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Last Sunday we heard Jesus call Peter to be his disciple. Jesus then travels with Peter and the other disciples healing people. Today’s gospel reading is the beginning of what is often called the Sermon on the Plain.
We find a parallel to this passage in Matthew 5:1-7,11 that is often called the Sermon on the Mount.
When spoken from the mountaintop in Matthew’s Gospel, we can’t miss the impression that Jesus is speaking with the authority and voice of God. The mountaintop is a symbol of closeness to God. Those who ascend the mountain see God and speak for God; recall the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments.
As Luke introduces the location of Jesus’ teaching, Jesus teaches on level ground, alongside the disciples and the crowd. Luke presents Jesus’ authority in a different light. He is God among us.
Another distinction found in Luke’s version is the audience. Luke’s Sermon on the Plain is addressed to Jesus’ disciples, although in the presence of the crowd; Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is addressed to the crowd. In keeping with this style, the Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel sound more personal than those in Matthew’s Gospel—Luke uses the article “you” whereas Matthew uses “they” or “those.” There is also a difference in number: Matthew describes eight beatitudes; Luke presents just four, each of which has a parallel warning.
As we listen to this Gospel, the Beatitudes jar our sensibilities. Those who are poor, hungry, weeping, or persecuted are called blessed. This is, indeed, a Gospel of reversals. Those often thought to have been forgotten by society and sometimes the church are called blessed. In the list of “woes,” those whom we might ordinarily describe as blessed by God are warned about their peril. Riches, possessions, laughter, reputation . . . these are not things that we can depend upon as sources of eternal happiness. They not only fail to deliver on their promise; our misplaced trust in them will lead to our demise. The ultimate peril is in misidentifying the source of our eternal happiness.
The Beatitudes are often described as a framework for Christian living. We are challenged to examine our present situation in the context of our ultimate horizon, the Kingdom of God.
He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Good News – Beatitudes – Link Luke 4 – Jesus’ core mission
Bad News – Woes – these link with other parts of Luke’s gospel – Mary’s Magnificat – Luke 1: 46 – 55
The promises can be spiritualised so that they no longer address real poverty. In Matthew’s gospel they have been expanded and now serve to commend attitudes of lowliness and humility, hunger and thirst for righteousness. It is usually Matthew’s version which derails the interpretation of the beatitudes we have here in Luke and which are likely to be closer to what Jesus said. But even in Matthew we should not miss the convergence between attitude and need. Lowliness is commended, but those who mourn are offered hope. The lowliness that counts is lowliness in solidarity with those who have been laid low. The righteousness for which to hunger and thirst is none other than the justice which addresses the needs of the downtrodden.
There is an opposite danger, in part caused by what might have been Luke’s own supplement: the woes. We can reduce the focus to economic poverty. That would be typical of simplistic analyses of human need which focus only on outcomes. In the world of Jesus’ day (as already in Isa 61) ‘the poor’ are the people, the people of Israel. They are poor in so many ways, dispirited, overtaxed, exploited, lost, hopeless in spirit. To these Jesus announces the promise of reversal when God’s reign is established. It is about poverty, but in a much wider sense as well.
Trading Activity – people to trade beads by guessing if the number in their hands is even or odd.
- How did you feel about the way this game worked out for you and why?
- What did you learn from playing this game?
- When were you tempted to give someone else some extra things or ask for some for yourself and why?
- In what ways did the limited number of available things to trade affect the game, or the way you thought about it?
- How would it have felt if, just at the end of the game, I gave whoever had fewer than half of the items they started with an extra fifty?
- In what ways does the idea that certain things in this world are scarce or hard to get affect the way you relate to other people?
We are all poor in some ways. Some of us may be poor in spirit, and some of us may simply live in poverty; and then there are those who are poor in conscience and in morality. God’s concern is for our poverty.
I think this is because it is in the places of our poverty that God can meet us most easily because these are the places in our lives where we experience need. It is at the point of our need that we can most easily learn what it means to rely on and connect with God.
- For the person who is so low that they might say they are poor in spirit can choose to look for God’s help and lifting them up.
- For the person you can never see to get out of the cycle of living month-to-month and paycheck to paycheck, this is the place where they can learn to rely on and connect with God.
- For the person who has a poverty of morality and conscience, when they realize it, they can find God’s help in that space.
None of this means that we don’t do things to help ourselves, but it does challenge us to see where our own poverty is and use that as a way to connect with and rely on God.
The same is true for when Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” When we are hungry we come face to face with our need. When we are sad, we are again confronted with our need.
When we are at our point of need we are more open to God’s provision, God’s grace, God’s love. Remember that this gospel is about reversals. Jesus announces the promise of reversal when God’s reign is established. This is not just about in the future but here and now. The blessedness was always more than a promise for the future. Yet the community which prayed, ‘Your kingdom come’, was itself a place where the reign of God began to be realised.
Certainly the tradition indicates that Jesus was more than a dreamer of future utopias. Much of his teaching is about how the change can take place right now. It included radical sharing of food and resources, later stylised in the eucharistic feast. Vested interests will often prefer a Christianity that will leave the status quo as it is and focus only on the world to come. That is where the woe’s come in and this is a constant challenge for us as the church today.
Henri Nouwen said: “The gospels confront us with this persistent voice inviting us to move from where it is comfortable, from where we want to stay, from where we feel at home … voluntary displacement leads us to the existential recognition of our inner brokenness and thus brings us to a deeper solidarity with the brokenness of our fellow human beings.”
Can we stand with the brokenness of others? Can we stand with the brokenness that we see in our selves and allow God to fill us, to sustain us, to reverse the order of this world and bring his reign now and in the future.
Bill Loader says “Blessedness in solidarity with poor and the blessedness of the poor lie ultimately in the blessedness of sharing the life of the God of compassion and change and living out that hope, whatever it means in our situation. Such compassion begins where we are.”