Though included in the Revised Common Lectionary, Luke 6:24-26 is a text rarely read in private, much less proclaimed from pulpits.
Luke 6:20-23 presents the familiar and comforting parallel to Jesus’ blessings in Matthew 5:1-12, but then Luke 6:24-26 confronts the reader with the shadowy side of these blessings.
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.
For reasons unknown, the Matthean community did not include these verses. Perhaps the compilers did not have access to this material.
Or perhaps they found the statements as unsettling and uncomfortable as we do and intentionally left them out. Whatever the reason, the woes of Luke 6 are absent in Matthew 5.
Though these verses are uncomfortable, to skip over or avoid them is to miss the blessing hidden within the woes.
The Lukan blessings of verses 20-23 and the woes of verses 24-26 are intended as contrasts.
Blessings are proclaimed upon the poor, hungry, weeping and reviled, and then curses or woes are proclaimed upon their opposite – the rich, full, laughing and esteemed.
Yet, I do not believe that it is best to interpret these woes as an unqualified critique of those who find themselves rich, full, laughing or esteemed in various ways.
Otherwise, anytime we had money to put in savings, were rich in friendships, ate a filling meal, were filled with joy over a gathering with family, laughed at an amusing story or received praise for a job well done, we would fall under condemnation.
Interpreted in a wooden, literal manner, these verses assert just that – implying that Jesus is promoting the experience of poverty, hunger, sadness and insults and denigrating the experience of richness, fullness, joy and esteem.
Yet, I do not believe that Jesus intended us to go through life impoverished, undernourished, sad and reviled in order to find happiness or blessing.
Rather, I believe these woes were intended to create and sustain a desire within each of us to live lives that reach out in care, concern and compassion to help, heal and bless everyone we meet.
Based on this presupposition, my interpretation suggests that through these woes Jesus sought to create an awareness that we are, all of us, poor and rich, hungry and filled, weeping and laughing, reviled and esteemed.
Some may be rich in finances, but poor in relationships. Others may be rich in relationships, but poor in finances.
Some may be full of food, but be deficient in laughter. Others may be deficient in food, but be full of laughter.
Some may be esteemed, but weep because they are neither certain of nor comfortable with who they are. Others may be reviled, but find joy because they are certain of and comfortable with who they are.
When we approach these Lukan woes with “eyes that see and ears that hear” the richness and poorness, the hunger and fullness, the weeping and laughing, the reviled and esteemed elements that exist within all of our lives, we realize that we are all in a position to both serve and be served.
This text harkens us to recognize that we can and should offer and be willing to help out of our fullness, richness and wellness.
It humbles us to recognize that we can and should be willing to receive help out of our emptiness, poverty and sickness.
These are unifying verses insofar as they cause the rich to no longer look derisively on the poor and cause the poor to no longer look derisively on the rich.
They are life-giving verses insofar as they create awareness that we are, all of us, rich and poor, in a position to both give and receive care, compassion and comfort.
So, here is the lesson of Luke 6:24-26 – the blessing hidden within the woes.
The blessings of richness, fullness, laughter and esteem – in whatever form they are manifest – become woes when hoarded.
In the same way, the woes of unshared richness, fullness, laughter and esteem – in whatever form they are manifest – become blessings when shared.
When we recognize that everyone is rich and poor, we discover a grand, glad solidarity that unites us all in an abundance of blessing sufficient to meet the needs of us all.
This awareness will cause us to eagerly offer help, healing and hope to others out of our wealth, and to willingly receive help, healing and hope from others out of our poverty.
By reminding us of our shared identity as the affluent deprived and the impoverished affluent, these Lukan woes become blessings that can lead us to see one another not as people to compete with for limited resources, but as people to cooperate with to promote the life, love and laughter of all.
This heightened awareness of our shared humanity will remind us, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”
Through this recognition we will find the abundant life, everlasting love and redeeming laughter that have the power to heal and hallow us all.
Zach Dawes is an ordained minister who lives in Austin, Texas, and has served churches in Georgia and North Carolina. He blogs here.