Most people have heard of the Sermon on the Mount, even if they have no idea where to find it or what it says. Fewer have heard of the Sermon on the Plain, which is like the former, but different. The first is in Matthew’s gospel, and the second in Luke’s. It’s a good bet that Jesus gave a bang up speech to a large crowd sometime during his time on earth, and these two “sermons” capture at least some of what was said – they read like hurriedly jotted down classroom notes, so don’t expect more.
Some church goers will hear a portion of Luke’s Sermon on the Plain read out loud this Sunday, but if you want to get a preview take a look at Luke, chapter 6. Sunday’s reading includes a number of blessings followed by several woes. Woe to those who are rich, have all they want to eat, are happy with life, and of whom others speak well. What’s with that? Isn’t it good to have enough money to not worry about it, to have enough to eat at all times, to enjoy life, and be well thought of by others? Add a three bedroom house and a couple of newish cars, and it’s the American dream. So why all the woes?
When someone says “Woe is me,” we generally take it to mean that unexpected bad things have come into their life, making them feel sad, incompetent, and unsure of a way out. When someone says “Woe are you,” it usually means that a person has made dumb decisions and is about to make more, reaping consequences that should have been obvious to them. So Woes are not curses, but observations and warnings about unpleasant conditions in life.
The woes Jesus proclaims, it seems to me, are warnings to those who are enjoying the good life, and assuming an air of well earned superiority over those who have less. They’ve placed their confidence in things of transient value that cannot not endure. It’s an offense against divine justice when it’s combined with belief that the good life is there for the taking if one is willing to work hard enough for it; others are missing out only because they’re too lazy to do the work, expecting others to make life easy for them. Still, where is the woe in that? It’s a popular conservative creed adhered to by many Christians.
The woe is that each of us will be held accountable for our life of stewardship, because no one really owns anything. We’re temporary stewards of whatever we have. As the psalmist wrote, you can heap all the riches in the world, but when you die they won’t be yours anymore, so don’t take any pride in them (Ps 49). The cars we drive, the houses we own, the stuff they’re filled with, they all come and go, they’re in our hands temporarily, even if we have bills of sale and paid off mortgages. There are all kinds of pride, but the deadly sin of pride is to measure human value by what we possess.
As stewards accountable to God it’s not about pursuing a better life in the hereafter. We take that as a given. Jesus said he came to give life in abundance here and now, and gave instructions for how to live into it in these two “sermons.” It might be that someone’s life is filled with enough: enough money, enough food, enough enjoyment, and a good reputation, but those for whom that’s so don’t assume it came by merit, don’t lust for more than enough, make no claim of superiority, and recognize their role as stewards accountable to God. Accountable stewardship is to do what one can with what one has to cultivate conditions where all can have enough, and none have more at the expense of those having less.