Blessings and Curses — No Really! (Jeremiah 17:5-8; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:20-26)
Today’s Old Testament and Gospel lessons were probably put together because, on the surface, they share the characteristic of being “blessings and curses” or “woes.” No really – blessings and curses don’t really play with most of us today. While we might like to think of ourselves as “blessed,” we don’t usually think in terms of “cursing” others or “being cursed,” ourselves. It all sounds outdated, medieval, and, frankly, a little creepy. The Epistle lesson from 1 Corinthians 15 deals with the resurrection, which, on the surface at least, has nothing obvious to do with “blessings” or “curses,” but seems to be about affirming one of those central doctrines that distinguish Christians from other religious traditions. I suppose we could conclude that the first two lessons define “blessings” and “curses” and the Epistle is an example of why, when we affirm things like the resurrection, we’re blessed and those who don’t are cursed.. This allows us to have “enemies” we can post about on social media. We conclude that one of the ways we get blessed is by believing and affirming the “right things” like the resurrection. As the Apostle Paul said a few times in the New Testament, “God forbid!” It’s fake news.
So, if these scriptures aren’t about all that, what are they about? As many times before, we must allow ourselves to be confronted by the strangeness of the form in which the Bible comes to us from so long ago and so far away. If we mistake this strange and ancient form for the message, then we’ll miss the message. Ancient Israel lived in a world that did not separate the physical, political, and economic spheres from the spiritual sphere as much as we routinely do today.
When people in ancient Israel saw words like “blessings” and “curses,” one of their first thoughts would be the idea of living within a covenant framework. Although covenants probably grew out of family life, they very soon were taken up as political and legal frameworks for communities of various sizes and complexities. Covenants were ways in which different groups could live together in a community, almost like families” by agreeing to live in common ways. By agreeing to the covenant, one agreed to live in certain ways. If you acted according to covenant values, you were included in the covenant-life (blessed), and, if not, you were excluded (cursed). In some cases exclusion carried with it severe penalties. Ancient Israel even understood their relationship to God as a covenant community. Having faith in God, meant living in certain ways. If you accepted the covenant as your framework for life, you lived in certain ways, and if you saw people with these characteristics about them you adjudged them to be covenant partners. As Israel looked back on its history, it recognized that its relationship with God was described by several covenants: with Noah, with Abraham, at Sinai. We have looked at all this before.
Now, in Israel’s wider world, such blessings and curses grew from the family sphere to be included as regular parts of treaty documents monarchs or imposed by them. After Israel itself adopted the system of monarchy, these blessings and curses became more political and less about faith (as in the covenants I mentioned a bit ago). I should say that the language of religion and faith persisted through the documents by force of tradition. So, when the ancient readers or hearers of our passage in Jeremiah 17 heard of blessings and curses, one of their first thoughts would have been of consequences of living within a covenant framework.
But the verses from Jeremiah 17 themselves are not a legal nor a covenant document, but are a set of three observations such as we might find among Israel’s wisdom teachers. The first two observations use language derived from covenant-life to call for a forced-choice about who and what we will trust to be in charge of setting the principles by which we live life? One of the two choices is to opt for human institutions, whether legal, political, military, economic. Allowing such allegiance to be in charge leads to a life that is that is excluded from real blessing. In Jeremiah’s day, the kings of Judah were very willing to assume that they were both wise and in charge. The wisdom of their advisors, backed by economic and military power provided the meaning that was necessary for the good life. Or so they said.
The alternative choice is to say that, as important as human institutions and wisdom may be, it is God who can be trustworthy enough to be in charge. It is God who shows that life is about a vision of love, concern, inclusion, openness, gentleness, and kindness. Those who understand that it is God and God’s wisdom that’s in charge here is truly blessed in life. The outcome of these two ways of trusting is pictured in the metaphor of shrubs in the desert. One has the life-giving gift of water (God’s blessing), one does not. In a semi-arid land like Jeremiah’s country water was a matter of life and death. Without it, a desert shrub may be green on the outside, and give the appearance of life, but the roots are gone, and the inside is dry and dead as dust. The choice of who’s in charge carries with it lifestyles and policies that make a difference.
