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. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 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.
“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 6:17 & 20-26 – NRSV)
Jesus has just chosen the Twelve having spent the whole night in prayer – see Luke 6:12-16. He then speaks intently to them but within hearing of the multitude. He tells them of the kind of behaviour that will distinguish the kingdom of which they are to be part. Something radically new is afoot! Luke Timothy Johns writes: “Proof that a decisive turn had been taken when Jesus chose the Twelve is the present discourse addressed to a ‘large crowd of his disciples’ as well as a ‘great multitude of the people’, as soon as Jesus comes down off the mountain to a level patch of ground. The prophet formally enunciates the principles of inclusion within the kingdom he has been proclaiming, and for those who have already joined him, he states clearly the norms of behavior that govern life within the messianic community. The reader is allowed to overhear the ‘teaching’ that Jesus had already been doing in the synagogues but that now, with the Twelve before his eyes, he states as publicly as possible. The summary of Mark 3:7–12 has been transferred by Luke to 6:17–19 in order to set the stage for the prophetic discourse. He draws the crowds together—shows Jesus healing and exorcising. And, since the people also ‘came to hear’ (6:18), the Messiah begins to teach. …. The major difference in the two discourses is that Luke lacks entirely the distinctively Matthean material dealing with ‘Law and Prophets’ and their interpretation, a concern that clearly reflects the situation of Matthew’s Church vis-à-vis the developing rabbinic tradition. As a result, Luke’s sermon is notably more spare and focused, with an ethical emphasis entirely intelligible to Gentile readers. The discourse moves smoothly from the opening Beatitudes and woes (6:20–26) to the measure of life before God (27–40) to the demand for action and not just speech (41–49)” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 110).
This “sermon on a level place” is briefer than the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew – the latter has 111 verses, the former 29 verses. Although both Luke and Matthew depend on Mark, they draw on another source for the so-called “beatitudes”.
He came down with them and stood: A journey is underway. Jesus pauses to teach his disciples.
he looked up at his disciples: The KJV has: “he lifted up his eyes on his disciples”. The Jerusalem Bible has: “he fixed his eyes on his disciples”. The author’s intention seems to be to communicate some measure of urgency here. The Greek word is epairō and it literally means “lift up” or “raise up”. “In Luke, the disciples are the specific audience of the sermon, although the ‘multitude of the people’ (6:17) form part of the implied audience, as do also Luke’s Christian readers: ‘I say to you who are listening’ (6:27)” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 106).
Blessed: The Greek word is Makarios. It can mean “happy” or “fortunate”. Luke has already used it in 1:45 when Elizabeth addresses Mary. It means “happy” and “fortunate” but so much more: “It can mean ‘happy’, but that misses the resonance of the biblical tradition, which uses the word to denote the condition of righteous existence before God (cf. e.g., Pss 1:1; 2:12; 83:4; 93:12 [LXX]), so that the term becomes almost technical as a ‘macarism’ or ‘Beatitude’; this is the term used by Jesus in his Beatitudes (6:20–22). Of particular interest is the contrast in Luke 11:27 between ‘blessed is the womb that bore you’ and Jesus’ correction, ‘rather blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it’. In Luke’s view, of course, Mary is blessed on both counts” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 41)
the poor: We should not think of the “poor” in some sort of spiritualized way. It is clear from Luke’s Gospel that he has in mind those who are economically impoverished and pushed to the margins because of that.
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is portrayed as having a special concern for these poor people who are not allowed to belong fully to the human society. In 4:18, Luke as cited Isaiah 61:1 to give the reason for Jesus’ ministry: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed.” In 7:22, Luke responds to John the Baptist’s disciples: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” In 14:13-14, we hear Jesus tell a man who has invited him to a meal: “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed.” (The Greek word makarios in used here.) In 16:20-22, Luke gives us the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
The poor may not be accepted in the earthly kingdoms, they will be embraced and welcomed into the Kingdom of God.
Many are “poor” – the “hungry”, “those who weep” and “those who are hated”.
In Shakespeare’s play, All’s Well That Ends Well, there is much unmasking, disillusionment and reversals of expectations and fortunes. Interestingly enough, scholars debate whether the play is to be read as a tragedy or a comedy. Perhaps it is, like life itself, both. In Act 4 Scene 3, one of the French Lords says: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not”. The more deeply we penetrate reality the more we find ourselves face to face with paradoxes such as this.
Apart from the fact that we are all geniuses at self-deception, family upbringing, culture, societal expectations, selfishness, anxiety, fear, greed, and other forces, see to it that we never have a clear and uncontaminated perception of ourselves and/or other people. Far from it in fact. Fortunately – though often uncomfortably – one of the functions of daily life is to strip us of our pretences, to unmask our fictions, to subject us to a radical disillusionment. We must learn one way or another, willingly or unwillingly, that reality is much more mysterious than we think, much more enjoyable and rewarding than we can imagine. There is light in our dark days and riches in our poverty, possibilities in our limits and freedom in our failures, discovery of deeper relationships in our being rejected and grace in our sins. But we do not seem to like this arrangement. We resist it and seek ways around it. Is this perhaps a reason for many of our addictions and the epidemic of depression that besets the affluent West?
No wonder all the great religious traditions remind us to embrace – even work at – the reversal of much of what we have come to believe to be real. Unlearning is as important as learning, being able to let go and do without is more important than possessing a lot of things, yielding to the truth is far more freeing than being in control of a lie.
Today’s Gospel – Luke 6:17 and 20-26 – gives us Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Each of the Beatitudes is an invitation to recognize and embrace the reversals that will bring us life. Recall the context. Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples – “he looked up at his disciples and said ….” These disciples have “left everything and followed him” (see Luke 5:11). The Beatitudes can easily be applied directly to the them – poor, hungry, those who weep, those who are hated, reviled and defamed …. “on account of the Son of Man”. This is not an idealized world or way of living he is proposing. These words are meant to strengthen his disciples – then and now – in the face of real reversals. The Kingdom of God – if we take it seriously – will dismantle our self-fashioned versions of reality. Initially at least, this is hard to take. It can in fact be terrifying. Jesus, help me to see as you see and know as you know.