bible blog 1868





Then he came down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there with great numbers of people from all Y’hudah, Yerushalayim and the coast around Tzor and Tzidon; they had come to hear him and be healed of their diseases. 18 Those who were troubled with unclean spirits were being healed; 19 and the whole crowd was trying to touch him, because power kept going out from him, healing everyone. 20 He looked at his disciples and said:

“How blessed are you poor!
    for the Kingdom of God is yours.

21 “How blessed are you who are hungry!
    for you will be filled.

“How blessed are you who are crying now!
    for you will laugh.

22 “How blessed you are whenever people hate you and ostracize you and insult you and denounce you as a criminal on account of the Son of Man. 23 Be glad when that happens; yes, dance for joy! because in heaven your reward is great. For that is just how their fathers treated the prophets.

24 “But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already had all the comfort you will get!

25 “Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will go hungry!
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and cry!

26 “Woe to you when people speak well of you, for that is just how their fathers treated the false prophets!

At the start of this passage Luke is still following the Gospel of Mark, his main source, but he emphasises that Jesus descends from the hill where he has appointed his apostles, to stand on level ground, for which reason his collection of Jesus’ teachings is called “the sermon on  the plain” to dsitinguish it from Matthew’s sermon on the mount. All three synoptic gospels describe Jesus healing large numbers of people who have sought him out from many areas of the country. In Mark this episode precedes the appointment of the twelve apostles,  while Matthew and Luke use it after the appointment of the twlve and before  Jesus’ teaching, suggesting that the ministry of the twelve will consist of both healing and teaching.

Luke departs altogether from Mark’s gospel at this point and begins to use a tradition of Jesus’ teachings which in some way he shares with Matthew. Scholars are divided as to exactly how they share it- possibly Luke is editing Matthew’s Gospel, or maybe they are both using a source of teaching which is now lost, or maybe they are both reliant on memorised versions of Jesus’ teaching which were current in their assemblies. There are other possibilities also. Sometimes the contrast between the two versions of Jesus’ teaching is quite sharp, as here, where Luke’s version of the so-called beaititudes should be compared with Matthew chapter 5.

  1. Luke’s “blessings” are spoken to the disciples, “How blessed are you” whereas Matthew’s are spoken in the presence of his disciples. but in the form of general truths of the kingdom of heaven, “How blessed are the poor in spirit….”  In other words Luke assumes that those who being blessed are disciples of Jesus.
  2. Matthew has nine blessings, Luke three.
  3. Matthew’ clearly apply to spiritual orientations, while Luke’s apply to material and social conditions.
  4. Matthew has only blessings, whereas Luke has curses or woes as well.

migrant worker 1940’s

Making sense of the passage is hindered by the religious overtones of the English word “blessed” while the Greek of the Gospel means something more like, “How fortunate …” or “Good fortune for..” that is, they assert that certain people are happy or lucky. With that meaning in mind we can see just how startling the teaching is meant to be, for the groiups mentioned as fortunate are exactly those most people then and now would consider unfortunate. How did Luke understand the words of Jesus?

I think he saw them as applying to the experience of following Jesus, and living by the Rule or Kingdom of God.  Poor, hungry, sorrowful disciples would find sufficiency, food and joy of God’s Rule in the world, while rich, well-fed and light-hearted disciples would have to give up personal wealth, do without the rich food they’d enjoyed and share the sorrows of deprivation. Luke saw these changes happening in the ministry of Jesus, in the community of disciples and in the assemblies of Jesus after his resurrection.

Many scholars see the blessings only as applied to the disciples whereas the curses are reserved for those who rejected Jesus. This is possible, but I think it makes more sense to see both blessings and curses as applied to the same audience. It also fits my conviction that Luke saw the Rule of God arriving in the ministry of Jesus and continuing in the ministry of the church. He may also have believed that beyond ordinary history God’s Rule would come in its perfection, but his two-volume work, The Gospel and The Acts of Apostles, emphasises the presence of God’s Goodness in what Jesus did and said, and in what his assemblies do and say. For Luke the choices demanded by Jesus are still demanded by the church.

The blessings mean that people with no resources will will share all the resources of the community of Jesus; hungry people will find that food is shared and no-one goes without; and those whose lives have brought them sorrow will experience the laughter that arises from mutually supportive living. The curses mean that if disciples have wealth it must be given to the poor; that they must share food without excess or luxury; that the laughter of easy living must be replaced by the sober realism of shared tears.hungry

The final blessing/ curse indicates that both Jesus and Luke saw the Rule of God as opposed to the social consensus, and that genuine disciplesshould be prepared for spite and slander. The slander endured by the prophets of Israel is used as a criticism of popularity.

All this is miles away from the life of most church assemblies in Scotland today, where no one would think of criticising private wealth, or expect to provide food/ shelter/ clothes for fellow members, or think there was anything wrong in enjoying good times. Most of all, our churches are afflicted with the desire that they should have a good reputation in the surrounding society. In our celebrity obessessed culture, unpopularity means you’re out of the show. Listening again to Jesus’ blessings is bracing for us all, as it points to a happiness that’s more than a carnival.

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