Jesus and the Ferris Wheel

In these divided times, we often say that there are two kinds of people. Two camps, two types, two sides of the aisle, two sides of an argument. The dualism is everywhere – Coke or Pepsi, Target or Walmart, people who think BBQ is a noun and those who think it’s a verb, people who like pew cushions and those who don’t. While we’re good at separating people into familiar categories, there is one devision we don’t often name. There are people in this world who will ride ferris wheels, and those who will not. I used to be a ferris wheel enthusiast. But I became anti-ferris wheel after riding a rickety little wheel on top of the City Museum in Saint Louis. Maybe it was my dreadful suspicion that the old ride several stories off the ground was held together with nothing but chewing gum and hope. Or maybe it was because the conductor had a little fun and kept starting and stopping the wheel with a kind of jerky motion while we were at the top, all with a sinister grin on his face. As soon as I was safely back on the ground, I swore off ferris wheels forever. My children have since seen a picture of that giant one in London and want to ride it. It’s sort of like sky-diving in my mind – if you try it someday, just don’t tell your mother. Besides, I’d rather pretend that we’re on the same side of the ferris wheel divide. 

For all my aversion to ferris wheels, I have to say that they are probably the very best metaphor for understanding the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Luke. But first, a little background. When we think of the Beatitudes, we usually think of Matthew’s version of the sermon on the mount. It’s very comforting. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Hunger and poverty are described in terms that make them spiritual categories, and if we just have the right disposition, we can all count ourselves among the blessed. But Luke’s version is very different. Jesus is clearly talking about actual poverty and real hunger and need. Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad, and expendable, he says. The kingdom of God will be yours, and you will be filled. 

Then, in a surprising difference between the gospels, Luke adds a list of woes. Woe to you who are rich, full, happy, and popular now. You’ve already received your consolation, and just wait, you will become hungry and sorrowful. The teaching feels like a divine ferris wheel of fate. Our fortunes will be reversed whether we are on the bottom or the top. This is hopeful if you are in real need. But if you are in relative comfort and security, watch out. For those of us who find ourselves sitting today somewhere in the woe column, this passage feels like being on the top of a rickety old ferris wheel while the conductor flashes a sinister grin. I have to assume that Jesus is not that really like that guy, and wouldn’t wish suffering on his followers. And if that’s true, how can we understand this difficult teaching?

The first step is to recognize that the Beatitudes are not advice or prediction. Barbara Brown Taylor explains it like this. “Jesus is describing different kinds of people, hoping that his listeners will recognize themselves as one kind or another, and then he makes the same promise to all of them: that the way things are is not the way they will always be. The Ferris wheel will go around, so that those who are swaying at the top, with the wind in their hair and all the world’s lights at their feet, will have their turn at the bottom, while those who are down there right now, where all they can see are candy wrappers in the sawdust, will have their chance to touch the stars. It is not advice at all. It is not even judgment. It is simply the truth about the way things work, pronounced by someone who loves everyone on that wheel. The beatitudes do not tell us what to do. They tell us who we are, and more importantly, they tell us who Jesus is.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way, 55.) The point is not so much to parse us into two camps, those about to face blessing or woe. The point is to say that life comes in both forms, and in each one, there is something that needs to be healed by the healer we have in common with each other. 

The gospel begins with a description of people crowding around Jesus in all kinds of need. He cures them all, and healing power is literally flowing out of him. It’s reasonable to assume, then, that the teaching of blessings and woes is directly related to that massive healing event. It’s not rocket science to understand what needs to be healed about the obvious stuff, like hunger, poverty and grief. Throughout the gospels, Jesus has a way of healing the most acute, concrete needs around him. But his healing ministry extends further than that, even to those who don’t realize they need healing. To those who are rich, well-fed, and joyful people, he says that they, too, need healing, perhaps in a way that their life circumstances will not teach them. 

A young pastor recently reflected quite beautifully on this passage. In the comforts and securities of her life, she decided to sit uncomfortably in the woe column to see what it could teach her. “There isn’t much in my circumstances that leads me to a sense of urgency about ultimate things,” she wrote. “I can go for days without talking to God. I can go days without thinking about God. It’s very, very easy — embarrassingly easy — for all things deep and divine to become afterthoughts in my life, because God just isn’t on my radar 24/7. This isn’t because I’m callous. It’s because — as Jesus puts it so wisely in his searing sermon — I am already ‘full.’ I have easy access to laughter, so I don’t wonder what lessons honest tears might yield. I am primed by my cozy life to live in the shallows, unaware of the treasures that lie waiting in the depths. Most of the time, it just plain doesn’t occur to me that I would be lost — utterly and wholly lost, physically and spiritually — without the grace that sustains me.” (Debie Thomas) 

I invite you to consider where you are on the ferris wheel of fortune and misfortune, and to take heart. If you are suffering now, it will not always be so. Jesus promises that healing will come in time. If you are comfortable now, perhaps feeling self-sufficient and in control, Jesus cautions you that those circumstances will change, too. Healing of functional atheism will come in time. We will be reminded and humbled that it is God’s grace which sustains us. 

I also invite you to consider that, like all of Jesus’ teachings, this one is not just meant for the individual. He has always spoken to crowds. He reminds us collectively to heal the concrete suffering around us with the offer of actual sustenance, care, and hope. And he has a second message to the crowds we find ourselves in, often in a callous world. Our illusions of self-sufficiency and division need to be healed. Real connection with God and one another will require that we let down our guard. 

Jesus invites us to see the whole ferris wheel. What if we could see more similarity than difference among those of us who in sorrow or need, and those of us in joy and plenty? If we could understand that God’s grace truly sustains both the blessed column and the woe column, we will see ourselves and everyone else as he does, and love them. The beatitudes promise us that that something in each of us can be healed. And when that happens, we will start to see the world a little less in terms of divided camps of opposites and more in terms of a common and sustaining grace. 

I’m not promising that I will ever become a ferris wheel enthusiast again. But I sure would love for us to see the whole wheel like Christ does, and to love all of the riders. And, to trust that wherever we find ourselves on the wheel today, the healing we need is close at hand. 

Kate Alexander