Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 17, 2019

Luke 6:17-26 Commentary

Whereas Matthew gives us the famed “Sermon on the Mount,” Luke gives us much of that same material in what is often called the “Sermon on the Plain.”  It’s difficult to know whether this is the same sermon described in two different ways by two different evangelists or whether Jesus had a few sermons in his back pocket that he delivered more than once.  (As a former pastor of a congregation who now preaches in a different church most every week, I can relate to the idea of sticking with what works and re-preaching the same sermon over and over a few times!)  If this was a sermon Jesus preached more than once—if he once preached it on a mountain and on another occasion presented it on a plain—then that might also explain the addition in Luke of some woes that correspond to the Beatitudes (woes Matthew did not include at that juncture).

In any event, the immediate setting in Luke is a flurry of activity.  People are coming to Jesus in significant numbers and everyone is trying to touch him with the hopes they could tap some of the energy flowing out of him.  It reminds me of those video clips from Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential race—people everywhere were desperate to touch Bobby.  His aides reported that after many campaign appearances, Bobby’s hands would be bloody from scratches even as the ends of his shirt sleeves would frequently be in tatters.  Everywhere RFK went, he was greeted by a small sea of outstretched hands.


In Jesus’ day everyone wanted healing.  Everyone wanted a better life.  Everyone wanted a piece of the man who held out the promise of a better tomorrow.  And many were healed.  But not all.  Many were changed.  But not all.  Whatever the kingdom of God is for this present time, it is not a ticket to a charmed life in which every believer will be kept free of pain, disease, disappointment, and even persecution.

Maybe that is why, right in the middle of all this ferment and hubbub and excitement, Jesus turns to this disciples and begins to speak a series of Beatitudes or blessings that point to a lifestyle and a mindset that was all-but completely at odds with what most people were, at that very moment, seeking to get from Jesus.

It is difficult to imagine a comparable scenario anywhere else in life.  It’s hard to imagine someone’s just getting elected president, riding high on the hopes and dreams and expectations of the millions of people who voted for him, who would then use his victory speech to say, “But you know, I want to congratulate the unemployed in this nation.  Some day in heaven you will have it better.  And I want to reach out to the malnourished children of our land and bless you for your hunger.  And I want to say a word to the hated masses, to minorities and others who feel the sting of racism: some day you will receive a reward.”

We cannot imagine such a thing.  A victory speech is the moment to whoop it up, to promise the moon, to tell all the people who have placed their hopes in you that you will not let them down and tomorrow will be a brighter day for all.

But not Jesus.  He uses a moment in which people are looking to him and expecting the world of him to say, in all candor, that the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, and the hated are better off than the rich, the satisfied, the happy, and the well-liked.  In saying all this, Jesus is at once describing a future reality of the kingdom of God AND tracing out for us the shape of our present lives now.

The rich cannot hear that they will be sent away empty without receiving the message that they need to share their riches already now, in this present age.  We may bless the poor and the hungry and celebrate that in the kingdom they will be taken care of and fed but as disciples, we cannot hear about that future provision without recognizing its present-tense implication for how we live right now.  We don’t kick back and ignore the poor and hungry now on account of their being taken care of later.  Rather, in Jesus’ name WE begin to care for them already now, instantiating as best we can kingdom patterns in this present moment.

In Luke 6 blessings and curses may have a definite future component but they impinge directly on today as well.

But why did Jesus address just the disciples here?  As is the case in Matthew’s version of this sermon, Jesus turns away from the crowds to just his disciples when he begins speaking his beatitudes.  Clearly the crowds overheard these things—and clearly these words had implications for those crowds as well—but there must be something significant here about Jesus’ addressing his disciples so specifically.  What might that significance be?

Probably there are several reasons but one in particular stands out.  In his turn to the disciples, Jesus signals that what he is going to go on to describe is not the kind of person you need to be in order to enter God’s kingdom. Nor is he saying that once you enter the kingdom, these are rules you need to follow, as though you need to make yourself poor in spirit and mournful so that you’ll fit in. Nor is Jesus saying that if you should happen to find yourself experiencing one of the less happy emotions described here, God will swoop in with some kind of quick-fix solution and turn things around for you.

These are not entrance requirements, rules to follow, or a prelude to receiving a reward from God in this life. That’s not what Jesus says. Instead he says that if you are a citizen of the kingdom, then being poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungry for the things of God are going to be the natural result of your kingdom membership. Further, the reason this will be the result is because commitment to that whole new world of God is always going to clash with the powers that be and the authority structures of this present world.

This is a vital connection to notice.  Jesus is not saying that if you are mournful or persecuted or poor in spirit for any reason, then you will automatically receive blessing and consolation. After all, there are lots of reasons why people might be sad or downtrodden. Someone might be exceedingly mournful that his stock market portfolio is not performing as well as he had hoped, but that hardly qualifies this person for the comfort Jesus talks about! Someone might be very meek, but maybe in some cases it’s sheer sentimentality.  The guy next door might feel persecuted and disliked, but maybe that’s the result of his being an unpleasant guy who has a personality that could curdle milk.

