20 Looking at his disciples, he said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
23 ‘Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 ‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
This is Luke’s Sermon on the Plain which stands as his counterpart to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5. But this passage in Luke also has other parallels in his text, including the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and his inaugural sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:18-19). These three passages from Luke’s gospel display consistent themes in his writing which also make difficult reading for us today.
Jesus is in the middle of a large crowd, though he addresses his disciples directly. In the crowd there are people from Jerusalem and Judea as well as people from the Greek cities of Tyre and Sidon (Luke 6:17), so the crowds following him include Jews and Gentiles, right from the beginning.
There are some significant differences between Matthew's account of the Beatitudes and Luke's account which points towards the differing purposes of the writers. In some ways these differences also make Luke's material much harder to preach. In a way Matthew 'spiritualises' the material, so he blesses the 'poor in spirit' whereas Luke, in keeping with his theme, blesses the poor. Matthew blesses those who 'hunger and thirst for righteousness,' whereas Luke blesses those who are hungry, and issues a Woe! to those who are well fed. As I said, this is consistent with Luke’s overall theme which appears in both the Magnificat and in Jesus’ first sermon.
Luke’s account therefore makes difficult and complicated reading for those of us in the relatively wealthy and well-fed West. In Luke’s account Jesus’ promise of blessing to disciples is for those who are poor and hungry, those who weep and mourn, and those who are reviled, for in this state they parallel the experience of the prophets and they can therefore rejoice because their reward is certain.
But for those who are rich and comfortable, who are well fed, who live life with a degree of carefree-ness and are well thought of, well, their experience parallels that of the false prophets.
So what do we do with this teaching, those of us who are sure and certain of a fresh meal tonight, and a warm bed, and who are of good reputation (which is probably most, if not all of us, who read this today)?
Maybe two things are worth thinking about. First, I think Luke means to alert us to the dangers and temptations inherent in wealth and comfort. It’s not that that state is of necessity an evil thing, but that there are dangers inherent in it. It’s a warning that it is a very short step from enjoying wealth, comfort and good reputation, to believing that this equals godliness. When we make that short step we have begun to shape the Gospel in our image. In our context therefore to be a good respectable, middle class, white Presbyterian is to be a good disciple. Not necessarily says Jesus. You can be all of these things and a false prophet. (That’s hard to hear isn’t it?)
Secondly, whilst we shouldn’t deify poverty, we should be alert to the fact that the Gospel is fundamentally concerned with those who are on the margins of society. If we are running after a good reputation we should be alert to the fact that we may be running away from the Gospel. Furthermore, the margins are constantly changing and shifting. As soon as we move and enfold someone in from the margins of our society, someone else will appear at another margin. And so it goes.
The poor are always with us, and they constantly change their clothes and appear in different guises in different places. The Gospel challenges us to be always alert to who may be left out.
If we absolutise ‘the poor’ we may miss the point of this passage. Those who are economically poor should always be of concern to disciples of Jesus, particularly if we are among those who are economically secure. But we should be aware that the margins are always shifting. It’s always worth reflecting on who we consider to be the ‘poor’ and who we leave alone at the margins.
What follows is a hard thing to say. Currently it is almost an item of faith that churches should be supporting local food banks, which is a wonderful and relatively recent development, for things were not always so. But even as we rush to help in this way, are there other groups of people who are falling outside our circle of care. They may not be economically poor, but they are weeping now and hated and rejected as evil. Who might they be?
God of all wisdom,
We understand that life as a disciple
Is a mixture of blessings and woes.
And that whilst we chase the blessing
We are blinded to the
Woe mixed along with it.
And while we try to avoid woe,
We miss the fact that blessing
Can come in the woe.
Teach us to reach out
To those who live lives of woe
From a place of thankfulness
And gratitude for your blessing
In our lives