Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
February 17, 2018
Commentary on the Texts
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
There is no Lectionary Commentary for this reading,
but there is available a
Setting of the Sermon on the Plain
This passage is the introduction to a new major section of the book of Luke (6:17-9:50; See Commentary for Luke 5:1-11). While previous passages have dealt with the early ministries of John the Baptizer and Jesus, and have only referred to the teachings of Jesus, here for the first time the actual content of his teaching to the crowds is presented. Also, for the first time teachings are addressed directly to Jesus' disciples.
There has been a steady progression within Luke from a focus on God's work in the world in Jesus (the infancy narratives, chs. 1-2), to the preparation for Jesus' ministry by John the Baptizer (3:1-20), to Jesus himself and his own preparation for ministry (3:21-4:13). Then Luke begins to highlight how Jesus and his teachings were received, beginning with the hometown folks in Nazareth (4:14-30) and concluding with the choosing of the twelve, who were among those who responded by leaving everything to follow him (6:12-16). In this section, Luke begins expanding that dimension of response by focusing on Jesus' teaching related to the "ethics of the Kingdom," the responsibilities and consequences of being disciples. Luke continues this focus on discipleship until the journey toward Jerusalem begins (9:51), where it takes on a slightly different tone.
Today's passage is part of Luke's compilation of Jesus' sayings in which, much as Matthew has done, he collects together sayings of Jesus and arranges them in a "sermon" (for convenience, I will use the term sermon recognizing that this is a collection of sayings arranged by Luke). As we have been doing throughout our study of Luke, it is helpful to compare Luke with the parallel passages in Matthew to help understand Luke's concerns here (there are no parallels in Mark or John, although some of the same sayings are found scattered throughout the books).
While questions about origin, sources, and redaction of the text are certainly valid and interesting, it will probably be sufficient here simply to acknowledge the fact that Luke and Matthew differ in how they have constructed these sermons. For example, whether Luke or Matthew was original and the other adapted it, or whether both adapted the material from a common collection of sayings (the posited "Q" source or document) is probably not as important for understanding Luke's message as simply focusing on the differences themselves (see The Synoptic Problem).
That Matthew and Luke are recognized as different at this point can be seen even in the names usually given to the two sermons: Matthew's collection is known as the "Sermon on the Mount" (Mt. 5:1-7:27), while Luke's is known as the "Sermon on the Plain" (Lk. 6:17-49). That simply reflects the fact that the physical settings for the two collections of sayings are different. -1-
The physical settings likely have to do with the individual writers' emphasis, and how they use different metaphors and features to communicate that emphasis. The book of Matthew was closely connected with Jewish elements in the early church, so he presented Jesus in the imagery of Moses. As Moses had once brought the torah from a mountain (Sinai), so Jesus now brought the new authoritative torah ("it has been said . . .but I say") from a mountain. The theological purpose of the geographical setting was to establish the authority of Jesus as a lawgiver in the tradition of Moses.
For Luke, the geography serves a different theological role here. The mountain was the place of piety and worship, the place Jesus retreated to pray (6:12) and the place where God was encountered (9:28). For Jesus to be on the mountain to pray, and then return to "a level place" was a way to anchor his actions in communion with God, yet to identify him with crowds on the level of ordinary, everyday human existence. The issue for Luke was not authority, but the outworking of the implications of the Kingdom in everyday life. Prayer and piety are crucial to provide a basis in God's presence for Jesus work, but the message of the Kingdom and the arena for Jesus' work is the "level place" where the crowds are milling. That is a central element in Luke's Gospel.
The crowd itself is interesting. Luke presents it as a mixed group of people with different reasons for being there. There was "a great crowd of his disciples." Since this immediately follows the choosing of the Twelve (6:12-16) they are no doubt included in this number, but the focus here is not specifically on the Twelve. There are also "a great multitude of people" from Judea and Jerusalem to the south as well as from the Phoenician territory (Tyre and Sidon) to the northwest. Clearly this tells us that Jews from all over the area were there.