The point is that the dispositions Jesus blesses in the Beatitudes are not free-floating but are kingdom-rooted. If you are mournful, then what makes you mourn is the sin you see around you, the disjointedness of life in a world that has fallen so far from God’s loving hopes and intentions. If you are merciful and meek, then it’s not because you’re just an old softy by nature but because the Spirit of God has given you the heart of Jesus. If you are persecuted, then it’s not because you’re an oaf of a person but because you won’t compromise your belief in Christ as Savior. You will live out what you believe the gospel reveals as God’s way, even if that pits you against the “business as usual” practices of others.

That is the pity behind Robert Schuller’s ill-titled book from many years ago, “The Be (Happy) Attitudes.”   Schuller turned the kingdom descriptions of Jesus’ Beatitudes into a therapeutic model of positive thinking. Both the traits Jesus describes and the consolations Jesus promises ceased to be gifts of the Holy Spirit given to kingdom citizens and became instead tools and mental ploys by which to feel better about yourself and about your life, come what may. Schuller changed this from the blessed result of being part of God’s new world to being good advice for how to get along in this world.

But if you sheer away the kingdom perspective of all this, Jesus’ words make no sense. From the vantage point of just this life and this world, there’s nothing good about persecution, about being a nobody, about being sad. No one in his or her right mind wants to experience any of that. Also, if the kingdom is not real and not true, then being persecuted for it is like going to jail because you got convicted on a false charge. If God is not real and his new world not true, then there is nothing to hunger or thirst for, nothing to desire, nothing to pursue. If we are mournful, it’s because we’ve seen the moral beauty of God’s new world and, compared to that, we find much to lament in this present world. Again, however, take away that kingdom, and there’s nothing actual to compare this world TO.

The kingdom of God becomes the way we see things, the lens through which we view life. It’s a gift to be able, already now, to see into God’s world.   Blessed are you if you can see the world just this way.

Textual Points:

In “The Lectionary Commentary” (Eerdmans 2001) David Holwerda points out that Luke’s addition of the curses that are the antithetical versions of the earlier-stated Beatitudes ties in with Luke’s “Jubilee” theology.  As Luke presents it, Jesus’ ministry and the gospel he proclaims ties in deeply with the Old Testament notion of Sabbath and with the Year of the Jubilee in which much that had gone wrong with life over the last half-century was reversed and set to right again.  This Jubilee theology shapes how Luke presents Jesus’ ministry, from the Magnificat/Song of Mary onward.  Reversal and release inform the Lucan narrative, and his particular editorial shaping of what in Luke is the “Sermon on the Plain” bears evidence of this same thematic interest.

Illustration Ideas:

Suppose you could combine the personality traits of the Beatitudes and put them all into one man. What would Mr. Beatitude look like? Well, he would be consistently kind and yet also a bit shy, shunning the limelight. He would always downplay his own actions by claiming they were never enough to achieve what he really wants, and so we might conclude he has a bad self image.

This would be a person quick to lend a hand to anyone in need but also quick to get a bit depressed every time he hears a news story about an oil spill off the Alaskan coast or after seeing pictures of children starving in the Sudan–this would be a person as often as not who looked distressed and seemed often to be on the verge of tears; someone who could never shrug off anything.   Anderson Cooper or other TV news folks might always end their shows with a smile and the winning words, “I’ll see you all back here tomorrow, good night.” But Mr. Beatitude generally finds the news to be desolating–just watching such broadcasts yields anything but a smiling “good night” for him!

This would be a person who was transparently religious, someone whose heart seemed so centered on the God of his faith that most everything he did would come off looking like an offering. This would be a man who would seem perpetually restless and dissatisfied with lots of life’s facets. He’d be someone who consistently gave money to environmental groups, who volunteered to clean up highways, who pitched in on programs to aid the homeless, who talked at dinner parties about the need to do something to help those who live in poverty or who are gripped by addictions to drugs or pornography.

In short, Mr. Beatitude might not always be a barrel of laughs! As often as not he’d have a serious look of concern on his face or a tear of sympathy in his eye; he’d rather talk about substantive issues of global warming or the war on poverty than engage in typical cocktail party blather. He might just be busy enough with helping the disenfranchised that some would sneer at him as someone who was naively “out to save the world.”

He might even be seen as a trouble-maker and a nuisance, what with all his restless talk about issues, causes, and politics, not to mention the fact that there seems to be no satisfying the guy–he’s always hungering and thirsting for something better for others. And so it’s quite possible that among some people anyway, Mr. Beatitude would be ridiculed.  We sometimes forget that the kingdom attitude and lifestyle Jesus traces out is profoundly counter-cultural.  Jesus proclaims as good news what the world regards as a crying shame even as he deems dreadful what the world regards as the ultra-successful.


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