Blessings and woes

This is the sermon I delivered today at Barnes Methodist Church. The set text today was Luke 6:17-26 but I added Matthew’s account of the same passage (the Sermon on the Mount) to it, Matthew 5:1-12.

brooklyn_museum_-_jesus_teaches_the_people_by_the_sea_jc3a9sus_enseigne_le_peuple_prc3a8s_de_la_mer_-_james_tissot_-_overallIntroduction

This year, our lectionary gospel readings are generally taken from Luke. For many Christians, his is the favourite gospel. It is full of wonderful stories, like the Prodigal Son, and many Christians have found a radical inclusivity in his re-telling of Christ’s ministry and life. It is a gospel that makes clear the inclusivity of the Kingdom of God, with women, children, the poor and the foreigner all given central roles.

The reading set for today, though, is far more familiar to us from Matthew’s gospel, where it is known as the Beatitudes. This in turn comes from the first Latin translation of this passage in the Vulgate, where each phrase begins with the word beati, which can be understood as meaning “happy” or “blessed”. In Matthew’s gospel, the author reports nine such blessings pronounced by Jesus – and it is this version which has become beloved to Christians everywhere, ever since (as seen in the Chinese version below). In Luke’s gospel, we find a very similar sermon, given on another occasion, but not only does it have fewer blessings (just four), but we also find four corresponding woes. It is this latter passage that will be the focus of our reflections today

Relationship SynopticsBefore we start, we should note that the differences between the two passages should give us no cause for alarm at all. We know that both Matthew and Luke relied on the gospel of Mark, which had been written earlier, for a large proportion of their material. However, we also know that they had independent sources for what they wrote – eyewitnesses from the life of Jesus, oral traditions and even written material, Like all good preachers, Jesus would almost certainly have repeated himself, and edited the material for his audiences, so Matthew and Luke are probably reporting what he said on different occasions. What we can be absolutely sure of is that these are the words of our Lord, reliably passed on to us by generations of faithful Christians, and we are called upon to grapple with them now.

Let us hear the two readings consecutively, and as we do so, I would invite you to note the similarities and differences in the texts.

The readings

Reflection

So, what similarities and differences did you spot this morning? Let us work through the easier ones to begin with:

A mountain or a plain?

tissotbeatitudesThe most obvious difference between these two sermons is obviously the location in which they were delivered. In Matthew (5:1), Jesus is “up the mountain”; in Luke (6:17) , he is “on a level plain”. As I said earlier, this is really no cause for concern and the two writers are almost certainly reporting two separate addresses. In Matthew, the passage forms part of a block of teaching that follows on from Jesus choosing the first disciples and (as in Luke) ministering to the sick. It is followed by a number of important lessons and parables from Jesus, including the Lord’s Prayer. Arguably, Matthew is choosing to emphasise Jesus’ resemblance to Moses here (Exodus 19-24), as he does elsewhere in his gospel.

Interestingly, Luke may be doing the same. In his account, Jesus has just gone up the mountain to pray and choose the 12 apostles. In our passage, he descends, like Moses after conferring with God, to bring guidance and teaching to a people in need. It’s important to note that this is not secret teaching of the kind we occasionally encounter in the gospels, meant solely for the disciples and a select few. Rather, as one commentator put it, it is: “plain speech in plain view on the plain” (Garland, 275).

Kingdom of Heaven or of God?

This is another straightforward difference that should not delay us long. In his gospel, Matthew consistently uses the phrase ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ because of a traditional Jewish reluctance to speak the name of the Almighty. This is one of the important clues that has led many to see Matthew’s as a gospel produced by, and for, the Jewish Christian community (perhaps in Antioch). Luke, on the other hand, who often seems much more at home in the Graeco-Roman world of the 1st Century AD, is happy to use the phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ to describe exactly the same thing.

‘Yours’ or ‘theirs’?

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Chinese version of Matthew’s Beatitudes

We come onto a matter of more substance when we begin to consider what at first sight may seem to be a mere grammatical point. To be precise, Matthew consistently uses the third person plural genitive in his beatitudes: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). Luke, on the other hand, (somewhat) interestingly uses a mixture of the vocative case (“you poor”) and the second person singular form: “yours in the kingdom of God” (6:20). Now, this is the sort of thing that may excite grammarians but apart from possibly provoking nightmares from our primary school English classes, what use is such analysis?

Well, for me, there is a danger of reading Matthew as something close to poetry, with its beautiful language and wonderful cadence. Jesus here could be talking about people in a very general and abstract form: “Motherhood and apple pie are good things.” And we could nod in vague agreement. In Luke, though, it is clear that Jesus is addressing the people immediately before him in a very direct and clear way – both in his blessings and his woes. He is not giving a learned lecture or presenting an academic paper. He is addressing the folks who are sitting immediately in front of him. He knows that his audience consists of poor and rich alike, those who are full and those who are empty, and he speaks to them directly and unashamedly.

Jesus is not worried in the slightest about making his audience squirm in their seat. Through them, he speaks to the generations of Christians who came after those first disciples, including us here this morning. This is not an abstruse point of grammar, therefore, but a potent reminder to all preachers and all Christians that when we speak in the name of Christ, our job – as someone very aptly put it – is indisputably to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable”. One of our challenges this morning, is to decide into which category we fall!

