“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” Luke 6:24
The Church does not appear to like this piece of Scripture. The Lectionary, the weekly table of readings used by the main churches follows a three year cycle. The words of Saint Luke Chapter 6 Verse 17-26 are included in the Lectionary for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany in the third year of the cycle, a Sunday that only appears in the calendar if Easter is very late. The arrangement of the lectionary means this uncomfortable reading is hardly ever heard in churches.
Of course, the words which are part of a discourse known as the Sermon on the Plain are similar to those recorded by Saint Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, but they are central to the teaching of Jesus. Why is there an apparent desire, conscious or otherwise, to avoid reading it too often?
There are times when the Lectionary seems deliberately to avoid hard, or even harsh words of Jesus, as though there was a particular, theologically correct, picture of Jesus that had to be presented and that certain passages of Scripture do not accord with that picture. An example of the omissions is the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree. Look for it in the Lectionary and it does not appear: it’s in Saint Matthew 21:19. The Lectionary takes us up to verse 11 and the next Lectionary reference to that chapter begins at verse 23. Similarly, the cursing is found at Saint Mark 11:14, but if we read the verses prescribed in the Lectionary, we stop at verse 11. Here we have an account of words of Jesus recorded by both Saint Matthew and Saint Mark, and yet it makes no appearance at all in our three year cycle.
Is there not a certain lack of integrity in only including the things that suit? Doesn’t being faithful to the Gospel mean taking on board the awkward bits, the difficult bits, and the unpleasant bits, as well as those bits that fit the acceptable view of Jesus? Jesus’ declaration that the poor will be happy and that the rich will face woe is troublesome, it is more easily left out. Let it be read every twelve or fifteen years or so, for it is an explicitly political passage.
When the poor are forgotten and the rich stand uncondemned, the words of Jim Wallis, the radical evangelical leader, from an interview back in 1990, bear repeated repetition:
I was a seminary student in Chicago many years ago. We decided to try an experiment. We made a study of every single reference in the whole Bible to the poor, to God’s love for the poor, to God being the deliverer of the oppressed. We found thousands of verses on the subject. The Bible is full of the poor.
In the Hebrew scriptures, for example, it is the second most prominent theme. The first is idolatry and the two are most often connected. In the New Testament, we find that one of every sixteen verses is about poor people; in the gospels, one of every ten; in Luke, one of every seven. We find the poor everywhere in the Bible.
One member of our group was a very zealous young seminary student and he thought he would try something just to see what might happen. He took an old Bible and a pair of scissors. He cut every single reference to the poor out of the Bible. It took him a very long time.
When he was through, the Bible was very different, because when he came to Amos and read the words, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” he just cut it out. When he got to Isaiah and heard the prophet say, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to bring the homeless poor into your home, to break the yoke and let the oppressed go free?” he just cut it right out. All those Psalms that see God as a deliverer of the oppressed, they disappeared.
In the gospels, he came to Mary’s wonderful song where she says, “The mighty will be put down from their thrones, the lowly exalted, the poor filled with good things and the rich sent empty away.” Of course, you can guess what happened to that. In Matthew 25, the section about the least of these, that was gone. Luke 4, Jesus’ very first sermon, what I call his Nazareth manifesto, where he said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to poor people” — that was gone, too. “Blessed are the poor,” that was gone.
So much of the Bible was cut out; so much so that when he was through, that old Bible literally was in shreds. It wouldn’t hold together. I held it in my hand and it was falling apart. It was a Bible full of holes. I would often take that Bible out with me to preach. I would hold it high in the air above American congregations and say, “Brothers and sister, this is the American Bible, full of holes from all we have cut out.” We might as well have taken that pair of scissors and just cut out all that we have ignored for such a long time. In America the Bible that we read is full of holes.
The Bible with holes seems to have become the standard text for Anglican churches around the world.