On the plain: sermon

This passage is the introduction to a new major section of the book of Luke (6:17-9:50). While previous passages have dealt with the early ministries of John the Baptizer and Jesus, and have only referred to the teachings of Jesus, here for the first time the actual content of his teaching to the crowds is presented. Also, for the first time, teachings are addressed directly to Jesus’ disciples. There has been a steady progression within Luke from a focus on God’s work in the world in Jesus (the infancy narratives, chs. 1-2), to the preparation for Jesus’ ministry by John the Baptizer (3:1-20), to Jesus himself and his own preparation for ministry (3:21-4:13). Then Luke begins to highlight how Jesus and his teachings were received, beginning with the hometown folks in Nazareth (4:14-30) and concluding with the choosing of the twelve, who were among those who responded by leaving everything to follow him (6:12-16). In this section, Luke begins expanding that dimension of response by focusing on Jesus’ teaching related to the “ethics of the Kingdom,” the responsibilities and consequences of being disciples. Luke continues this focus on discipleship until the journey toward Jerusalem begins (9:51), where it takes on a slightly different tone.

The Blessings and Curses. The portion of this sermon included in this Sunday’s reading are the blessings and woes Jesus pronounced to the crowd. While Matthew’s Beatitudes give us only nine blessings, Luke has carefully paired four blessings with four woes or curses, even to using the same words in corresponding pairs. Luke draws the contrast in the pairs between groups of people: (1) poor-rich, (2) hungry-full, (3) those who weep-those who laugh, and (4) those who are hated-those of whom people speak well.

In addition to simply pairing the blessings and curses and thus contrasting the groups, Luke also reverses the groups of people within each saying, so that, for example, in the blessing the hungry will be filled, while in the corresponding woe those who are filled will become hungry. This serves to highlight not only the positive reversal that is a blessing for one group, as Matthew does, but also the corresponding negative outcome on the opposite group.

We have already noted that the idea of a reversal of fortune is an important theme for Luke (e.g., the idea of reversal of fortunes in the Magnificat – Luke 1:39-55). That is, Luke uses this Old Testament idea as a way to proclaim and define the new future that Jesus is bringing into the world. Here, he is again using that motif to continue explaining the nature of discipleship.

There is no way to know for certain whether Luke was using the similar sequence of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy as a model for these (28:3-6, 16-19), but the similarity seems more than coincidence. While there are certainly differences between them, it seems fair to ask what the similarities might reveal about Luke’s focus.

The context in Deuteronomy is a covenant ceremony in which the people are called to faithfulness in obeying the torah, the instructions of God that shaped and gave identity to the people. The promise there to those who faithfully obey God will be that “God will set you above all the nations of the earth.” While in the historical context of the OT those blessings are translated into physical security, there is still the dimension of “mission” as the people of God (28:8-10):

“The LORD will affirm his blessing upon you, on your barns and on all your undertakings, blessing you in the land that the LORD, your God, gives you. Provided that you keep the commandments of the LORD, your God, and walk in his ways, he will establish you as a people sacred to himself, as he swore to you; So that, when all the nations of the earth see you bearing the name of the LORD, they will stand in awe of you.”

Likewise, the curses warn that failure to obey God’s instructions will lead to “defeat and frustration in every enterprise you undertake” (28:20). The emphasis is clearly on the responsibility of the people to follow God and his instructions faithfully as the only way to fulfill who they are as God’s people. It is this dimension of a strong call to faithfulness that echoes in Jesus’ words and in Luke’s pairing of the blessings and woes here.

