When I was young, one of my favorite books was Pollyanna, the story of a girl who is orphaned at a young age, and sent to live with a wealthy, but austere and stern aunt in a distant part of the country.
Pollyanna had never met her Aunt Polly, for whom she is named. When Pollyanna’s mother chose to marry a poor, young missionary instead of a wealthy businessman, she was cut off from her disapproving family. She died shortly after her daughter was born, leaving Pollyanna to be raised by her father.
Now the father has died, too. And Pollyanna, 11 years old, living with a joyless, loveless woman who has clearly only agreed to take her in because of a sense of duty, is trying hard to find some happiness in her life.
She is determined that she will find it because of a game that her father taught her, she explains to Aunt Polly’s maid, Nancy.
“We began the game on some crutches that came in a missionary barrel,” the girl said. “You see, I’d wanted a doll, and father had written them so; but when the barrel came the lady wrote that there hadn’t any dolls come in, but the little crutches had. And that’s when we began it.
“The game was just to find something to be glad about — no matter what it was. And we began right then — on the crutches.”
Nancy sourly replies that there is no reason to be glad about receiving crutches when you wanted a doll.
Pollyanna clapped her hands. “There is, there is,” she crowed. “Why, just be glad because you don’t need them! You see it’s just that easy — when you know how.”
Nancy remains skeptical about the “glad game,” as does our modern culture. Today’s dictionary defines Pollyanna as “a derogatory term for an unrealistically and foolishly optimistic person.”
Today it might be tempting to see Jesus as a bit of a Pollyanna as he addresses the great multitude of people who have come to hear and be healed by him. These teachings of Jesus are called “the beatitudes,” meaning blessings.
“Blessed are you who are poor,” he says. Blessed are you who are hungry, who weep, who are hated and reviled and excluded. Yours is the kingdom of God and your reward will be great in heaven.
Those who have criticized Christianity over the years as the “opiate of the masses” may well have had these words of Jesus in mind.
And if Jesus means that the poor should “grin and bear it,” that patient endurance of oppression and need in this life is good because it means greatness in the next one, then those critics have a point.
But by blessing the poor and suffering, Jesus does not intend to glorify or idealize poverty and pain. Adding to the ranks of the poor will not hasten the coming of God’s kingdom. In fact, Jesus says, God’s kingdom will be realized on earth when the needs of the poor are met.
Theologian Gustavo Guitterez says that “God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally and religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will.”
When God’s will is fulfilled, the poor will be blessed.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus does not stop with the beatitudes or blessings. He continues with “the woes.” “Woe to you who are rich,” he says, “for. you have received your consolation.” Woe to you who are full and laughing, who are well thought of and part of the “in crowd.”
These words of blessing and woe are among the hardest of Jesus’ teachings for those of us who live in middle and upper class America. Even if money is tight at times, every one of us here today has enormous material wealth when compared to the vast majority of God’s people. We are indeed among the rich.
I admit these words make me uncomfortable. I much prefer Matthew’s version of the beatitudes, when Jesus says, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” and leaves out the woes altogether.
Matthew’s version is a much easier pill to swallow. All of us have experienced poverty of spirit.
But we shouldn’t rush to soften Luke’s accounting too quickly. Time and again in Luke’s gospel Jesus warns of the dangers of wealth, of the insidiousness of want and greed that can so easily slip into our lives, lulling us into a sense of false security because of our riches, convincing us that true happiness is just the next purchase away.
Jesus is not saying wealth is inherently bad, but he is warning against its dangers.
Theologian Paul Tillich, in a sermon on this passage, says Jesus was talking to two kinds of people that long ago day.
“One kind lived with their hearts turned toward the coming stage of the world,” or the coming of God’s kingdom to earth.
“They were poorly adjusted to things as they were,” Tillich says. “They were suffering under the conditions of their lives. Many were disinherited, insecure, hungry, oppressed.” The world in its present state was not a hospitable place for them, and they looked to God for blessing and liberation.
“The other kind of people to whom Jesus spoke were those to whom he promised the woes,” he adds. “They were unbroken in their relation to the present state of the world. They lived with their hearts in things as they are. They were well-established in their lives; they enjoyed prestige, power, and security.” They didn’t need or want the world to change.
“Jesus threatened them both spiritually and materially. They were bound to this age, and they were to vanish with this age. They had no treasure beyond it.”
We live in the same situation today. The woes are directed to all of us who let the power of our riches bind us to the status quo, to things as they are, that make us content in a world that falls short of God’s kingdom.
God’s blessings are promised to those who are in need and sorrow, whose hearts are turned toward the hope of God’s kingdom, who are willing to work to make it a reality.
“The Beatitudes do not glorify those who are poor and in misery because they are poor,” Tillich says. “The woes are not promised to those who are rich and secure because they are rich.
“If this were so, Jesus could not have promised to the poor the reversal of their situation. He praises the poor in so far as they live in two world, the present world and the world to come. And he threatens the rich in so far as they live in one world alone.”
Which brings me back to Pollyanna and her Aunt Polly.
This heroine of children’s literature was not naive, or foolishly and unrealistically optimistic. Pollyanna understood all too well the harsh realities of life — of poverty and grief and exclusion.
In the novel, as she goes around teaching her “glad game” to all she meets — the widow who has been in grief for decades; the old, dying woman confined to a dark and cheerless room; the young minister disillusioned by the pettiness of his flock; the woman scorned because of her questionable morals — Pollyanna is not giving them an opiate, she is giving them hope, telling them they don’t have to be defined by their troubles, turning them toward God’s kingdom.
Near the end of the story, Aunt Polly is about the only person in town who is not playing the “glad game.” In fact, she doesn’t even know about it because she has forbidden Pollyanna from ever mentioning her father in her aunt’s presence.
Aunt Polly clings to her wealth, her status, her position, to a world that she desperately does not want to change. If Aunt Polly had been in the crowd in Galilee that day, Jesus’ woes would have been directed at her.
But then one day Pollyanna is in an accident. The doctors fear that she will never walk again. And for the first time in her short, hard life, she sinks into despair, unable to play the game that has sustained her through so much.
As news about the accident and Pollyanna’s despair spreads, the many people the young girl has befriended begin to appear at Aunt Polly’s door, giving testimony to how the glad game has changed them, bringing joy and hope into their lives.
Aunt Polly finally forces her maid Nancy to explain the game to her. And suddenly her heart breaks open, and she realizes she is willing to forfeit her wealth, her status, her entire way of life for the sake of this girl who she once thought of as a duty, an intrusion into her orderly existence, but now unwittingly has come to love.
And in that breaking open there is redemption. Aunt Polly becomes among the blessed.