Finding the Thread
I read the Lukan account with an inclusio that begins at Jesus’ baptism (3:21) and ends with the Transfiguration (9:36). This is the announcement and description of Jesus’ mission according to the Lukan author. The overall account begins with the prologue and then the birth narrative. After the Mission account, the Lukan author moves on to the road to Jerusalem, a narrative that takes us all the way up to the Lukan passion account, beginning in Luke 19:28. The Lukan epilogue begins at 24:13 and takes us to the end of the story (until we pick it up in Acts).
The Epiphany readings pick up that inclusio structure, especially as it relates to the Lukan account. This year we get the fullness of this Lukan section in Epiphany since we get nearly the complete schedule of Sundays. The Mission account gets launched in Jesus’ Nazareth sermon in Luke 4, and the events of this account return to that message repeatedly and in concentric circles. The texts ask us each week, “What does it look like to follow the real Son of God?” (as opposed, for example, to the Emperor who claims to be a son of a god).
We follow the One who commands the demons, even though they shout to Jesus, “You are the Son of God!” (4:41). They do so, of course, in order to control him, not to follow him. We follow the One who heals the sick in droves and who proclaims the coming Jubilee Year in the synagogues of Judea. (4:44). This One calls us to follow him and catch people rather than fish. This One even calls the likes of tax collectors to become followers. He calls not the righteous but sinners (5:32). And this One is doing something new. Old cloth and old wineskins cannot accommodate the new contents.
We follow the One who is in constant prayer with God. He calls twelve to be apostles, “sent ones.” And a motley crew they are – including Judas, the one who became the betrayer (6:16). This review of the context brings us to the text for this Sunday. We get the opening words of what has historically been called “The Sermon on the Plain,” in distinction from Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount.” The two sermons have many similarities, but the differences are instructive as well.
We can be better gospel readers if we pay attention to the authorial summaries and transitions in each of the four gospels. It is in these summaries and transitions that we can hear most clearly the authorial voice as narrator. That is especially the case in the Lukan account. We have one of those authorial summaries in Luke 6:17-19. This summary serves as a bridge from the apostolic call to the Sermon on the Plain and contains clues about the framing of that sermon.
One could easily read the “blessings” and “woes” in Luke 6:22-26 as a set of binaries: poor/rich, hungry/full, weeping now/laughing now, persecuted/praised. Those pairs are certainly in the text. But I am often tempted to read these binaries as judgmental and exclusionary. The poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted are on the right side of Kin(g)dom. The rich, full, laughing, and praised are on the wrong side of the Kin(g)dom. But I think that framing is a mistaken view of the text and the Sermon.
In the summary, the Lukan author emphasizes the large crowd, not only of disciples, but of people from all over. They all came to be healed and exorcised. All in the crowd reached out to touch him and access his power to make people whole. That power was not limited in application. Instead, the power came out of him and healed all of them. In the summary, the emphasis is on including all the people, not just a select group of the worthy or deserving. We need to hang on to that thought.
Notice, as well, that this isn’t a “sermon and soup” system at work here. The crowds aren’t required to sit and listen to Jesus talk in order to qualify for healing and exorcism. That work of ministry comes first, free of charge. The fact that Jesus doesn’t charge for or benefit from his healing ministry is one of the things that sets him apart from other folk healers in his setting. Instead, the Sermon is a commentary on the work of healing and wholeness all the people have witnessed.
So, the summary focuses on the inclusive nature of the Kin(g)dom. In the text for next Sunday, we see additional language about loving enemies, blessing those who curse us, engaging in reconciliation, using the tools of peaceful resistance – being merciful as our Father is merciful. Once again, the context strongly suggests that the blessings and woes are not intended to set up dyads of the included and excluded.
The Lukan author makes clear that this teaching on the Level Place (the literal translation in 6:17) is for his disciples. But that category is not limited to the Twelve. Jesus began calling disciples, in the Lukan account, in chapter 5. Here in chapter 6 the select ones are called “apostles” and are set apart by the application of that title. So, the teaching is for any and all disciples. It is up to us as hearers and readers to determine if we are part of the group addressed by this teaching.
In the chapters leading up to our text, Jesus has been in Galilee, although the Lukan author is noticeably vague about that geography at this point. That being said, the crowd includes people from all of Judea and from as far away as Tyre and Sidon, far to the northwest. As is typical in the Lukan account, the gospel is for people from all nations and is not limited to Jewish audiences. Diane Chen notes that no one is turned away and everyone is healed (age 93).
It may be that the Lukan author wants us to think about Isaiah 40:4 where the rough and high places are made into a level plain. Or it may be that the Lukan author wants us to think about Moses and Sinai, but in a different light. “Thus, while Matthew presents a parallelism between Jesus speaking on the mountain and God speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai,” Gonzalez writes, “Luke’s parallelism is with Moses coming down from the mountain and speaking to the people, a parallelism that immediately reminds us of the disobedience of the people, and places the sermon in a much harsher light” (Kindle Location 1749). We will keep that in mind as we think about how to play the scenes that make up the sermon.
” An important part of the gospel message is that Jesus has defeated the powers of evil,” Justo Gonzalez writes, “and that in the end his victory will become apparent to all of creation” Kindle Location 1401). He notes that the miracles in the Synoptics are “not an interruption of an order, but rather the irruption of the true order—the order of the creator God—into the demonic disorder of the present world” (Kindle Location 1613). Miracles demonstrate and announce God’s victory over the powers of evil. They are signs that a new order is at hand, the order Jesus described as the Jubilee Year in his Nazareth sermon. Miracles, he concludes, “embody and are part of the good news!” (Kindle Location 1613).
We are reminded here, as in other gospel stories, that Jesus’ body was a source and conduit of healing power. “And all the crowd was trying to touch him, because power went out from him and healed all [of them]” (Luke 6:19, my translation). Power comes through Jesus and out from him throughout the Lukan account. We see this in Luke 8:46 when Jesus notices that power has gone out from him. In fact, we end the gospel account with Jesus telling his disciples to wait in the city for power from on high to come from Jesus to them (Luke 24:49).
That being said, Jesus’ power is always applied in the Lukan account to bring about healing and wholeness not only for the individual but for the community and Creation. Following the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus quickly resumes his healing ministry in the towns and villages of Galilee. The first beneficiary of this ministry is a (Roman) centurion, a “God-fearing” synagogue supporter, whose slave was at the point of death. The outcome of that event is that the faith of Gentile is commended beyond anything Jesus has found in Israel.
Preaching this Sunday’s text will rightly focus on the blessings and woes. As we do that, however, let’s take advantage of the clues in the narrative that lead us to shape that reflection faithfully and in the spirit of the text itself.
References and Resources
Chen, Diane G. Luke: A New Covenant Commentary. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
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