Robyn Michalove: #Blessed

The lectionary reading of Luke’s Sermon on the Plain happens to fall around Valentine’s Day each year. If you glance at social media during this time, you may notice a surge in posts about feeling loved or sometimes a simple photo of a couple with the description “#blessed.” Now, in case you don’t know, a hashtag is a word or a phrase that is preceded by a pound sign or a hash sign [#], and it’s used on social media to categorize or identify similar messages on a specific topic or theme. A type of metadata, hashtags allow anyone to tag content on sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Just for fun, I searched for “#blessed,” which is widely used on social media to express gratitude for fortunate circumstances. Here are some more memorable ones:

...Turns out my cats snuggle all day while I am at work. #blessed

...Finally replaced my old iPhone with a new one. #blessed

...Found the perfect parking spot. #blessed

...My favorite ice cream is on sale. #blessed

I could go on, but it may take me a while. Expressing blessedness is clearly a popular sentiment. Instagram alone has more than 138 million blessed hashtags and if you search “#blessed+praying-hands-emoji” you jump to over 4 million hits! Linguist Deborah Tannen said that “blessed is used now where in the past one might have said lucky.” [Bennett, Jessica, “They Feel ‘Blessed,’ The New York Times, 2 May 2014,]

What I didn’t know is that this hashtag brings with it a fair amount of controversy. Critics claim that it borders on self-gratuitous expression and a little humblebragging, as they say. I came across a New York Times article in which the author quips, “There’s nothing quite like invoking holiness as a way to brag about your life. But calling something ‘blessed’ has become the go-to term for those who want to boast about an accomplishment while pretending to be humble, fish for a compliment, acknowledge a success (without sounding too conceited), or purposely elicit envy.” [Ibid.] Others critique the word’s overuse for trite things which lessen its meaning. As one person put it, “Now, it’s just like strawberries are half price at Trader Joe’s. I feel so blessed.”

In addition to its ubiquitous overuse, there is also the issue of its meaning. That is, if one connects “#blessed” with a particular circumstance in life, does it conversely mean that those who do not share that circumstance are thereby cursed? Think about it. I’m so blessed to have good health, we might say. I’m blessed to have this job. Or - I’ve heard before - I’m blessed not to work. So, for those who do not have those things, are they then, by contrast, cursed? How does blessing work exactly?

Turns out, Jesus has something to say about blessed as we heard in today’s scripture from Luke 6. Both Matthew and Luke recorded Jesus’ sermon that includes a series of blessings. We commonly refer to them as the Beatitudes. There are nine in Matthew and only four in Luke, and each blessing in Luke has a corresponding woe.

Luke’s sermon is given on a level place, not on a mountain like in Matthew. In Luke, Jesus is with the people who came as far as Jerusalem and Judea to the south and Tyre and Sidon to the north. Luke’s broad geographical audience is intentional - this gospel is for all.

What’s more, Luke addresses his audience directly. “All except the last of Matthew’s blessings are general statements in the third person (for example, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’ [Matt. 6:4], whereas Luke’s are in the second person, directed to his immediate audience (‘you will be filled,’ ‘you will laugh’ [6:21]). The fact that both the blessings and the woes in Luke are in the second person suggests that the audience described as present for the sermon included both some people who benefited from the status quo (and thus would hear the woes directed to them) and those who suffered from it (and thus heard a word of blessing).” [Ringe, Sharon H., Luke: Westminster Bible Companion, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995 (92).] They are all there together: poor/rich, hungry/full, weeping/laughing, rejected/-accepted, hearing the blessing and the hope; hearing the woes and warnings.

And, I’ll hand it to you, Luke’s beatitudes can be difficult to hear for those with privilege. Matthew’s version may be more palatable: “poor in Spirit” is preferable to the blessing going to the real poor, or the ones who are literally hungry, grief-stricken and outcast. But the discomfort of the well-off is not Luke’s primary concern, if you remember. In Luke, Jesus promises a world turned upside down, from the poor lifted up and the mighty cast down in Mary’s Magnificat in chapter 1 to the captives released and good news preached to the poor in Jesus’ sermon in chapter 4. There is an intentionality in Luke to name the poor as those who inherit, embody, and illustrate the kingdom of God.

