This coming Sunday is the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, with several days of context behind us, we can look at more details. Luke incorporates part of the same material that Matthew had included in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7). There is a rhythm like a call and response: a condition not of the kingdom followed by a promise that the Kingdom will heal the problem. All of it is cast in the repetition of blessings and woes.
And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.
Jesus’ authority was not limited to his healing activity. He also taught with authority. Nothing indicates this more than the blessing and woe section of the Sermon on the Plain. It recalls the Old Testament prophets (remember that in the synagogue in Nazareth Jesus had taken on the mantle of the prophet Isaiah). Jesus thunders the truth with promises of blessing and judgment. The four blessings are followed by four parallel woes. This balance reflects the theme of reversal that Luke has presented elsewhere (e.g., 1:50-53, the Magnificat): God does not always see things as we do. He looks at the heart, not at externals. He gives promises for those who enter into grace humbly, while warning of judgment for those who remain callous.
The key to the section is found in the remarks about the Son of Man and the comparison to the faithful and unfaithful of old. When Jesus speaks of the poor or rich, he is not making carte blanche statements about people with a certain social or economic standing. His remarks assume both Old Testament and spiritual roots. Jesus is not advocating a political or social philosophy, he is calling people into a spiritual relationship that God imparts to those willing to enter his new community. Yet, entrance into this new community has political and social consequences. Thus, the beatitudes and woes serve as a call to be responsive to God in light of his promise of faithfulness to those who are his. The call to love unconditionally in verses 27-36 is a hard one to follow if we cannot trust that God will one day exercise justice. The premise of the sacrificial spiritual life is the promise of God’s faithful justice. The beatitudes indicate the kind of person God desires as his child. These blessings are not a works salvation but represent an invitation to let God mold his children into who they ought to be. So, God assures those who are needy that he will care for them.
Jesus offers promises to the poor, the hungry, those who weep and those who suffer religious persecution. God sees their spiritual commitment. To people such as these God promises the kingdom now and blessing later, including enough to eat, laughter and heavenly reward. Unlike Matthew, Luke includes woes, not just blessings. Jesus divides humankind into two camps (3:15-18; the purging Spirit of fire). In contrast to the blessed stand the rich, those who are well fed, those who laugh and those who receive praise. Their fate is sorrow, hunger, mourning and a life like those who followed the false prophets. The contrast is stark.
We are familiar with the beatitudes: “Blessed are…” There is an evolution of the meanings of “blessed” (makarios). In ancient Greek times, makarios referred to the gods. The blessed ones were the gods. They had achieved a state of happiness and contentment in life that was beyond all cares, labors, and even death. The blessed ones were beings who lived way up there in some other world. To be blessed, you had to be a god. That word took on a second meaning. It referred to the “dead”. The blessed ones were humans, who, through death, had reached the other world of the gods. They were now beyond the cares of earthly life. To be blessed, you had to be dead. Finally, in Greek usage, the word came to refer to the elite, the upper crust of society, the wealthy people. It referred to people whose riches and power put them above the normal cares and worries of the lesser folk — the peons, who constantly struggle and worry and labor in life. To be blessed, you had to be very rich and powerful.
When this word, makarios was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it took on another meaning. It referred to the results of right living or righteousness. If you lived right, you were blessed. Being blessed meant you received earthly, material things: a good wife, many children, abundant crops, riches, honor, wisdom, beauty, good health, etc. A blessed person had more things and better things than an ordinary person. To be blessed, you had to have big and beautiful things.
In all of these meanings, the “blessed” ones existed on a higher plane than the rest of the people. They were gods. They were humans who had gone to that other world of the gods. They were the wealthy, upper crust. They were those with many possessions.
Jesus uses this word in a totally different way. It is not the elite who are blessed. It is not the rich and powerful who are blessed. It is not the high and mighty who are blessed. It is not the people living in huge mansions or expensive penthouses who are blessed. Rather, Jesus pronounces God’s blessings on the lowly: the poor, the hungry, the crying, and the hated. Throughout the history of this word, it had always been the other people who were considered blessed: the rich, the filled up, the laughing. Jesus turns it all upside-down. The elite in God’s kingdom, the blessed ones in God’s kingdom, are those who are at the bottom of the heap of humanity.
But despite such opposition, disciples are blessed, since God promises to care for them. They belong to his kingdom and are under his rule. The poor here are like the Old Testament anawim, the pious poor. These beatitudes serve to comfort and reassure those who belong to God. They stand in a long line of the faithful, including the prophets of old. It is often the case that standing up for Jesus and the truth brings ostracism, but God has promised blessing to his children.
The woes also reflect prophetic tradition. A woe warns of lament or sorrow about the current condition and attitudes of some people, which left unchanged leads to condemnation. Here Jesus addresses the judgment of God to the callous rich and others who are comfortable with their state in life while being unconcerned about the needs of others. The lack of a genuine spiritual dimension in their life is seen in the comparison Jesus makes between them and the false prophets. For those who do not engage God on the divinity’s terms there looms nothing but the terrible expectation of a day of reckoning. One of the dangers of wealth is that it can lead one to believe a life of independence is possible–a view that Jesus teaches is arrogant and misguided (12:13-21). The world’s values are not God’s values. The reversal portrayed in the beatitudes and woes reflects the idea that “the one with the most toys” often loses. God’s blessing can be found in surprising places. It rests on those who rest in Him.