However, there is some ambiguity in the reference to people from Tyre and Sidon. Since this area borders Galilee on the west, the people from this area could have been Jews, and some scholars interpret "people" of verse 18 to mean the "people of God," that is, Jews. However, it seems much more likely that Luke intends to refer to Gentiles by placing "Tyre and Sidon" with "Judea and Jerusalem." In the only other pairing of the Phoenician towns in Luke (10:13-14), they are contrasted with Chorazin and Bethsaida, two Jewish towns just north of the Sea of Galilee. In that passage Luke draws the contrast between the Jewish towns that failed to respond to Jesus even though he had done "deeds of power" there, and Tyre and Sidon that would have gratefully responded to such actions had they had the chance.
Luke has already mentioned Sidon in an illustration that only makes sense if it is considered outside Israel and inhabited by non-Jews (4:25-26). Both Matthew and Mark make references to Tyre and Sidon in reference to Jesus' work among Gentiles (Mt. 15:21-22, a Canaanite woman; Mk. 7:25-30, a Greek Syrophoenician woman), which suggests those areas were synonymous with Gentiles. All this seems to indicate that Luke intends in this passage to describe a mixed group of people, Jews and Gentiles, as he also refers to Jews from various places, disciples and crowds, and those who came for healing and those who came to listen to Jesus' teachings.
This means that there are three identifiable groups of people in the crowds. While we should be careful not to take this into allegory, there does seem to be some intention on Luke's part to distinguish the groups. First, there are the just-chosen group of Twelve disciples who would carry on the ministry of Jesus. Much of what unfolds in the next chapters will revolve around these twelve. Next, there are the larger crowds of disciples who are followers of Jesus, who have responded to his ministry, but who have not received a special call from Jesus. And then there are the others, both Jews and Gentiles, who are there for various reasons but who have not yet become disciples. It is this mixed group that provides the setting for the "sermon."
Luke is again careful, as he has before, to emphasize Jesus' actions in connection with his words (see Commentary for Luke 5:1-11, the section on miracles and Jesus' teaching), and so he places the sermon in the context of reports about healing (v. 19). It is part of the central message of Luke that the proclamation of the word of God must also be accompanied by faithful response worked out in real life. For Jesus, as well as for the apostles in Acts, his words of teaching were affirmed by his deeds (vv. 18-19); the actions gave authority to the words. And for those who would follow him, hearing alone would not be enough. This connection between hearing the words and acting on them will become the climax of this entire sermon in Luke (6:46-49).
The Blessings and Curses
The portion of this sermon included in this Sunday's reading are the blessings and woes Jesus pronounced to the crowd. While Matthew's Beatitudes give us only nine blessings, Luke has carefully paired four blessings with four woes or curses, even to using the same words in corresponding pairs. Luke draws the contrast in the pairs between groups of people: (1) poor-rich, (2) hungry-full, (3) those who weep-those who laugh, and (4) those who are hated-those of whom people speak well.
In addition to simply pairing the blessings and curses and thus contrasting the groups, Luke also reverses the groups of people within each saying, so that, for example, in the blessing the hungry will be filled, while in the corresponding woe those who are filled will become hungry. This serves to highlight not only the positive reversal that is a blessing for one group, as Matthew does, but also the corresponding negative outcome on the opposite group.
We have already noted that the idea of a reversal of fortune is an important theme for Luke (see the Commentary for Luke 1:39-55, the section on reversal of fortunes in the Magnificat). That is, Luke uses this Old Testament idea as a way to proclaim and define the new future that Jesus is bringing into the world. Here, he is again using that motif to continue explaining the nature of discipleship.
There is no way to know for certain whether Luke was using the similar sequence of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy as a model for these (28:3-6, 16-19), but the similarity seems more than coincidence. While there are certainly differences between them, it seems fair to ask what the similarities might reveal about Luke's focus.
The context in Deuteronomy is a covenant ceremony in which the people are called to faithfulness in obeying the torah, the instructions of God that shaped and gave identity to the people. The promise there to those who faithfully obey God will be that "God will set you above all the nations of the earth." While in the historical context of the OT those blessings are translated into physical security, there is still the dimension of "mission" as the people of God (28:9):
The LORD will establish you as a people holy to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the LORD your God, and walk in his ways. And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD; and they shall be afraid of you.