It's true that throughout Luke, Jesus seems clear that wealth and privilege are real dangers that have the power to separate one from God and from the human community. More than any other gospel, Luke is concerned with issues of wealth and poverty. Jesus spells out the woes of which the comfortable and wealthy better beware. We learn that the kingdom of God belongs to those who have nothing except God.

But it seems a far reach to say that those whose experience poverty and hunger and grief and exclusion could count any of these as blessings. I doubt these are the folks in our social media feed that are using the #blessed moniker. “Choosing between paying rent and medical care. #blessed.” Can you imagine? How can Jesus say these are the blessed ones?

Let’s begin with a definition. When we say blessed, we typically refer to circumstantial happiness or fortune. We equate it with the good life, whatever that would be for us: a loving partner, a successful career, an excellent education, obedient children, healthy body, trusted friends, financial abundance. But does having these things then make you blessed? Because what if you don’t have them? Is the converse true?

When Jesus uses the word blessed in Luke, it’s the Greek word makarios which means “favored by God” or fully satisfied, regardless of the circumstances, even if one is hungry or outcast or poor or grieving.

These are not aspirational goals. As Sharon Ringe says in her commentary: “In each case, the blessing makes a statement of fact: one is blessed because of a future that is a sure part of God’s reign. There is no note of threat or challenge in these blessings. Nowhere do they say, ‘Do this in order to guarantee a specific result.’” [Ringe, 93.]

In other words, these beatitudes are not meant for us to achieve - they are a simple statement of how things are in the kingdom of God. They are an announcement of God’s agenda. They signal to both the rich ones and the well fed and the laughing and the insiders that in order to participate in God’s new kingdom, we need to align our lives and priority with God’s new order.

This is Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain - leveling the playing field, lifting the lowly, challenging the elite. Comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable. This theme is not new in Luke - the thread runs throughout scripture. Our welfare is bound up in the welfare of others.

The kingdom of God teaches us that we are all connected. We are not isolated individuals making posts about how great our life is on social media without concern of how our lives affect others. We are not separated from one another with what we classify as fortune or its opposite. We are, all of us, from Jerusalem and Judea, from all parts of the world gathered with Jesus on a plain level listening to a new way of thinking that honors those discarded, that lifts up weakness as power and forgiveness as strength.

And we’re all there in our different social conditions and life circumstances: rich and poor, hungry and fed, mourning and laughing, insiders and outsiders. We’re all there knowing that life is fragile and that these conditional situations could change at any moment. Whether we think life is quite random - who gets diagnosed with diseases and who gets promoted with raises - or whether we see our lives with plan and providence and design. Whether we recognize that patterns of privilege and structural inequities impact humans’ ability to flourish, or whether we blithely ascribe advantages to luck and disadvantages to lack of effort, and even if we see life as little of all of these things, we’re all there. We’re all gathered on the plain with Jesus, receiving blessings and hope or listening to woes and warnings to pay attention to God’s kingdom that transforms life as we know it.

And it’s in that moment with Rabbi Jesus that we realize it is not ours to determine who is blessed and who is not, including ourselves. It’s Jesus who pronounces blessing, and his pronouncement of who is blessed cuts across our sensibilities, so counter-cultural that we are often uncomfortable. The blessing of God is not found in our temporal circumstances but in our theological stances, our posture before God who desires healing shalom for all of the world that God so loves.

I tell this story often about when a team from our church traveled to Haiti to help in a clinic. They stayed at a guest house while they were there, and there was a little sign in the bathroom like the ones you’ve seen in hotel guest rooms. Instead of “Let us know if you forget your toothbrush or razor, and the front desk can bring you one,” this Haitian sign said, “Let us know if there is anything that you forgot; we will show you how to live without it.” #blessed. Those who live without what we normally consider to be blessings may have much to teach us about vulnerability and trust, about suffering and hope.

So it is that Jesus pronounces blessing, not according to our circumstance; instead, he encourages our stance, our posture to trust in God’s redemptive love. Maybe the better hashtag for us as followers of Christ is not so much #blessed as much as it is #grateful. In gratitude for God’s grace, may we align our lives with God’s vision of the kingdom and find the blessing inherent in that. May it be so, Amen.

Let us pray.

Holy God, you untangle our understanding of blessing from our cultural trappings of temporal and material happiness. By your Spirit, you give us the grace to see gratitude in your kingdom priorities of liberation for all people. Transform our hearts to proclaim your blessings, through Jesus Christ, our incarnate beatitude, we pray, Amen.