Feb. 13, 2022 Sixth Sunday After Epiphany The text is Luke 6:17-26.
17 [Jesus] came down with [the twelve] 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.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen
I know what you’re thinking, “wait a minute, I know this passage from the bible, it’s Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.”. Well, actually no, it isn’t. The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew’s gospel; Luke remembers it a bit differently, and he recalls Jesus’ proclamation of the beatitudes taking place on the “plain”, what Luke calls the “level place”.
There are some other differences between Luke’s version and Matthew’s and we can come back to those in a bit; but for now, let’s take a look at just what these “beatitudes” are, that Jesus announces to the assembled crowd that has come from all over to hear him preach and teach. The simplest definition is that beatitudes are blessings, for Jesus does list several examples of “blessed are you…”, as he lays out these beatitudes. Some modern translations render “blessed are you” as “happy are you” or “fortunate are you”. These work, but the original Greek word for Jesus’ use of “blessed” is “makarios”, which lends itself to a rather deeper meaning of the word. This is a state of being as one who partakes of God; in other words, the one who is blessed is one who has God’s attention. God intimately knows they who are poor, hungry, or weeping. God sees the destitute, the ones with empty bellies, the ones whose tears stream down their cheeks. God hears their distress, their hunger pangs, their cries of mourning and anguish. God isn’t satisfied with gazing down upon the broken ones of creation, God chooses to descend from the heavens to meet the poor, and hungry, and weeping right where they are; on the plain, on the “level place” where he blesses them face-to-face, in the form of Christ Jesus.
And it’s this meeting between God and the people in a flat area where everyone is eye-to-eye, that is pointedly different from Matthew’s placing this sermon high on a hill; thus, the “Mount”. It seems that Matthew envisions the people ascending to a higher place as emblematical of them aspiring to become closer to God, attempting to reach upward towards the heavens. I rather prefer Luke’s setting on the plain where God descends to meet the disciples and the expansive crowd. Perhaps I lean toward this understanding of the relationship between God and the faithful because I know that, at any time whether or not I’m striving to become closer to God, the truth is that God is always reaching out to me. Both versions of Jesus’ sermon on the beatitudes are right and proper; for no matter the setting they both recount the truth of Jesus’ words, and through them, we are all blessed.
But there are other, rather distinct differences between the way Luke and Matthew recall this most important of Jesus’ proclamations. Matthew includes nine beatitudes and no woes; this morning Luke records only four blessings and also four corresponding woes.
Same basic teaching from Jesus, but two different recollections from the gospel writers. Perhaps Matthew’s intent was to include all the blessings that Jesus promised the crowd in order to reassure his readers of the abundance that was to be had within the kingdom of heaven. On the other hand, maybe Luke chose to shorten the list of beatitudes and include Jesus’ counterpoint to each in an effort to ensure that the meaning wasn’t diluted in any way. You will recall that Jesus was strongly in support of adherence to the Torah, the Jewish Law. And you will also remember that within God’s Commandments there a quite a few “thou shalt not’s”. Matthew is all “flowers and rainbows”, while Luke insists on a more pragmatic approach. And I would suggest that this morning’s reading sounds much more like we would expect to hear from Jesus, the One who took great pains to proclaim that part of his mission was to fulfil the Law and not to abolish it.
Which brings us to the woes. The Greek word Luke chose is “ouai”, and like many things Greek, may be translated in one of two ways. This “woe” may be a form of denouncing one’s behavior, or it can be used to denote grief. We might reframe the woes as “shame on you for what you’ve done (or not done), or “I am grieved by your behavior, in the way you treat others”. Either way, Jesus is making some rather bold accusations to his hearers on the plain, and as we know these are directed to all who came after, including us. Uh oh, now what do we do about these woes that Jesus directs toward us? We know that Jesus’ words are never simplistic or without nuance. Are we to be denounced because we may not be poor, or have enough to eat, or laughing rather than crying? Or, is Jesus showing his grief at those who are already recipients of these beatitudes, but neglect to share these blessings with those who have not yet received them?
Perhaps Jesus is saying to us, “you had better consider sharing some of what you have with the poor, because you never know if someday you may find your wealth is gone; and I would grieve for you”. “You have more food than you could ever consume, yet your neighbors are hungry. I grieve for you and your uncaring attitude if you do not reach out to feed those with empty stomachs, because some day you may find that your cupboards are depleted”. “You are laughing and are consumed with great joy, yet many around you are weeping tears of grief, sorrow, and pain; I grieve for you, for someday you may be the ones with tears streaming down your cheeks, and did not comfort your neighbors in their need”.
These woes are not so much a list of condemnations, but are more likely intended to serve as exhortations to appreciate the blessings we have received, and yet create awareness of our responsibility to serve those who have so far been denied them. Wealth, a full belly, joy and happiness; these are not inherently things that are to be denounced, because they are signs of God’s blessing. There is nothing evil or immoral about being able to pay our bills, or eat three meals a day, or laugh at a funny cat video on social media. These are examples of the abundance that God desires for all, in the coming kingdom and in the here and now. The problems arise when we become too comfortable with our blessings and they distract us from hearing and heeding the ways of God. If we accumulate too much wealth, we tend to lose our concern for those who have little to nothing. If we stuff ourselves to the point of immobility, to where we need to take a nap just to be able to function, we then become far removed from the plight of those who yearn for the leftovers we unceremoniously toss in the trash. If we laugh so hard that we’re not able to hear the cries of those who wail and sob in their sorrow, well, these are the times that Jesus says, “woe to you”.
Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain” is complex and delves into the opposites of blessings and woes, the nuances of God’s Law and our behavior in relation to it, and the willingness of God in the person of Jesus to meet us where we are. Luke uses obscure Greek words to tell his version of Jesus’ preaching, and these too may be interpreted in more than one way. No doubt Jesus intended this to be the case; his teaching was always meant to encourage the people to examine themselves and their relationship with God and one another. Yet, the lesson to be learned from the complicated sermon of Jesus is quite simple, indeed; rejoice in the blessings of God and avoid the woes.
We are called to appreciate our beatitudes and to try to ensure that others attain them as well. Share; share our wealth, our food, and our joy with those who have none of these. When we do share, we are blessed; when we withhold, we disregard our God. And then, woe to us!
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, you meet us where we are and remind us of all the blessings you provide for your children. You bless us with more than we need; encourage us to share these gifts with those of your children who have not yet received them. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who calls us to turn poverty into abundance, hunger into fullness, and weeping into laughter. May be remove the woe from those who suffer and include them in the blessings you prepare for us. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.