Have you ever really, really wanted something, only to realize when you got it that it wasn’t all you expected or hoped? When I was about 11 years old, I begged my parents for a pair of white roller skates. I know I begged because … well, because I was quite precocious and demanding. Life and maturity have softened some of those edges, but I’m sure I still have more work to do.
The thing is, I really built up those skates in my mind. I imagined all the fun I would have in them. I imagined myself wearing them and gliding effortlessly through life.
Then when I got them, it turned out they were … meh. Okay. Alright.
They were sort of fun, but I didn’t suddenly start gliding (or rolling) effortlessly through life.
I got exactly what I wanted, but in the end I was disappointed.
Life can be like that sometimes, can’t it?
I think this is one of the truths Jesus is tapping into in the Sermon on the Plain. And, actually, when he does, he’s accessing a truth God has been communicating for a long time because we read something similar in the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah and in Psalm 1.
The ancient truth is that when we rely on anything other than God, we’re in for disappointment.
As a child, I built the roller skates up in my mind. I wish I could say that was the last time I made that mistake. Maybe you’ve done it, too? Whether it was with roller skates, or a car, a job, a house, or a relationship, maybe you’ve thought, “if I could have that, my life would be more complete; I would be better.”
And then you got that and you realized life was still life and you were still you.
We are conditioned to think that who we are is explained by what we have (or the car we drive or the job we do), but Jesus describes this kind of thinking with a series of “woe” statements:
“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” (Luke 6:24-26).
Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase perfectly captures the sentiment of these woes:
It’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made. What you have is all you’ll ever get. And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long. And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games. There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it. There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors!(Luke 6:24-26, MSG)
This is reminiscent of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah who says that those who trust in people instead of God: “shall be like a shrub in the
Similarly, in Psalm 1 trusting in people and in the things that matter to people (as opposed to the things that matter to God) makes us “like chaff that the wind drives away.”
These aren’t curses. Neither the Psalmist, nor Jeremiah, nor Jesus is making a threat. They’re just making an observation.
We’ve probably all met people who have everything, and yet they seem miserable. They seem like a shrub in the desert or chaff in the wind.
In the Sermon on the Plain, there’s an alternative to the woes:
Blessed are you who are poor,(Luke 6:20-22)
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.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
Jesus is saying “woes” aren’t the only option, but he does that by using a series of life circumstances that sound, to me, like woes—being poor, hungry, weeping, and hated.
Jesus makes the point—you think you’re really something because you have that house, that job, or those roller skates, but guess what? You’re really something because of who God is. Because God made you. Because you matter to God.
Jesus says woe to those who are rich because there’s nothing more God can do for them. Woe to those who are full because they don’t even know they need God. Woe to those who are laughing now, because no one gets through life with only laughter and never tears.
We think it’s good to want for nothing. We strive to “have it all.” We think we need to be self-sufficient, but Jesus says, “Blessed are you when you know what it means to need God” and “woe to you who think you can do it on your own.”
When we live like we already have everything we need; like we don’t need God; we do experience woe. We’re like the shrub in the desert, living in a parched place of the wilderness in an uninhabited salt land.
When, instead, we live in love with God and in reliance on God, recognizing our own limitations and poverty, Jeremiah says we are “like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:7-8). Those who live in reliance on God are like a tree that is so well nourished, nothing can stop it.
That’s the kind of tree I want to be.
What about you? Are you a shrub in the desert of your own self-sufficiency? Has there been a time when you had everything and didn’t think you needed God? Tell me about it in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.
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