The Gospel text for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany (Luke 6:17-26) is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
The heart of it is the “Beatitudes,” the seemingly winsome but then difficult and paradoxical declarations by Jesus of what makes a person “blessed” or, in some translations, “happy.”
Matthew’s version is much more prominent in my own memory, and I suspect in most people’s. This may simply be because Matthew comes first and so if you read the New Testament in order you hear his version before you hear Luke’s. Or it may be something else, something in the contents.
The two versions of the Beatitudes are substantially different, and Luke’s version is frankly harder to bear than Matthew’s.
The contrast is evident from the get go.
The two evangelists have Jesus preaching in very difficult locations.
In Matthew 5 Jesus goes up on a mountain with his disciples to get away from the crowd. We may picture a crowd there, but Matthew 5 doesn’t support us (although at the end of the sermon in 7:28, it turns out the crowd was listening all along). This is the start of his extremely famous “Sermon on the Mount.”
In Luke, Jesus looks up and speaks to his disciples, but it seems that a huge crowd is still there. He doesn’t go up a mountain. He quite specifically chooses “a level place.” This is the beginning of his far-less-famous “Sermon on the Plain.”
That huge crowd is a snapshot of the growth of Jesus’ disciple-making ministry. Remember that one chapter earlier, at the start of last week’s lectionary Gospel (Luke 5:1-11), Jesus had no disciples at all. That passage recorded the calling of the first three.
Now there is a whole “crowd of his disciples” (Luke 6:17).
And that really seems to be the people following him around, because separately Luke mentions a “great multitude” of others. These others foreshadow the missionary direction of Jesus’ ministry: Like in his promise prior to his ascension (see Acts 1:8), they start local with people from “all Judea” and “Jerusalem,” and also include outsiders to the Jewish world, people from “Tyre and Sidon.”
In the kind of passing note that is easily missed, but is so very significant, Luke tells us
- that they came to be healed of their diseases, including unclean spirits.
- that, in a way foreshadowing the healing of the woman with the twelve year long hemorrhage of blood, when they came near to Jesus “power came out from him.”
- and that in an apparently socialist approach to health care, Jesus “healed all of them.” (Luke 6:19 NRSV)
The This-Worldly Beatitudes?
Luke’s beatitudes are themselves somewhat different from those in Matthew. At first glance they are more “this-worldly.”
The most frequently noted difference is in the very first one. While Matthew records it as
Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (Matthew 5:3 NRSV)
In Luke Jesus says
Blessed are you who are poor…” (Luke 6:20 NRSV)
It is a lot easier to preach Matthew’s version. That little modifier “in spirit” makes poverty a bit more theoretical. And that can make many, many congregations seem more likely to get Jesus’ blessing, if you know what I mean.
And you might say it makes easier rational sense. Many who have experienced material poverty will tell you that it is really rotten. Think of that famous Dust Bowl picture by Dorothea Lange, “Destitute Pea Pickers in California. Mother of Seven Children.” Grim, hard stuff, being poor.
It can be very hard to find the blessing when poverty leads to, say, being evicted from your home and living on the street.
The same thing happens in the case of hunger which in Luke seems to be, plainly enough, about food:
Blessed are you who are hungry now…” (Luke 6:21 NRSV)
In Matthew it is more a spiritual matter:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. (Matthew 5:6 NRSV)
But there are other, subtler differences too.
In all the Beatitudes in Luke, Jesus speaks of “you” who are in this state. Jesus speaks to
…you who are poor…you who are hungry now…you who weep now…
The whole speech is about his hearers, the poor, hungry, and sad people surrounding him and listening on that day — and thereby we, who read it centuries later, hear it more directly about ourselves.
By contrast, while Matthew records more Beatitudes than Luke, in most Jesus speaks more hypothetically:
…those who are poor in spirit…those who mourn…those who hunger and thirst after righteousness…those who are persecuted…
This is one of the many ways Luke shows Jesus getting right into the earthy stuff of life.
The Other-Worldly Beatitudes?
I think, however, there is also an “other-worldly” aspect to the Beatitudes in Luke. It’s a question of when the happiness, the blessedness, actually gets experienced.
If the blessedness is totally this-worldly in terms of chronology, then the blessedness itself seems kind of other-worldly.
On the one hand, Jesus doesn’t put that blessedness in the future.
It’s in the present when Jesus says
Blessed are you who…
And he does emphasize that the hungering and the weeping take place “now.”
And since poverty, hunger, and sorrow are all things that feel genuinely horrible right now, the “blessedness” becomes something intangible — spiritual in the sense of non-rational or beyond the senses.
Jesus does put something in the future: the end to the specific troubles in the last three Beatitudes:
…you will be filled…you will laugh…surely your reward is great in heaven…
The timing of the promise in the first Beatitude is a bit more ambiguous:
…yours is the kingdom of heaven
he says. That could be right now or at the end of the age, but since those three are so clearly yet to come it sort of tips the balance in favor of the future.
The other noteworthy distinctive of Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is that, unlike Matthew who accentuates the positive, Luke includes a set of matching “Woe-attitudes.”
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
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.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24-26 NRSV)
There is the same mix of this-worldly (“you” who are rich, full, laughing, and popular right now) and other-worldly (paradoxical “woe” about the fun stuff, and placement of change in the future)
The Troubling Thing
Then when you stop to think about these statements, both the blessings and the woes, they are as paradoxical as a Zen koan.
- I’m always poor and I’m always rich.
- I’m always hungry and I’m always full.
- I’m always weeping and I’m always laughing.
Maybe it is a call to self-examination, to meditation on the mysterious, but serious ways God is always working on my sanctification, both in ways that I’m abased and ways that I abound.
That last one on the list though: I’m pretty much never hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed because of the Son of Man.
So maybe that’s the one I really need to work on?
I suspect prayer and meditation really are the way to find the depth of the Beatitudes and to begin living the life they describe. If you want to give a boost to your prayer life, my annual lenten prayer class will open for registration soon. If you want me to let you know when it opens up, click on this button and get on the waiting list!