Where’s the Good News?
In many traditions this Sunday, someone will read, “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” The reader will then solemnly intone, “The gospel of the Lord.” And the perhaps somewhat dazed congregation will respond, “Praise to you, O Christ.” Gospel? Good news? Where might we find such news in this text, especially those of us who might be more on the “woe” end of the equation than the “blessed” end?
I’m not sure how to answer that question quite yet. However, we can perhaps continue to discern the intentions of the Lukan author in presenting the text in this way. Whether that will lead us to the Good News for the day remains to be seen. But at least we may have additional interpretive notions for interacting with the text.
I want to start with a couple of conjunctions. The reading begins with an additive or affirmative “and” (not conveyed in the NRSV) that connects the summary in 6:17-19 with the account of the call of the twelve apostles. The “blessings” in verses 20-23 are connected by another “and,” maintaining the continuity of the narrative.
Then things get adversative. Verse 24 begins with a conjunction that could be translated as “By contrast” or “However.” The poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted are dignified in the Kin(g)dom of God. However, the rich, full, laughing, and praised are warned of their potential impending doom.
The woes end with verse 26, and the next verse begins with another adversative. This conjunction can be translated as “in spite of” or “nevertheless.” Let’s notice, first of all, that the paragraph describing love of enemies is somehow in contrast to the previous listing of the woes and their outcomes.
This is one of the problems with dividing the Sermon on the Plain the way the Revised Common Lectionary does here. The Sermon is divided into two pericopes which depend upon one another for narrative and rhetorical flow.
It would have been far preferable, in my humble opinion, to have kept verses 20-31 together on one Sunday. Then more of the Sermon could have been read and interpreted on the succeeding Sunday(s). There’s more than enough text to accommodate that strategy. It’s probably too late to make that change in the reading and preaching for the upcoming Sunday. But I think it’s important for the preacher to take this interconnection into account.
In any event, there is something in vv. 27ff. that ties to the points being made in the blessings and woes. One of the differences between the Matthean Sermon on the Mount and the Lukan Sermon on the Plain is the much tighter literary structure of the Lukan version. The four beatitudes, for example, are matched and paralleled by the four woes. We might wonder if there is additional parallelism in the succeeding text.
I think there clearly is such parallelism. Let’s begin with a look at Luke 6:27-31 and 6:32-36. In vv. 27-31, we can imagine a person in a particular social location. This is someone who is sometimes subject to abuse. That abuse can take the physical form of a back-handed smack to the face. This is someone who may suffer the indignity of having a cloak commandeered or stolen. This is someone who suffers the expropriation or theft of their personal goods.
The prescribed response is to turn the other cheek, relinquish the undergarment as well, give to those who beg from you, and refrain from pursuing those who might hijack your stuff. “And just as you might want people to do to you, do likewise to them” (Luke 6:31, my translation).
This paragraph seems to be addressed to those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted.
The next paragraph has a quite different tone and focus. The imagined person is someone who can do good for others, a patron of some sort. This is someone who can lend to others with the expectation of receiving interest on the loan. The imagined person is someone who is fully engaged in the typical network of reciprocal favors that serves as the basis of social and economic relationships among the relatively well-off in the first-century world.
This second paragraph wraps up with a second injunction to love your enemies (the wording is identical in verses 27 and 35). But love for the enemy in the first paragraph means refraining from a violent response to violence suffered. Love for the enemy in the second paragraph means retreating from the system of reciprocal favors and being, instead, like “the Most High.” The imagined person is commanded to “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
It is certainly possible to interpret these paragraphs as addressed to the same person or people. But the substance of each paragraph is quite different. The parallelism is intended, I would argue, as a way to highlight contrasting responses to the same gospel imperative, depending on one’s social location and circumstances.
I think that Luke 6:37-38 is addressed to both social locations, highlighting what they have in common across their obvious differences in position and power. Refrain from judging one another, the Lukan author appears to say. Engage in mutual giving and forgiving. The outcome will be an abundance of good stuff (whatever that is in this context) for you all. The pronouns here are plural, as they are throughout.
Then the narrative offers another set of parallels. In Luke 6:39-42, we get a parable about hypocrisy. I argue that this is directed to the poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted. They are sorely tempted to see themselves as superior to the woefully privileged. This self-serving vision blinds them to their own need for grace and mercy.
In Luke 6:43-45 we get a second parable. But this one is about production. We have the words “treasure” and “abundance” in this paragraph. Both of those words are connected to the heart and could be spiritualized away. But in the context of the whole narrative, it seems obvious to me that these words are directed to those in the community with more resources – fruit that can and should be shared from goodness for goodness.
Then we come to the closing and summary parable of the Sermon. The parable of the two foundations certainly presents a dichotomy. But it doesn’t appear to be a divergence between the poor and the privileged. Instead, all the members of the community, those who call Jesus “Lord, Lord,” are challenged to build the foundation of their life together – their “house” – on the rock of the Messiah. The way to build that house is by hearing and doing what Jesus commands.
Why did I go through all that analysis? I wonder if one of the major Lukan agendas is to work out the tension between relatively poor and relatively wealthy Christians in the Lukan community. The way to work that out is an ethic of mutual compassion rather that an ethic of mutual exchange or, worse yet, of the cultural hierarchy of honor and shame. Disciples live together not merely based on a coincidence of personal interest but as a community of personal and mutual dignity in Christ.
Back now to my initial question. What is the “good news” in the blessings and woes reading for this Sunday? There is no distinction made in verses 20-26 as to who is addressed. Everyone addressed is “you” (plural). The Lukan assembly is a mixed multitude where the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted dine at the same eucharistic table as the rich, the full, the laughing, and the praised. How can life together be managed in such a complicated social setting?
The first good news is that it can be managed, if we allow the power of Jesus to flow from his resurrected body into the gathered body we call the Church. In this time of painful polarity, that could be a powerful message to bring to a congregation. The ethical injunctions of the Sermon on the Plain are designed to bring Christians together in spite of human divisions, not to amplify and to exacerbate those divisions.
That coming together means renouncing revenge. It means trusting the Lord to provide. It means doing things for love rather than credit. It means that profit is not God. It means human enmity is temporary rather than eternal. It means that judging and condemnation are to be eschewed. Hypocrisy is to be rooted out. Humility is the common currency of community. Good trees shall bear good fruit.
The house (household) of God is to be founded on the solid rock of Jesus, not the shifting sands of human identity politics. That means hearing Jesus’ words and doing them, daily and consistently. And if Jesus commands it, Jesus also empowers it.
I’m not sure I’m persuaded by all this. But it gives me something to consider.
References and Resources
Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
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.
Harvey, Jennifer. Dear White Christians (Prophetic Christianity Series (PC). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.
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