This week’s gospel reading continues the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. Our reading begins with a strong adversative, the Greek word, “alla,” meaning “but rather.” As always, it’s the smallest words that offer the biggest interpretative challenges. “But rather” what? The conversation would be quite different if the connecting word were, for example, “therefore.” It is not. Our text steers us in a different direction.
Does the Lukan author want to continue leading us in the direction of a common life (and common humanity) rather than the binary interpretation that the blessings and woes seem to invite on their own? I think that’s the case. By themselves, the blessings and woes in the previous verses could easily be read as “either/or” propositions – either poor or rich, hungry or full, weeping or laughing, persecuted or praised. I am tempted by that possibility far too often.
Instead – but rather – the Lukan author seems to say, let’s get beneath these superficial binaries to something deeper. I think, as I noted last week, that the Lukan author is committed to a parallelism in discussing the social locations of the less privileged and the more privileged in the Lukan community. But I think this parallelism leads to different strategies of personal and structural resistance. And I think that resistance is directed to the larger system rather than towards one another.
Therefore, as I noted previously, I think the strategy commanded in Luke 6:27-31 is for those who do not have the power to resist in other, more subtle and covert ways. And the strategy commanded in Luke 6:32-36 is for those who have more power and privilege in the larger socioeconomic system.
The goal is the formation and sustaining of Christian community. We see a summary of that community in Acts 2:43-47. The first believers have all things in common, sell their goods and give the proceeds to the poor, worship and fellowship together. They eat with glad and generous hearts, honor God and benefit from the esteem of the larger culture. This strategy rooted in the Good News of Jesus causes the community to grow numerically and to extend the wholeness of the Gospel to more and more people.
Jesus finishes the blessings and woes. Then he shifts the discourse. “But rather,” he announces, “I am saying to you who continue to listen…” Sarah Henrich, in her workingpreacher.org commentary, notes a grammatical detail that matters at this point. “In 6:27 Jesus begins, ‘I declare to you who are listening,’” she notes. “One could emphasize the present participle and translate it as: ‘I declare to you who are still listening.’” What could that mean?
Perhaps Jesus is aware (at least in the Lukan author’s reconstruction) that his blessings may have distracted the marginalized among his listeners. And the woes may have alienated the more privileged among his listeners.
I can tell, as a preacher, when I have said something that leads many in the congregation into daydreaming. And I can tell when I have said something that hurts or irritates some of my listeners. I’m usually pretty clear in advance that this may happen. I might build in a strategy to recover their attention before either the distracted or the disgruntled check out completely. I have been known to say in a sermon, “If you’re still listening at this point…”
That’s often enough of a challenge to get roving or resistant listeners to check back in to the message until the next time I derail or offend them. If this is part of the sense of sentence from the Lukan author, then perhaps the intent of the “but rather” is an acknowledgment in particular that the “woes” were anticipated to put some people off – particularly those powerful, privileged, positioned, and propertied people in the crowd on the plain and, by extension in the Lukan community. There was a danger that those folks would check out of the conversation permanently at that point unless they were wooed back in again.
This may seem to be a small point, but I think it’s worth pursuing. I am thinking about all the times when my own power, privilege, position, and property have been pointed out to me. I remember, in another lifetime, the first time my male privilege and misogyny were made clear to me. First, it was new information, so I simply didn’t understand. Of course, that defense last about three seconds, and then I knew what the issue was (at least a bit).
I know that I stopped listening at that point, and for quite a while after. I used the energy I should have devoted to listening and re-tasked that energy for self-defense and self-justification. My human brain has limited active processing capacity. If I’m spending it on making myself look good while under “attack,” then I won’t have anything left to hear what’s actually being said to me.
I know this is certainly the case for me when it comes to my white male privilege. But before I address that, there is for me the real matter that I hate to be told that I’m wrong. I intensely dislike being contradicted. I have a congenital lack of humility when it comes to my own views and opinions. Saying to someone, “You may be right,” does not come naturally to me. It only happens with practice, diligence, and calm.
The source of that resistance is not confidence or strength, at least not for me. It comes from the deep and clear sense that I have never been enough and will never be enough. Just because I know that’s not true doesn’t mean that sense has lost its power over me. In response to that constant threat to my ego, I build and maintain rigid realms of rightness that resist all contradictions. I’m often astounded that people put up with me.
Of course, then I remember many of us are like this and don’t even notice that it’s a flaw rather than a strength.
All that psychological confession aside, let’s get back to my lack of white listening. “The first duty of love,” wrote Paul Tillich, “is to listen.” We all know how quickly we can move in a conversation from deep listening to constructing our response to what we may or may not have heard. Often that response will be some form of self-defense rather than a request for further information. To love is first of all to listen.
The listening that matters is a deep and full and long listening, especially when we are asked to listen to testimonies that contradict our settled understanding and/or implicate us in a problem. Austin Channing Brown notes that such listening is not the same as “dialogue.” Dialogue, she argues, is the favored strategy of reasonable White churches to deal with racial tension.
But such dialogue is not helpful. “I am convinced,” she writes in I’m Still Here, that one of the reasons white churches favor dialogue is that the parameters of dialogue can be easily manipulated to benefit whiteness.” Such dialogues are often marked by tone policing which advises that people of color should nicer, kinder, more gracious, and less angry. “But we cannot negotiate our way to reconciliation,” Brown continues. “White people need to listen, to pause so that people of color can clearly articulate both the disappointment they’ve endured and what it would take for reparations to be made.”
“Too often,” Brown concludes, “dialogue functions as a stall tactic, allowing white people to believe they’ve done something heroic when the real work is yet to come” (pages 169-170).
Listening requires that people with power, privilege, position, and property sit and pay attention long enough and fully enough to begin to understand the hearts, minds, and lives of those who live without the four P’s. People with power will have no trouble getting a voice and a platform for their positions. There’s no need to make sure that the “dialogue” is “mutual.” Jesus starts with the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted. Let us do the same.
I find great reluctance in many American Christian congregations to do such listening, even at the most basic level. I know a congregation that was considering placing a large cellphone tower on their property in the midst of a working-class neighborhood. This was a congregation that wondered why the neighbors didn’t respond to their invitations to participate in the congregation’s life. Yet, in the process of deciding about the cellphone tower (an income-producing opportunity for the congregation), the congregation had no interest in consulting with the neighbors.
I say to you who are still listening, love cannot be selective in its listening. The congregation was, I suspect, fearful that the neighbors would oppose the project and thus interfere with the financial windfall available to the struggling congregation. Thus, they did not even take the risk of listening. I am not surprised that the neighbors express no interest in the life of the congregation.
Could it be that the Lukan author is urging the better-off folks in the congregation to listen to the lives of the marginalized in their midst? I think that is one of the subtexts of this gospel account and certainly built into the fabric of the Sermon on the Plain.
References and Resources
Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Butler, Octavia. https://legacy.npr.org/programs/specials/racism/010830.octaviabutleressay.html. A Scott Simon interview with Butler related to this essay can be found at https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1128335.
Carter, Warren. “Love your enemies.” Word and World 28.1 (2008): 13.
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