Now, all of life isn’t a forced choice, and there is a good deal of value in human wisdom and human institutions and traditions. But when it comes to which one we want to call the shots, well, that’s where the third piece of this text comes in. It starts by saying, “Well, before you decide, you need to know that the human heart is “devious” says our pew Bible above all else, and “incurably so.” The first word, when applied to land, means, hilly or bumpy. When applied to people it means “fickle.” It may be the word from which the name of Jacob, the trickster, the supplanter, the wily” is derived. Choose human institutions, with the best will in the world, that’s what you get. God, on the other hand is one who, literally searches the heart (the core of a human’s personality) and tests the kidneys, which were, in Hebrew psychology, the most secret part of our inner selves. God knows it all, and makes judgments dependent on human behavioural outcomes. Choose God to be in charge and get a look at the way things really are. And this has nothing to do with what religion you are, but with how you act and treat others. Let me bring in our Gospel text.
Most Gospel readers are familiar with the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Our Gospel text is Luke’s less familiar version of Jesus’ beatitudes from his equally less familiar Sermon on the Plain. Matthew has nine blessings and no woes, Luke has four of each, carefully balanced one over against the other. Jesus is not prescribing how life is going to be – blessing or curse, and either was Jeremiah. Both are describing life outcomes. Where God reigns, this is the way it is.
Three weeks ago, we looked at Jesus’ sermon in his hometown synagogue from Luke 4. Jesus preached from Isaiah 61, which said that God’s ancient business had been to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. Jesus preached that God was still in that business. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” If you remember those words it isn’t surprising to find that where God reigns is a place of blessedness for the poor and the marginal. Here in Luke’s beatitudes, Jesus speaks of everyday political, economic, social realities of life in this world. Can we be excused for wondering if Jesus really got it right? How can it be (in any culture) that the blessed are poor, hungry, weeping, hated, excluded, reviled and defamed? How can it possibly be the case that those whose lives are filled with woe are rich, well-fed, laughing, and well-liked? Can you imagine this as any politician’s platform? If this is the way it is when God’s in charge, who would want God to be in charge?
First, let me repeat what I said earlier. Jesus’ words are not commands or even injunctions. They are descriptions of the of simple reality where God in Jesus in charge. Both Jeremiah and Jesus are really talking about people who have learned that they are not in charge of much of anything in this world and have learned to depend upon God rather than on the exercise of power, influence, wealth – in short on self. When God reigns all the power has been turned upside down.
Second, although this text is primarily description of reality when God’s in charge, disciples of Jesus don’t act out their dependence on God by just talking about how much they depend upon God, and love God, and praise God, but by advocacy and appreciation of those with whom God identifies. Later in this same chapter Jesus says, “Why do you call me “Lord, Lord,” and do not do what I command you?” It’s not a matter of words, but actions. If Jesus’ own mandate was to the weak and the marginal, then, for those who say that God’s in charge, blessedness (dependence upon God) lies in identification with these same folk. That’s normal life.
On the other hand, those who depend upon themselves, what they can do, and what they can control, simply have the woe of having to live in a way that grows from self-centredness and is cut off from the dependence on others as a demonstration of their dependence on God. When God’s in charge that is truly “Woe.” Especially, since, God really is in charge no matter what we may say to the contrary. .
Now, I’m going to give Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 the last word. He seems to be talking about something else altogether. But he’s really not. The people he was addressing denied the possibility of the resurrection of the dead generally, and so the possibility of life in God’s presence beyond this life. For Paul, this was not simply a matter of making sure people affirmed what was orthodox. This transcends something we only affirm with the top of our heads, but hasn’t worked itself into the bottom of our hearts. The nub of what the Apostle says here is that we are not dependent on ourselves or anyone else for what finally happens to us, but on God. This confidence carries life outcomes with it, too. There are those in this world who have the power to strip us of almost everything, including earthly life. The best blessing of all is that those people are not really in charge. The God who raised Jesus from death to eternal life is in charge, and we can trust ourselves to this God forever. Life with the quality of the eternal (God’s life) is normal!
The Bible makes a clear differentiation between belief that something is so (“nodding our heads in assent”) and having faith (“betting our lives”). We are not asked to bet our lives on propositions or doctrines or rules. We are invited to trust (or bet our lives on) a person: God as revealed by Jesus, is the very essence of suffering love and grace; the One who has the power to make the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, the excluded, the reviled, and the defamed to be blessed. This is also the One who comes alongside us to share in the work of making the kingdoms of this world, the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. And he shall reign for ever and ever! In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.