Likewise, the curses warn that failure to obey God's instructions will lead to "disaster, panic, and frustration in everything you attempt to do" (28:20). The emphasis is clearly on the responsibility of the people to follow God and his instructions faithfully as the only way to fulfill who they are as God's people. It is this dimension of a strong call to faithfulness that echoes in Jesus' words and in Luke's pairing of the blessings and woes here.
And yet, in Deuteronomy the blessings and woes are dependent on how the people would respond. That is, the people themselves would bring on either blessings or curses by how they lived. Here in Luke, they are simply pronounced by Jesus on groups of people depending on their physical condition not on their behavior. Unless we assume absolutely no connection to the OT ideas, which is unlikely given Luke's heavy use of the OT to this point, this echo of a call to responsibility and yet an emphasis on the physical condition of the people introduces a tension into the text. If the people of God in the OT were to be blessed based on obedience, what is the significance of Jesus pronouncing blessings on the people now simply because they are poor, or hungry, or weeping, or hated? The answer to this is not immediately obvious, but raises the possibility that there is a direct connection with being poor and being a follower of Jesus.
It is easily observable that Matthew's version of the blessings are much more "spiritual" than Luke's. Where Matthew speaks of "poor in spirit" (5:3), Luke has simply "poor" (v. 20); where Matthew says "hunger and thirst for righteousness" (5:6), Luke clearly means simply those "who are hungry" in a physical sense (v. 21). It has usually been assumed that this reflects Luke's social agenda, that he is presenting a Gospel for the poor and oppressed. There is certainly this dimension in Luke, a concern for the powerless and outcast of society. And since there is little question that Luke is talking about real physical needs here, we dare not spiritualize away those physical needs. We must take seriously the fact that this is real poverty, real hunger, real weeping, and real hatred.
Yet, at this point in Luke, this is not really a social agenda here. In fact, a closer examination will reveal that Matthew and Luke are not as far apart as they appear at this point (which also might warn us of reading too much of our agenda into Luke). The sayings are in the context of discipleship, which Luke has been emphasizing in various ways since Jesus' visit to Nazareth. He will continue dealing with the nature of discipleship through the conclusion of the Galilean ministry (ch. 9), and then set the tone for the journey to Jerusalem by opening that trip with a discussion of discipleship and the sending of the seventy (9:51ff). The sayings are also in the context of the nature of the Kingdom, another motif established early in the book with the Magnificat, Benedictus, and Nunc Dimittis, and developed in the Nazareth narrative.
As in Matthew, in Luke Jesus begins by directing the blessings at general groups ("the poor," "the hungry") and then concludes the sequence with second person references ("you") that relate to persecution or rejection. Also, both specifically identify the "you" at the very beginning of the sermon as "his disciples" (v. 20; Mt 5:1). That does not necessarily mean that Jesus is addressing only disciples in the crowd. But it does indicate that what he is going to say has reference to disciples. This suggests that in both Matthew and Luke the blessings have special meaning for disciples, or those who would become disciples. This again hints that the two Gospels may be closer together here than we often think.
This puts some restrictions on how widely we can define the groups in the blessings and woes. They are not just any poor anywhere, or any hungry, or any who weep, or anyone who is hated. And by contrast, it is not all rich, or all who are full, who are being referenced. The context here makes it clear that there is some connection between being disciples and the blessings and curses, that the "poor" are directly related to those who are hated "on account of the Son of Man" (v.22).
The time references in the sequence of sayings are also of interest. There is an intriguing blending of present and future. This is especially highlighted in the second and third pair with the repeated "now" followed by a future condition; there is a condition "now" that "will be" changed into the opposite. This clearly gives these sayings an eschatological dimension; there will come a time when the inequities of the present will be resolved. This dimension is reinforced in the fourth blessing by the reference to "that day" (v. 23), a common way of referring to a future act of God (see The Day of the Lord).
