Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 13, 2022
Luke 6:17-26 Commentary
You might be familiar with Henri Nouwen’s work. The Dutch Catholic Priest (1932-1996) wrote, taught, and served extensively on matters of spirituality, identity, pastoral ministry, and social justice. At the center of his life’s work was a desire for people to know their belovedness as children of God; in fact, much of his work revolves around this core message. Take, for instance, Nouwen’s sermon at the Crystal Cathedral in 1992, where he discusses the central question that keeps us going as human beings: “Who am I?” In it, Nouwen outlines how we often answer this question in three ways: I am what I do; I am what other people say about me; and I am what I have.
I thought of this when I imagined the scene Luke depicts for his version of the Sermon on the Mount—which here is actually the Sermon on the Plain.
In our text today, Jesus comes down from the mountain where he has been praying, and where he has appointed twelve of his disciples to also be his apostles. He walks among the crowd made up of people who have come to hear him teach and to be healed by him from up to a hundred miles away (Tyre and Sidon). Along with the crowd and the twelve, there are other disciples as well. John Nolland (in the Word Biblical Commentary) describes the make-up of the multitude as the disciples and “would-be disciples,” helping us set the context of the invitation that Jesus is about to offer in the Blessings and Woes.
It is while Jesus is going among the crowd and healing them that he looks up to his disciples to deliver this sermon. I find it interesting that Luke makes it clear that Jesus is speaking to the disciples, even though the crowd is obviously listening in, and has, in fact, come to listen to Jesus teach. It’s a layered invitation that is applicable to each of the groups listening.
Without saying it forthrightly, Jesus’ list of blessings and woes names some of the very fundamental views of human self-identity: who am I? Am I what I have? Am I what I do? Am I what people say about me?
In his words, we hear various answers to the “Who am I?” question: I am poor, I am hungry, I am weeping, I am rejected and ridiculed. I am rich, I am content with myself, I am laughing about my success, I am someone who everyone admires… Or, as Nouwen summarizes: I am what I do (weep or succeed); I am what I have (plenty or not enough); I am what people say/think about me (good or ill, truth or lies).
Underlying the blessings and the woes is a necessary understanding about connection. Disciples have chosen the “right” connection: they have left jobs and a way of life to learn from their rabbi; they have chosen to identify with Jesus. The crowds who have come to hear and to be healed have come for the moment, but to disciple is for life. Being a disciple is, truly, an answer to the question, “Who am I?”
As identities, the descriptions we use are deeply rooted in us; they describe the connection we hold with what we believe to be true (positively and negatively). Nouwen’s desire for people to know that they are the beloved of God was for a purpose. Along with being extremely biblical, it is also life-giving, worldview transforming, and purpose shaping. In other words, it is exactly what every invitation from God in Scripture is: an invitation to be rooted in Christ and God.
So we need to reconsider our thoughts about identity and how this passage shows answers to the “Who am I?” question. What Jesus is saying here isn’t that we, as his disciples, must choose to be poor, or to be hungry, or to always be full of mourning, or to willingly seek out rejection and defamation—just as we are not to seek out to be rich, or content with ourselves, to become callous to the needs of others while we live the good life, nor to cultivate a persona that makes us a “friend” to all.
No, the point that Jesus is making is about connection. He’s helping to give the disciples something about their identity to hold onto when the bad times come. In spite of having experiences of need (poverty, hunger, grief, rejection), as his disciples who are connected to him, they are blessed. And not only are they blessed because they belong to him, they will experience the “great reversal” that is the Kingdom of God (a major theme in the Gospel of Luke) as they are promised the kingdom, to be filled, and that they will laugh. Their identity, connection, and rootedness in Christ propels them into the great future God will bestow. Jesus says that his disciples are blessed when these sufferings (specifically when we are rejected by others) on account of their connection to him, “on account of the Son of Man” come (verse 22). And he says that when other people see this connection to Christ so clearly that they respond to it—even if their response is negative—then his disciples ought to rejoice and leap for joy and to know that their reward, the fulfillment of their identity, is yet to come.
Notice the implied connection that underlies the woes: instead of God or Jesus Christ, those to whom the warnings apply appear to be connected only to themselves and to the present moment. Their futures are dark and woeful, full of the trouble and the suffering they seemed to not have worried about others experiencing. Eugene Peterson’s version in The Message paints the picture (verses 24-26): “But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made. What you have is all you’ll ever get. And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long. And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games. There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it. There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests…”
So, Jesus is standing among the crowds and speaking to his disciples about identity and connection. He is inviting them to continue to choose to be his disciple, to be rooted in him, rather than themselves or their circumstances. He is laying before them the mindset that will allow them to be rooted in the truth, no matter their circumstances. In this world, we will have trouble, Jesus tells us elsewhere, but we are the blessed disciples of the one who has overcome the world! (John 16.33)
To be blessed is to be beloved.
There are a number of differences between Luke and Matthew’s version of the Sermon. For instance, Matthew depicts Jesus as going up the mountain to give the sermon (a call back to Moses ascending Sinai to receive from the Lord), whereas Luke depicts Jesus descending the mountain (as Moses did to deliver the law). Or consider that since Luke’s audience was mostly Gentile, his version is shorter and has much less interpretation of Jewish law. Finally, Luke doesn’t “spiritualize” his Beatitudes.
In the 2006 dystopian film based on P.D. James’ novel, Children of Men, the world suffers from mass infertility: no babies have been born for twenty years, and war and poverty are widespread; things are bleak for the world. There is much to mourn and weep over as we watch Theo (played by Clive Owen) try to help a pregnant refugee woman named Kee get away from those who want to hand her over to scientists, as well as those who want to use her for their own political purposes. Kee has her baby while they are on the run, and it survives, though Theo dies as he rows a boat with Kee and the baby away from danger off the coast of England. As a boat called “Tomorrow” approaches to rescue Kee and the baby, a black screen for the end credits come on, accompanied by the sound of children laughing. This laughter against the blank black screen lingers for a number of powerful seconds: where there was once weeping and crying, now there is laughter. The future hope will be met, and the present-day mourning, hunger, and poverty will be undone; it is a promise of blessing for those who seek to not reap woe.
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