Commentary on Luke 6:20-26
Today we begin what is known as Luke’s ‘Sermon on the Plain’ which more or less parallels Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Luke’s is much shorter but both begin with the Beatitudes and end with the parable of the house builders. Some of what is found in Matthew’s Sermon is found elsewhere in Luke as Matthew’s ‘Sermon’ it consists of disparate sayings of Jesus gathered into one place. Luke also omits Matthew’s specifically Jewish material which would not have been relevant to his Gentile readers.
The Sermon can be summarised as follows:
An introduction of blessings and woes (20-26)
The love of one’s enemies (27-36)
The demands of loving one’s neighbour (37-42)
Good deeds as proof of one’s goodness (43-45)
A parable on listening to and acting on the words of Jesus (46-49).
Similar to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Luke begins the Sermon on the Plain with his version of the Beatitudes. But there are striking differences. Whereas Matthew has eight (some would say seven) Beatitudes, Luke has four “Blesseds” and four contrasting “Woes”. As is typical of his uncompromising style when it comes to following Jesus, the language of Luke is much more direct and hard-hitting and it may well be closer to what Jesus actually said.
Matthew’s Beatitudes propose a set of attitudes which reflect the spirit of the Kingdom, qualities to be found in the truly Christian and human life. Luke, on the other hand, speaks of material conditions in this life which will be overturned. Later in this gospel, this is illustrated graphically in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (16:25).
Luke also has Jesus speak in the second person: “Blessed are you” and “Woe to you” rather than in the third person as Matthew does (“Blessed are those who…”). Nor does he speak of the “poor in spirit” but of “you who are poor” and he certainly means the materially poor.
He goes on to say how blessed too are “you who are hungry; you who weep; you who are hated and who are rejected and marginalised and whose name is regarded as evil” because of their connection with Jesus. Undoubtedly Matthew’s Beatitudes can be read to consider just ‘spiritual’ poverty and a hunger for ‘righteousness’, which in fact are also a form of real poverty and real hunger but Luke is a gospel for the materially poor and distressed and we must be careful not to turn our focus away from them. That is why he has Jesus born in poverty and dying naked and destitute (even of his ‘friends’).
Jesus tells those who are poor and hungry and abused to rejoice when that happens and “dance for joy”. There are two reasons:
because their reward will be “great in heaven” and
because that is the way the prophets in the past were treated (and the way Jesus the Prophet will also be treated).
At a first reading, it seems like a classical example of religion as the ‘opium of the people’: Be happy that you are having such a hard time now because there is a wonderful future waiting for you in the next world. It was the message that Karl Marx mocked the capitalist-ruled churches of preaching to the exploited ‘proletariat’.
And the second part is not likely to go down well in our contemporary developed world. “”Woe to you who are rich [he can't be serious!], you have received your comfort already.” “Woe to you who are full, because you will be hungry; woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep; woe to you who are spoken well of. That is how they treated the false prophets.”
How are we to understand these sayings which turn our common worldview upside down? I think they have to be seen in the light of the Kingdom, in the kind of society that Jesus came to set up, a society based on mutual love and sharing and support. A Kingdom for this world and not just the next. The coming of such a society could only be good news for the poor and destitute (material and otherwise), for those suffering from hunger (physical and otherwise), for those depressed by deep sorrow and for those abused and rejected for their commitment to Jesus and his Way.
On the other hand it would not be good news for those self-focused people who amass material wealth at the expense of others, who indulge in excessive consumption of the world’s goods, who live lives centred on personal hedonism and pleasure, and who feed off the envy and adulation of those around them. There is really no place for such people in the Kingdom. To enter fully into the Kingdom they have to unload all these concerns and obsessions and let go. Instead of focusing on what they can get; they will focus on what they can share of what they have.
A clear example is of the rich young man in the Gospel. How rich he was – and yet how sad he was! Compare him with Zacchaeus, whom we will be meeting later on.