Jeremiah 17:5-10, Luke 6:17-26
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus is a healer. His very first act of ministry is healing, and the healing continues on from there. Jesus overcomes fevers and leprosy. He restores a withered hand. Jesus even reverses paralysis. People with all kinds of diseases and physical challenges come to Jesus. He lays his hands on them; and they are healed.
Jesus’ healing also goes beyond the physical. He performs exorcisms; he knows how to silence demons. He pronounces the forgiveness of sins, the healing of the relationship between a person and God. Jesus understands his mission as caring particularly for sinners, for those who are far from God. He says: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:21)
Jesus is a healer. He heals bodies, and he heals spirits. He pays special attention to the most painfully suffering bodies. He feels a particular calling to serve the most tortured spirits. Even when he teaches, Jesus is healing: extending an invitation to the minds and hearts of his listeners, to be changed.
What does Jesus have to teach us in this gospel? What kind of healing might his words provoke?
What we hear today is a passage from what is known as Jesus’ sermon on the plain; he is preaching, not on a mountain, or in a boat, but “on a level place.” The passage begins on a very encouraging note. Jesus says: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” According to Jesus, those who are most in need will find their needs met through the grace of God. Even hatred, exclusion, and defamation may be a reason for joy: after all, the greatest prophets suffered the same.
Most of us are familiar with the idea of God promising blessing and help to those in very difficult circumstances. But from here the text takes a troubling turn, in a passage unique to this gospel. Jesus says, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
It’s one thing to promise
comfort to those in need. But why proscribe suffering for those who have money,
or food, or laughter, or acclimation? Some of us may have more than we need,
but who needs woe? Why would a healer
desire woe for anyone?
I love the text from Jeremiah today in conversation with Jesus’ words. Jeremiah has his own list of blessings and curses – perhaps these inspired Jesus. But my favorite part of this passage comes at the end: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart…”
We like to think that our hearts are pure. Listen to your heart, we tell one another. Follow your heart. But what if our hearts are not always reliable? There was a wonderful UCC devotional about this recently by the Rev. Quinn Caldwell. What if our hearts are persuaded and perverted by evil? What if our hearts are flawed, and we don’t even know it?
There are plenty of examples of heart perversion and heart delusion in the news. Politicians, who refuse to own up to the ways in which they may need healing from the widespread scourge of racism. Church leaders, who refuse to take responsibility for committing sexual assault, or for reassigning sexual predators within the church. But it is too easy to point fingers at others. All of us have been taught racism and misogyny and all manner of other prejudices: they’re embedded in our cultures, and in our social structures. Many of us enjoy privileges such as wealth, skin color, or education, that we barely notice, let alone try to mitigate. How can we heal from hurts that are hidden from us? How can we recover from illnesses that we consciously or unconsciously ignore, because they benefit us?
The prophet tells us that God tests our sometimes untrustworthy minds and searches our sometimes devious hearts. God digs deep, and gets close. When no one else can, God offers us accountability for those parts of ourselves we wish we could keep hidden from everyone
What if Jesus does not so much wish blessings on some, and woe on others, but healing for all?
Healing: in the provision of food, and funds, and laughter, and reassurance, for those of us who desperately need it. And healing: in the redistribution of wealth and food and pleasure and acclimation away from those of us who have been glutted by them, whose hearts and minds have been damaged by overabundance.
We may, almost all of us, be in need of both kinds of healing. The meeting of our deep needs and greatest hungers. The chipping away of overabundance and habits of dominance. To quote Isaiah: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” (Isaiah 40:4)
This kind of dramatic
rebuilding of our inner landscape, and our social fabric, may hurt while it
helps. The rebreaking of the bone, the opening
of the heart: healing can be terrifying as well as tender.
This gospel shows us Jesus as a healer. We touched last week on the terrible truth that God does not always heal or provide for us in the ways that we desire. Still, I believe that Jesus is reaching out towards us in healing. That wherever we are unhealthy from a lack of something, God is blessing us there. That wherever we are unhealthy from too much of something, God is trying to help us with that, too. God is working with us for the healing we desperately desire, and the healing we haven’t realized that we need, and the healing that is really inconvenient and uncomfortable for us. For God desires our healing, and the healing of communities, and the healing of creation.
Gracious God, there are a lot of blessings in our lives, and a lot of woe, and sometimes we’re not even sure which is which. Keep working on us; keep working with us, on everything from our bank accounts to our bodies, on everything in our minds and in our hearts. You know what true health is, for us, and for us together, and for our world. May your power heal each of us us, and work in us for the healing of the whole. Amen.