The Sermon of reversals

This coming Sunday is the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, with several days of context behind us, we can look at more details, picking up with additional thoughts on blessings and woes.

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 (Dt 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.

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.

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 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 hometown 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.

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