And yet, in Deuteronomy the blessings and woes are dependent on how the people would respond. That is, the people themselves would bring on either blessings or curses by how they lived. Here in Luke, they are simply pronounced by Jesus on groups of people depending on their physical condition not on their behavior. Unless we assume absolutely no connection to the OT ideas, which is unlikely given Luke’s heavy use of the OT to this point, this echo of a call to responsibility and yet an emphasis on the physical condition of the people introduces a tension into the text. If the people of God in the OT were to be blessed based on obedience, what is the significance of Jesus pronouncing blessings on the people now simply because they are poor, or hungry, or weeping, or hated? The answer to this is not immediately obvious but raises the possibility that there is a direct connection with being poor and being a follower of Jesus. It is easily observable that Matthew’s version of the blessings is much more “spiritual” than Luke’s. Where Matthew speaks of “poor in spirit” (5:3), Luke has simply “poor” (v. 20); where Matthew says “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (5:6), Luke clearly means simply those “who are hungry” in a physical sense (v. 21). It has usually been assumed that this reflects Luke’s social agenda, that he is presenting a Gospel for the poor and oppressed. There is certainly this dimension in Luke, a concern for the powerless and outcast of society. And since there is little question that Luke is talking about real physical needs here, we dare not spiritualize away those physical needs. We must take seriously the fact that this is real poverty, real hunger, real weeping, and real hatred.

Yet, at this point in Luke, this is not really a social agenda here. In fact, a closer examination will reveal that Matthew and Luke are not as far apart as they appear at this point (which also might warn us of reading too much of our agenda into Luke). The sayings are in the context of discipleship, which Luke has been emphasizing in various ways since Jesus’ visit to Nazareth. He will continue dealing with the nature of discipleship through the conclusion of the Galilean ministry (ch. 9), and then set the tone for the journey to Jerusalem by opening that trip with a discussion of discipleship and the sending of the seventy (9:51ff). The sayings are also in the context of the nature of the Kingdom, another motif established early in the book with the Magnificat, Benedictus, and Nunc Dimittis, and developed in the Nazareth narrative. As in Matthew, in Luke, Jesus begins by directing the blessings at general groups (“the poor,” “the hungry”) and then concludes the sequence with second person references (“you”) that relate to persecution or rejection. Also, both specifically identify the “you” at the very beginning of the sermon as “his disciples” (v. 20; Mt 5:1). That does not necessarily mean that Jesus is addressing only disciples in the crowd. But it does indicate that what he is going to say has reference to disciples. This suggests that in both Matthew and Luke the blessings have special meaning for disciples, or those who would become disciples. This again hints that the two Gospels may be closer together here than we often think.

This puts some restrictions on how widely we can define the groups in the blessings and woes. They are not just any poor anywhere, or any hungry, or any who weep, or anyone who is hated. And by contrast, it is not all rich, or all who are full, who are being referenced. The context here makes it clear that there is some connection between being disciples and the blessings and curses, that the “poor” are directly related to those who are hated “on account of the Son of Man” (v.22).

The time references in the sequence of sayings are also of interest. There is an intriguing blending of present and future. This is especially highlighted in the second and third pair with the repeated “now” followed by a future condition; there is a condition “now” that “will be” changed into the opposite. This clearly gives these sayings an eschatological dimension; there will come a time when the inequities of the present will be resolved. This dimension is reinforced in the fourth blessing by the reference to “that day” (v. 23), a common way of referring to a future act of God (see The Day of the Lord).

And yet, in the first pair, the emphasis is decidedly on the present. The poor already have the kingdom, and the rich already have their consolation. This term has been used once before in Luke, to describe the hope for which the old man Simeon was looking, and which he saw in the infant Jesus (2:25). The implication is that the “consolation” that the rich already have in their riches and security may cause them to miss the consolation of Israel manifest in the Kingdom that Jesus is bringing, and which is available to the poor (v. 20) in ways that it is not available to the rich.

The final sequence of blessing/woe moves to Luke’s overriding concern here. That this is close to Matthew in general content and tone, and that the teachings which follow also go a similar direction as Matthew, suggests that both reflect Jesus’ own emphasis, even as it has been adapted somewhat differently into the Lucan and Matthean communities.

