On the plain: more context

And he came down with them and stood on a stretch of level ground. A great crowd of his disciples and a large number of the people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon  came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and even those who were tormented by unclean spirits were cured.

As you have already considered, this Lucan passage is very similar to Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” – the beginning part referred to as the Beatitudes. Both versions are (and will, no doubt, continue to be) the source of much scholarly inquiry and debate. Some ask whether this is a single-setting sermon or if this is a compilation of Jesus’ sayings arranged in a “sermon.” As we have been doing throughout our study of Luke, it is helpful to compare Luke with the parallel passages in Matthew to help understand Luke’s concerns here (there are no parallels in Mark or John, although some of the same sayings are found scattered throughout the books). While questions about origin, sources, and redaction of the text are certainly valid and interesting, it will probably be sufficient here simply to acknowledge the fact that Luke and Matthew differ in how they have constructed these sermons.

For example, whether Luke or Matthew was original and the other adapted it, or whether both adapted the material from a common collection of sayings (the posited “Q” source or document) is probably not as important for understanding Luke’s message as simply focusing on the differences themselves. That Matthew and Luke are recognized as different at this point can be seen even in the names usually given to the two sermons: Matthew’s collection is known as the “Sermon on the Mount” (Mt. 5:1-7:27), while Luke’s is known as the “Sermon on the Plain” (Lk. 6:17-49). That simply reflects the fact that the physical settings for the two collections of sayings are different. Of course, it is possible that Jesus repeated the same message twice on two different occasions, and each writer chose a different one to record. However, given the many other differences between the various Gospels, it seems much more likely that each writer is emphasizing different theological points for a particular community of faith that had particular needs. They are each shaping the Gospel tradition in their own way to address those needs.

These physical settings likely have to do with the individual writers’ emphasis, and how they use different metaphors and features to communicate that emphasis. The book of Matthew was closely connected with Jewish elements in the early church, so he presented Jesus in the imagery of Moses. As Moses had once brought the torah from a mountain (Sinai), so Jesus now brought the new authoritative torah (“it has been said . . .but I say”) from a mountain. The theological purpose of the geographical setting was to establish the authority of Jesus as a lawgiver in the tradition of Moses.

For Luke, the geography serves a different theological role here. The mountain was the place of piety and worship, the place Jesus retreated to pray (6:12) and the place where God was encountered (9:28). For Jesus to be on the mountain to pray, and then return to “a level place” was a way to anchor his actions in communion with God, yet to identify him with crowds on the level of ordinary, everyday human existence. The issue for Luke was not authority, but the working out of the implications of the Kingdom in everyday life. Prayer and piety are crucial to provide a basis in God’s presence for Jesus work, but the message of the Kingdom and the arena for Jesus’ work is the “level place” where the crowds are milling. That is a central element in Luke’s Gospel.

The crowd itself is interesting. Luke presents it as a mixed group of people with different reasons for being there. There was “a great crowd of his disciples.” Since this immediately follows the choosing of the Twelve (6:12-16) they are no doubt included in this number, but the focus here is not specifically on the Twelve. There are also “a great multitude of people” from Judea and Jerusalem to the south as well as from the Phoenician territory (Tyre and Sidon) to the northwest. Clearly this tells us that Jews from all over the area were there.

However, there is some ambiguity in the reference to people from Tyre and Sidon. Since this area borders Galilee on the west, the people from this area could have been Jews, and some scholars interpret “people” of verse 18 to mean the “people of God,” i.e., Jews. However, it seems much more likely that Luke intends to refer to Gentiles by placing “Tyre and Sidon” with “Judea and Jerusalem.” In the only other pairing of the Phoenician towns in Luke (10:13-14), they are contrasted with Chorazin and Bethsaida, two Jewish towns just north of the Sea of Galilee. In that passage Luke draws the contrast between the Jewish towns that failed to respond to Jesus even though he had done “deeds of power” there, and Tyre and Sidon that would have gratefully responded to such actions had they had the chance.

Luke has already mentioned Sidon in an illustration that only makes sense if it is considered outside Israel and inhabited by non-Jews (4:25-26). Both Matthew and Mark make references to Tyre and Sidon in reference to Jesus’ work among Gentiles (Mt. 15:21-22, a Canaanite woman; Mk. 7:25-30, a Greek Syrophoenician woman), which suggests those areas were synonymous with Gentiles. All this seems to indicate that Luke intends in this passage to describe a mixed group of people, Jews and Gentiles, as he also refers to Jews from various places, disciples and crowds, and those who came for healing and those who came to listen to Jesus’ teachings. This means that there are three identifiable groups of people in the crowds. While we should be careful not to take this into allegory, there does seem to be some intention on Luke’s part to distinguish the groups. First, there are the just-chosen group of Twelve disciples who would carry on the ministry of Jesus. Much of what unfolds in the next chapters will revolve around these twelve. Next, there are the larger crowds of disciples who are followers of Jesus, who have responded to his ministry, but who have not received a special call from Jesus. And then there are the others, both Jews and Gentiles, who are there for various reasons but who have not yet become disciples. It is this mixed group that provides the setting for the “sermon.”

Luke is again careful, as he has before, to emphasize Jesus’ actions in connection with his words, and so he places the sermon in the context of reports about healing (v. 19). It is part of the central message of Luke that the proclamation of the word of God must also be accompanied by faithful response worked out in real life. For Jesus, as well as for the apostles in Acts, his words of teaching were affirmed by his deeds (vv. 18-19); the actions gave authority to the words. And for those who would follow him, hearing alone would not be enough. This connection between hearing the words and acting on them will become the climax of this entire sermon in Luke (6:46-49).

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