‘Poor’ or ‘poor in spirit?

Perhaps the difference in these texts that strike us most keenly, and which has arguably attracted most comment, is Luke’s omission of those two key words “in spirit” when talking about the poor. Matthew is clear that Jesus speaks about those who are “poor in spirit” (5:3). Those two crucial words are open to a wide range of interpretations but we could easily think of this in a much more ‘religious’ sense (and Matthew here is clearly drawing on the psalms and Isaiah 61, in particular), referring to the meek and the righteous, who have humbly turned their hearts to God. Luke, on the other hand, is unequivocal that Jesus is talking directly to the poor (6:20) in the simplest sense of the word: those who have no money! Similarly, Matthew speaks of those who “hunger … for righteousness” (5:6), while Luke speaks simply of those who are who are hungry, full stop (6:21).

Woes or no woes?

Jesus teachingIn addition, we of course have the most obvious difference between the two texts: Luke’s addition of four woes to Jesus’ four blessings. They give a nice symmetry to the passage but they present a deeply discordant note, especially when we have got so used to Luke generally being the ‘nice’ gospel writer, with stories like the Good Samaritan. No wonder that so many people over the centuries have preferred Matthew’s friendlier version: all blessings and no woes!

Yet the challenge they present to us cannot be ignored. Luke’s rendering of Jesus’ sermon seems to undermine everything that both his ancient contemporaries and our modern world regard as success: wealth, absence of want or need, happiness, and popularity or public admiration (Luke 6:24-26). Such direct language can leave us with a bitter aftertaste, and prompt a number of responses.

The easiest is just to ignore it – and that is how most of the world copes! Another, popular among those who wish to honour the sanctity of the scriptures but struggle with its message, is to spiritualise the passage. That is, to prefer Matthew’s rendition and argue that Jesus was not really talking about the actual poor but those who have not yet seen the light of Christ, or been born again, or any number of other definitions. Such interpretations, though, ignore the long Biblical tradition in which these words of Jesus stood. To quote but a few examples:

For he stands at the right hand of the needy,
   to save them from those who would condemn them to death.
(Psalm 109:31)

I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy,
   and executes justice for the poor. (Psalm 140:12)

When the poor and needy seek water,
   and there is none,
   and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them,
   I the God of Israel will not forsake them. (Isaiah 41:17)

We must also not forget those revolutionary words of Mary, which starts Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:52-3):

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.

Nor the troubling story of Dives and Lazarus, again unique to Luke (Luke 16:19-31). It is very hard, in fact, to argue that these words of Luke mean anything other than good news for the poor, and worrying times for the wealthy and comfortable.

A great reward in heaven

An obvious way to conclude my remarks today, and to square the circle that Matthew and Luke have seemingly left us, is to concentrate on one of the most important things that unites our two readings. That, of course, is Jesus’ promise to his audience that those who suffer now, on his behalf, will be rewarded greatly in heaven (Matt. 5:12 / Luke 6:23). These words have rightly brought enormous comfort to Christian martyrs and saints throughout the millennia, as they have witnessed to the gospel of Christ in the most difficult of circumstances. That promise is indeed the greatest hope that God offers to all his people everywhere, and one that should give us all the courage and confidence to face each day. If I am honest, though, they also give preachers like me a nice straightforward way to conclude my comments on a difficult passage that leaves everyone with a warm glow as we go out to coffee.

thepowerofbiblereadingThese words in Luke cannot let preachers off by simply offering “pie in the sky when you die”. Or as Moses, the Raven in Animal Farm, put it, Sugarcandy Mountain – the paradise he promised the poor, deluded animals, who were destined for a lifetime of hard labour. Such simplistic solutions let us all off far too easily. It provides no real answer to the millions in our world today who, no matter how hard they work, how long they toil each day, how often they read their Bibles will almost certainly face grinding poverty for the rest of their lives. The same could be said of the millions of innocent Syrian migrants in refugee camps across the Middle East, and countless others in our own country and abroad. It is little wonder that passages like this one in Luke have long led priests and ministers working in contexts like the one I described to challenge the simplistic interpretations that leaves all the hard work to God I am, of course, speaking about Liberation Theology, which emerged among Catholic theologians working in the slums of South America, who refused to be silenced when they saw innocent people suffering unrelenting poverty because those with money and power simply did not care. It led Christians like Oscar Romero to lay down their lives, as the Beatitudes predicted, because they spoke up for Christ.

These words of Jesus in Luke’s gospel are not meant to leave us feeling comfortable and complacent. If we think that the Bible has any importance whatsoever in our lives and in the life of our world today, then we have to take their challenge seriously. They are not simply meant to make us feel guilty for living in an affluent western country, with plenty of food and fresh water. They are meant to shock and provoke us, to re-examine our lives, our attitudes, our prejudices. To be a voice for those who suffer unjustly and to be a representative of Christ himself in our world today. These are disturbing words, for disturbing times, and if we are not disturbed by them, then we are not reading them correctly. Amen.

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