The theme of the last blessing is clearly rejection “on account of the Son of Man” (v. 22); that is, rejection because of following Jesus, because of becoming a disciple. One cannot read this without thinking of Jesus’ own experience of rejection by the home town folks at Nazareth that has set the tone for his ministry. The very ones who should have most readily accepted him, drove him away. For Luke, as well as for the other Gospel writers in different ways, following Jesus, following the path of discipleship, is costly and will often result in personal loss and suffering.

Luke draws the contrast sharply between the present condition of rejection, that also encompasses being poor and hungry and weeping, and the fact of the present possession of the kingdom and the future reversal to joy (v. 23). It is a statement of faith that external criteria or appearances are no measure of possession of the Kingdom. In fact, there is some indication that the opposite of external appearances is closer to the truth. This should not be taken as glorification of poverty or suffering. That would be just as much an excessive overreaction as those in the early church who were so zealous to “take up your cross and follow” Jesus that they sought martyrdom as a sign of obedience. Poverty, hunger, weeping, and hatred are not something to seek. But they are far more fertile ground for receiving the kingdom. And they are a likely result of following Jesus.

This point is underscored in the references to the prophets in both parts of this last pair of sayings. Faithful prophets of God, especially Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, were ridiculed for their message, especially by other prophets like Hananiah (Jer. 28:1-17). Yet history confirmed that their message was God’s message. And Micah gave a strong warning against prophets who feared to speak the truth and became too comfortable with kind words and the approval of the people (Mic. 2:6-11).

Again, the background of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth becomes more clear. Jesus introduced a prophetic theme there (4:24) that caused an immediate reaction from the people. While the disciples are not called “prophets” here, and are assigned no prophetic role, Luke seems to be drawing an analogy between the OT prophets who spoke the truth, and the disciples who will live the truth (as outlined in vv. 26-49). The point is that truth, in whatever form it is presented, is not welcome in a world that is governed by self-interest, and whose values are decided by the rich and satisfied who have need of nothing. There is a subversive element to the truth, and the only recourse people have is to silence it by hatred, exclusion, vilification, and defamation. And yet those “poor” who are rejected are the heart of the kingdom of God, because they join the poor of the world who have no other future except God’s future.

Notes

6:17 them…crowd…people: While the verse indicates three different groups: “them” = the newly chosen apostles (apostolos), “a great crowd of his disciples” (mathetes), and “a great multitude of the people (laos),” there seems to be no distinction between the groups. They have all come (1) “to hear him” and (2) to be healed from their diseases (v. 18).

6:18 from all Judea and Jerusalem and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon: This suggests that the people were both Jews (from Judea and Jerusalem) and Gentiles (from the coast of Tyre and Sidon). Luke continues to accent the universality of Jesus’ concern that all be afforded salvation.

healed…cured: Two different words for “heal/cure” are used: iaomai (from which we get the English suffix -iatrics, like in pediatrics;) and therapeuo, (from which we get English words like “therapeutic”). Classically, iaomai, is more connected with the art of healing. Related words are translated with: “physician,” “surgery,” “curable”. therapeuo originally referred to a servant or attendant (a meaning still found in the Acts 17:25). Such a person might care for a sick person, which led the meanings of “to tend (the sick),” “to treat medically,” “to heal, cure”

6:19 power came forth from him and healed them all: Both Jesus’ touch and his power are frequently related to healings. The word for touch (hapto) has an active meaning of “to light” or “to ignite.” It is used this way in Lk 8:16; 11:33; 15:8. In the middle voice, it can mean “to take hold of,” “to touch.” In the ancient world it refers to passing on the fire from one source to another by touching to two things, e.g., spreading the light at a candlelight service. There is a sense that the “touch” expressed by this word, passed on a power (dynamis in 5:13; 6:19; 7:14; 8:44, 45, 46, 47; 18:15; 22:5) that brought healing. In these verses Luke has emphasized Jesus’ authority and power in his deeds. Next it will be emphasized in his words.