And yet, in the first pair, the emphasis is decidedly on the present. The poor already have the kingdom, and the rich already have their consolation. This term has been used once before in Luke, to describe the hope for which the old man Simeon was looking, and which he saw in the infant Jesus (2:25). The implication is that the "consolation" that the rich already have in their riches and security may cause them to miss the consolation of Israel manifest in the Kingdom that Jesus is bringing, and which is available to the poor (v. 20) in ways that it is not available to the rich.
The final sequence of blessing/woe moves to Luke's overriding concern here. That this is close to Matthew in general content and tone, and that the teachings which follow also go a similar direction as Matthew, suggests that both reflect Jesus' own emphasis, even as it has been adapted somewhat differently into the Lukan and Matthean communities.
The theme of the last blessing is clearly rejection "on account of the Son of Man" (v. 22); that is, rejection because of following Jesus, because of becoming a disciple. One cannot read this without thinking of Jesus' own experience of rejection by the home town folks at Nazareth that has set the tone for his ministry. The very ones who should have most readily accepted him, drove him away. For Luke, as well as for the other Gospel writers in different ways, following Jesus, following the path of discipleship, is costly and will often result in personal loss and suffering.
Luke draws the contrast sharply between the present condition of rejection, that also encompasses being poor and hungry and weeping, and the fact of the present possession of the kingdom and the future reversal to joy (v. 23). It is a statement of faith that external criteria or appearances are no measure of possession of the Kingdom. In fact, there is some indication that the opposite of external appearances is closer to the truth. This should not be taken as glorification of poverty or suffering. That would be just as much an excessive overreaction as those in the early church who were so zealous to "take up your cross and follow" Jesus that they sought martyrdom as a sign of obedience. Poverty, hunger, weeping, and hatred are not something to seek. But they are far more fertile ground for receiving the kingdom. And they are a likely result of following Jesus.
This point is underscored in the references to the prophets in both parts of this last pair of sayings. Faithful prophets of God, especially Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, were ridiculed for their message, especially by other prophets like Hananiah (Jer. 28:1-17). Yet history confirmed that their message was God's message. And Micah gave a strong warning against prophets who feared to speak the truth and became too comfortable with kind words and the approval of the people (Mic. 2:6-11).
Again, the background of Jesus' visit to Nazareth becomes more clear. Jesus introduced a prophetic theme there (4:24) that caused an immediate reaction from the people. While the disciples are not called "prophets" here, and are assigned no prophetic role, Luke seems to be drawing an analogy between the OT prophets who spoke the truth, and the disciples who will live the truth (as outlined in vv. 26-49). The point is that truth, in whatever form it is presented, is not welcome in a world that is governed by self-interest, and whose values are decided by the rich and satisfied who have need of nothing. There is a subversive element to the truth, and the only recourse people have is to silence it by hatred, exclusion, vilification, and defamation. And yet those "poor" who are rejected are the heart of the kingdom of God, because they join the poor of the world who have no other future except God's future.
The directions for preaching here are not as clearly indicated as in some other passages, simply because the nature of this text does not lend itself to straightforward and easily defined application. It would be too easy to call people to identify with one of the groups in the story when they really should be identifying with another. Also, the idea of a reversal of fortune, where external appearances are no indicator of true status in the Kingdom, is so alien to our cultural attitudes of success as the measure of truth that people might find it hard to hear the text as applicable to them. Or perhaps there would be the reverse problem, in which people would be so eager to empathize with "those poor people" that they cannot see themselves as those who are poor, or should be. Or it may even be that some would react with self-righteousness, assuming that they are the blessed ones and that the curses are only for others.
This suggests a much more deliberate and creative approach in preaching from this text, one that arises more directly from the context in which the message is to be given. So the suggestions here are more generally directed to the impact of the text, with the preaching paths left largely unmarked.
