“Someone might ask whether it is right for God’s children to be rich, to employ the good things which God so generously gives and to derive pleasure from them. After all, our text says ‘Woe to you who laugh. Woe to you rich. Woe to you when men speak well of you.’ ‘What’s this?’ you say. ‘Is it wrong to lead a good and virtuous life and to be well spoken of? Doesn’t St. Paul urge us to do good in the sight of all? Don’t we read somewhere else that every mouth should be stopped and that men should glorify God when they see us walking in his fear?’ We might, then, think it harsh and puzzling that the rich, the comfortably off, and the happy should be condemned.
Now that is not what our Lord is saying here. What He is condemning is the attitude of those who, intent on living well in this world, as so stupid and senseless as to forget there is a heavenly kingdom. This will be clearer if we think of how believers behave when times are good. If God sends them peace and prosperity, they will give Him the praise; they will use His gifts soberly, endeavouring always to live an upright life. They will not want to squander such gifts, but they will recognize them as blessings from God. Or again, if someone possesses a rare gift of God’s Spirit, he will not pretend he doesn’t have it, for that would be mere hypocrisy. So whether believers are rich, or in robust health, or wonderfully endowed with the Spirit’s gifts, they acknowledge that God’s favour is its only source. Their joy is real, and so is their thanksgiving. That is how they will use the good tings of this present life.
Nevertheless, while life for believers may be easy today, they will be ready tomorrow to endure whatever afflictions God may send them. He may, perhaps, take from them the goods He has given. They are prepared to surrender them, since they know they received them on one condition–that they should hand them back whenever God should choose. The believer reasons this way: ‘Rich today, poor tomorrow. If God should change my circumstances so that ease gives way to suffering and laughter to tears, it is enough to know that I am still His child. He has promised to acknowledge me always as His, and in that I rest content.’
That, I repeat, is how believers will behave. They will live soberly, tightening their belts if that is necessary; they will be self-controlled, telling themselves that though they may rise to eminent rank and enjoy untold pleasure, they must set their sights on higher things. The good things given by God are but a path to lead us to Him, a ladder to ascend on high, not a tomb in which to bury ourselves. We should not cling to happiness or greet its passing with a hollow laugh, for it is fleeting. Nor should we exult when men applaud us, as if we had already attained our reward for a virtuous life on earth. No, we are determined to press on through good report and bad. Such is the measured and moderate path pursued by the believer. We do not get drowsy, still less intoxicated, when times are good. And we are always willing to abandon everything if God requires. This is not how it is with unbelievers. Prosperity goes immediately to their heads, fills them to bursting; they are so befuddled that not once do they spare a thought for God or the spiritual life. In time they grow hard, and when misfortune comes they grind their teeth and blaspheme against God.
This is how we are to interpret the woes spoken against the rich, the satisfied, those who laugh and are glad. Remember Job, who amidst his suffering proclaimed: ‘If we have received good things from God’s hand, why should we not also receive the bad?’ There is no doubt that this was something which Job had thought hard about–a treasure, so to speak, to be disclosed at the right time and place. We see then that although God may spare us and give us reason to rejoice, we should expect to receive both good and bad from His hand. Not reluctantly or because we are compelled, but meekly and cheerfully, obedient to his will. For He must rule us, not according to our own likes but according to what He knows is best and most expedient for us. We are confident that all things will work for our salvation: that is our motive for rejoicing.
That is the sense of Jesus’ teaching in this passage. To be rich, to be glad, to be satisfied is to be drunk on prosperity and to live the life of senseless beasts. If we are comfortably off, it is not so that we may cover ourselves with gold and silver, or boast of owning fields and meadows, like those whose goal in life is to have everything they want. Those kinds of people are as good as dead: they bury themselves in their perishable possessions and are incapable of seeing heaven above. As for us, we must take heed to ourselves lest the Son of God condemn us with His own lips: only by looking to Him for continual blessing can we escape the misfortune promised here. We are taught, then, to pass through this world as strangers, convinced, as St. Paul says, that those who have should be as those who have not. No one would deny that those who have plenty to live on meet many more temptations and run more risk of falling. They need, therefore, to turn constantly to God, and to learn that His gifts are meant to draw them closer to him, to quicken their love and to encourage their obedience. The good things they receive must never bewitch them to the point that they become captives to the world.
In the midst of plenty we must guard against greedy excess, lest we choke ourselves and bring this curse upon us: Woe to you who are filled. If we are to be filled, it is in a different way–by contemplating God’s face, as we read in Psalm 16. We should regard material possessions simply as props to help us, until we see the Father face to face. He is our bliss and happiness. By all means let us laugh, but in the manner of those who are ready to weep should that be God’s will. Our joy should be joined with sadness, and with compassion for those who suffer. No one should live apart from others, and all should rejoice whenever God’s name is honored. Yes, rejoice, even when we have reason to feel sad and gloomy. Conversely, it may be that we are fine, in the best of spirits. But supposing there is some dire trouble in the church, or God’s name is blasphemed, held up to shame or ridicule–that should give us cause for grief, grief deeper even than the joy we felt. At such a time we ought to moderate the happiness which earthly blessings bring. We ought, as the proverb says, to mix water with our wine.”
–John Calvin, Sermons on the Beatitudes, trans. by Robert White (Carlisle, PA.: Banner of Truth, 1562/2006), pp. 77-80.