction apart from God.. We turn to stuff, and think that our things can make us happy. They can’t. When my sister was a child she loved Christmas. On Christmas day she would open present after present. After opening her last present she would break into tears. There was never enough. There never is.
“Blessed are you who mourn.” If we see through the eyes of God there is much to grieve in our world. Hatred and intolerance swirl around us making public discourse and personal relationships toxic! We live in a culture of death where the killing of the most innocent and vulnerable among us, the unborn child, is treated like an affirmative good. New York and Virginia recently approved legislation allowing postpartum abortion: an unwanted child born alive can now be killed in these states. Should we not weep and mourn for what our society has become.
“Woe to you who laugh,” because you are not seeing the world through the eyes of God. Those who laugh do not see the sin, the inhumanity, the unkindness. Our world is no laughing matter, and disciples of Christ must know that.
Finally, “blessed are you when people hate you, reject you, exclude you because of the Son of Man.” As Jesus’ disciples we must stand with the values of God against the values of the world. We are to be prophets, who challenge the group think of the age. We are to live according to God’s rules, not according to the wisdom of this world. We must not go along to get along, we must speak the truth even when it is unpopular We must not be like Israel's false prophets who told the Kings what they wanted to hear.
Jesus invites us to look for joy where it is to be found: not in our wealth, or power, or possessions, or popularity, but in Him: in his love, his presence, his word, and his way. Until they rest in Him our hearts will be restless.
The Chinese farmer knew that nothing in this life is permanent, all was in flux. Christ is the still point: in him and in his way we can find lasting joy and safety, even when confronted by poverty, hunger, grief and derision.