In light of the fourth and climactic pair of blessings/woes, the real emphasis of these verses falls on what it means to be a disciple, both in terms of the present reality of life, but also in terms of the larger spiritual reality of the Kingdom, present and future. That is, the poor, hungry, and those who weep are in a better position to receive and respond to the Kingdom than those who have security in riches, a stable environment, and personal well being. It is out of physical want that people are really open to the Kingdom. They are in a position to be open to spiritual matters because they are not hindered by material prosperity or self-sufficiency. They are "blessed" because they are the ones "looking for the consolation of Israel," that is, looking beyond themselves, while those in the woes have already received their consolation (v. 24) and so have no need for the Kingdom.
This might suggest an area of focus for ministry among people who are actually looking for something to give their lives direction and hope. An invitation to the Kingdom is an invitation to a new future, and the poor and hungry and hurting are ready to hear it.
The focus then falls on the last blessing which portrays the result and cost of discipleship, with the reminder that "true" prophets of God (as opposed to "false prophets," v. 26), have always paid a price for faithfulness and integrity. In the context of Luke-Acts, the application to disciples, faithful followers of Jesus and the price they face for being followers, seems obvious. Most people will not eagerly embrace the cost of discipleship, especially in a religious atmosphere in which prosperity is often touted as the mark of true believers. And yet it is one of the most consistent of Jesus' teachings about following him
The thrust of the passage, then, as a teaching to the mixed crowd, to the three groups of the Twelve, the larger group of disciples, and those Jews and Gentiles who are not yet disciples, is a definition of the Kingdom of God. Luke presents it in terms of a contrast between outward appearances defined by social or economic status that are finally insufficient, and the reality of membership in the Kingdom that cannot be defined by such external criteria. He will go on in the rest of the sermon to outline the marks of the Kingdom in concrete realities of life, with hints of the risk and vulnerability of doing so (vv. 27-31).
The reversal of fortune motif from the Magnificat, as well as the "today" proclamation of Jesus in Nazareth, combined with Luke's accentuation here of physical need, serves to underscore his emphasis on the practical outworking of being a disciple. He has already noted that the fishermen, as well as Levi, left everything to follow Jesus. He will note later that discipleship involves leaving even family, connected directly with the idea of personal cost (14:26-27):
If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
All this points to the real-life realities of following Jesus, which perhaps takes on even more significance in the present context of crowds who are coming to Jesus just to touch his garments to receive the "power" (v. 19). Also the blending of an eschatological emphasis (in that day," v. 23) with a clearly this-worldly perspective serves to relate discipleship with the reality of life, and yet more strongly affirm that the reality of life is not all there is to the matter.
To emphasize this aspect it might be helpful to refer to some of the examples in the following verses of exactly how this would work out in life: dealing with enemies, sharing possessions, loving the unlovable, being non-judgmental and forgiving, living by the "golden rule" (vv. 27-38).
There is also some sense that becoming a follower of Jesus will not really address those physical needs, and in fact may make them worse because of rejection. But it is the only way to accept the Kingdom. This is likely the impact of the story of the rich young ruler later in Luke (18:18-30; "he was very rich," a phrasing unique to Luke); unless he gives away his riches, he cannot become part of the Kingdom.
In the end, the blessings cannot be sought as ends in themselves and do not come by effort. They are simply the way things are in the kingdom that has now come in Jesus. If we accept that as truth, what remains is only to live in that truth (v. 46) and let it transform us.
1. Of course, it is possible that Jesus repeated the same message twice on two different occasions, and each writer chose a different one to record. However, given the many other differences between the various Gospels, it seems much more likely that each writer is emphasizing different theological points for a particular community of faith that had particular needs. They are each shaping the Gospel tradition in their own way to address those needs. As we have observed before, that does not in any way falsify the tradition or render the biblical text any less authoritative (see The Synoptic Problem).
We affirm the work of the Holy Spirit in the entire community of faith (a dynamic model of inspiration; see Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture) and not just in certain individuals at certain times (a prophetic model of inspiration). It simply highlights the fact that the Gospel traditions were far more than static words on a page; they were the living witness to the revelation of God in Christ, and could be brought to bear as the living word of God in new and different circumstances in the community of Faith. In some sense, that is exactly what we do today in preaching, also affirming the work of the Holy Spirit as we study and proclaim.
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