6:20 Blessed: makarios – see detailed commentary for notes of the evolution of the word and its used in this Lucan context

you who are poor: The poor (ptochos); “destitute” might be a better way of translating this word. Of the different Greek words that depict the poor, this word refers to the most destitute and poverty stricken of them all. It implies a continuous state of poverty. This does not refer to those who may not have enough money to buy everything they want; but it refers to those who have no money, who have no job, who have no possessions, who are on the street begging for the essentials of life. This is the word used of “Poor Lazarus” (16:20, 22).

Kingdom of God: “Yours is the kingdom of God” can be translated: “The kingdom of God belongs to you” or, with a more active sense of basileia “God rules over you.”

6:21 you who are hungry: peináō in OT and NT use refers to hunger, not as the need for food, but as the lack or withdrawal of the fruits of labor. This term is used for the effects of famine (Gen. 41:55), exhaustion on a campaign or journey (Judg. 8:4-5; Dt. 25:18), or persistent hunger. will be satisfied: also translated “will be filled” (chortazo) is the word that is used of the feeding miracle (9:17). Jesus filled up the hungry crowd. It is the word that is used of the desire of the “prodigal son,” who would have gladly filled himself with the pig’s food. He discovered there was a much better meal to be had back at his father’s house. It is the word that is used of Lazarus who longed to fill himself with the food that fell from the rich man’s table. It is the plight of the poor not to be able to fill themselves with food.

You who are now weeping: “Weeping” (klaio) is a term that has an emphasis on the noise accompanying the weeping. This isn’t just a simple sob that one can barely hear, but loud weeping, perhaps even wailing. It is used of the sound of parents at a child’s death (7:13; 8:52). It is the sound Peter when he realizes that he denied Jesus three times as Jesus had predicted (22:62). It is the sound Jesus makes when he sees Jerusalem (19:4).

laugh: The word for “laugh” (gelao) occurs only here and in v. 26. The meaning most fitting here is “the sound that reflects happiness and joy,” rather than a laughter that indicates ridicule.

6:22 hate you … exclude and insult you, …denounce your name …account of the Son of Man: These terms all point to the experience of rejection. The word “exclude” (aphorizō) carries the sense of the modern word “marginalized.” Notice that in the arrangement of the verbs, the movement is from attitude (hate) to action (exclude and insult) to speech (denounce).

6:23 your reward will be great in heaven: Luke uses the term “reward” (misthos) of the wages due a laborer (10:7) or payment for a deed (Acts 1:18).

6:24 woe: ouai is especially associated with the OT prophets in the LXX as an expression of disfavor.  rich: The rich (plousios) appear often in Luke — in many instances in opposition to the poor: 12:16; 14:12; 16:1, 19, 21, 22; 18:23, 25; 19:2; 21:1. Yet in Luke there is also the examples of Zacchaeus properly using his wealth (21:1) and the possibility that the rich man, by helping poor Lazarus, could have saved himself from future torment (16:19-22).  you have received your consolation: “Receiving” (paraklesis) is related to the word Paraklete. The related verb, parakaleo, literally means “to call to one’s side.” The reasons for “calling to one’s side” are varied and lead to a number of meanings for this word: “to invite, to help, to encourage, to console, to exhort, to request, etc.” Thus the noun takes on a variety of meanings. The two most common meanings are: (a) to ask for something which is being especially sought, e.g. “to ask earnestly for, to demand, earnest request,” or (b) to cause someone to be encouraged or consoled, either by verbal or non-verbal means, e.g., “to encourage, to console, encouragement.” Is it that the rich already have everything they could ask for; or at least think they do. The encouragement or consolation they need for their lives they find in their wealth. They have no need for God in their lives.

6:24-26 These woes, for the most part, reflect the opposites of the blessings: poor vs. rich, hungry vs. filled up, crying vs. laughing, hated, etc. vs. spoken well of.

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