In Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, he includes Jesus’ teaching on those who have embraced idols and are not blessed as they are on the path of woe. This sermon addresses what these “woes” mean and how we can fight against the woe road.
In this sermon, Greg addresses a specific part of Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount where he includes four woes that contrast with The Beatitudes. After saying blessed are the poor, hungry, those who weep and those who are reviled, Jesus identified those who are the opposite of blessed; those on the “woe road.”
In these four woes, Jesus points out that the rich, the well fed, those who laugh and those who are respected are actually not blessed. This is quite a challenge to us today, because most of us could be characterized as such by historical. Just consider the fact that even the wealthiest kings in the ancient world never dreamed of enjoying our modern comforts.
A surface-level reading of this passage could lead you to conclude that Jesus is saying that we are all doomed. Is there something intrinsically evil about being rich, well fed, laughing a lot or being popular? Is Jesus saying only poor, hungry, sad and unpopular people end up in the Kingdom?
A little Old Testament background is helpful. The “woe oracles” found in the Old Testament are judgments pronounced on covenant breakers. The pronouncement of “woe” identifies how they are on a course of destruction—that if someone walks down this road, it leads to death. The woes are not about how God descends from on high to zap people for their sin. The punishment for sin is built into the sin. Breaking covenant with God naturally leads to death.
In fact, Hebrew doesn’t have a distinct word for punishment. Instead, the same root word for punishment is also used for the sin being punished. This means that if you are wicked, you’ll experience wickedness. Or if you live in sin, you will miss out on what God has for you. When sin advances, it looks like the judgment of woe.
Jesus isn’t talking about the rich, well fed, happy and popular people as intrinsically evil. Jesus is talking about people who are rich, well fed, laughing, and popular in a way that breaks covenant with God and therefore leads to death. Those who have these things now are on a road that will not lead to God’s blessings.
Jesus says woe to the rich because they already have their comfort. These people no longer yearn to be comforted by God. If your focus is on acquiring and building your own wealth here and now, you will not be very generous with those in need, which breaks covenant with God.
The same thing is true of those who seek to be well-fed now. If a person’s identity is anchored in acquiring their own security, they will not be generous with their food toward people who are hungry, which breaks covenant with God.
Jesus also pronounces woe on those who laugh now. This isn’t about laughter in general, but about those who seek to make life one big party, who try to fill their life by being entertained. People who are on this woeful road will find that their laughter is often at others expense, a mocking laughter, which breaks covenant with God.
The final woe is spoken to those who are well-respected, those who focus on making their life full by impressing others. Those on this road are trying to get life through the applause of others, which breaks covenant with God.
All these woes reflect the principle Jesus taught in Matthew 10:39: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” The rich, well-fed, happy, popular people are trying to “find their life” here and now. They are on the woe road because it never fully satisfies and naturally leads to death. But those who let go of striving to have their best life now, and who are therefore willing to be martyred for Jesus, will find their life.
The question, then, is not about how wealthy you are, or the amount of food you have, or if you laugh, or about how popular you are. The question is: are you striving for these things so that you can try to achieve your best life now?
This is the reason why we must heed 1 John 5:21: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” There is an idolatrous pull found in everything of value in the world. What seems good on the surface can become an idol that pulls us away from God. We think we are using something that actually uses us. What is meant to be a blessing can become an idol that causes us to break covenant with God.
The reason why we don’t hunger for life found in God is because we are pulled in so many ways by the idols of this world. We who live in twenty-first century America feel the gravitational pull of these things. Through the constant barrage of advertising, we are constantly told how to get rich, to satiate hunger, to have more fun, and to become more popular. If we are not vigilant in guarding against it, we can find ourselves getting caught up in the woeful rat race, striving for more wealth, more security, more fun and more applause.
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