Text Study for Luke 6:17-26 (Part Two)

Warning!

How shall we “play” the blessings and woes that lead off the Sermon on the Plain? The easiest way to read these little poems is to pronounce them as blessings on the “good people” and curses on the “bad people.” Thus, the rich, full, laughing, and praised are singled out for condemnation. Since we human beings can always find someone else better off than we are, the rich, full, laughing, and praised can always be identified as those other people, the ones who have more than I do.

But that’s an odd reading in a sermon which, just a few sentences later, urges the listeners not to judge so that we ourselves will not be judged. Perhaps we need to exercise a bit more subtlety and patience in our interpretation of the text.

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I would recommend the current episode of the “Sermon Brainwave” podcast for your reflection. Rolf Jacobson notes that “woes” are not the same as “curses,” at least in linguistic terms. If you want to hear real blessings and curses, he suggests, you’d be better served to reflect on the first reading for this Sunday from Jeremiah 17:5-10. In those verses we get the real Hebrew words for “cursed” and “blessed.”

Moreover, curses are accomplished facts from which there is no return. Curses are pronounced on people as declarations and descriptions. If that’s what is happening in the Sermon on the Plain, there’s not much hope for the rich, full, laughing, and praised.

Richard Swanson talks about the nature of these “woes” as the Lukan author reports them. “Here the strong economic edge would make any interpreter who actually had to take them seriously a little nervous,” Swanson writes. “If woe is pronounced on the rich, any interpreter hoping to curry favor with her audience will have to find a way to reassure her audience that the ‘rich’ in this passage live somewhere else and live some other way” (page 104).

Of course, the rich, full, laughing, and praised that Jesus addresses in the Sermon are not somewhere else and living some other way. They are right in front of him, addressed with clear second-person plural pronouns and verbs. Jesus is not talking about someone else, somewhere else. As we listen, we will likely realize (we white, North American, English-speaking Christians) that we, too, are among the rich, full, laughing, and praised people toward which the woes are directed.

“If you listen to the reaction of people to the economic bite of these woes,” Swanson writes, “you will notice that speaking these words simply and straightforwardly in any worship gathering will get you accused of being a disloyal leftist who is engaging in class warfare, typical of those who don’t support the real America” (page 105). Yes, I think that’s an accurate assessment.

Jacobson argues that these woes are not curses. Instead, they are warnings in the shape of laments. A curse is an accomplished reality. We only have to wait for the hammer to drop. A warning is given when there is, at least in theory, the possibility of a change in course or an alteration of behavior. We who are rich, full, laughing, and praised now still have the opportunity to get on board with the healing and wholeness the coming Kin(g)dom offers to a sick and broken cosmos.

I think a preacher might take the opportunity to pull a story from later in the Lukan account to illustrate what’s going on here. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-13) won’t show up in the lectionary until some four months after Pentecost, so there’s no harm in bringing it up now as an illustration. This reminds listeners of the unity of the gospel as a whole story. And it will set up the possibility of reminding listeners later that the Lukan author spends a lot of time working out the implications and applications of this sermon as we go along.

The rich man, after his death, is an example of one who is now cursed. He had his good things in life. He had received his “consolation” in his earthly life. In death he can see his error, but there is nothing to be done. A great chasm now exists between him and Life, and no one can cross it. He did not heed the warnings he received when alive. Nor will his brothers, since they also have access to the same warnings.

What are those “warnings”? In fact, the clearest warning of the rich man’s dire situation lay at his gate day in and day out. What further evidence would the rich man need that the status quo was terribly wrong? In Moses and the prophets, he could read about God’s intentions with the Jubilee Year (in Leviticus). He could read the warnings in Isaiah to those who connected farm to farm and house to house and were not concerned about the ruin of God’s people. He was awash in warnings to change and chose to ignore the plain evidence before him.

I think it is responsible to the text to “play” the woes as warnings to the rich, full, laughing, and praised. Thus, I would “play” the woes as warnings to us who are privileged, powerful, positioned, and propertied. The warnings are not just the words on the page. The poor, the hungry, the miserable, and the persecuted live among us as warnings that the unjust status quo cannot and should not last.

This line of thinking reminds me of the moment of realization Charles Dickens allows for Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Is this vision, whether for Scrooge or in the Sermon, a vision of things that must be or of things that may be? Is this a set of curses or warnings? In the course of human affairs, one might be able, Scrooge says, to make the necessary changes to set things right. If that is not possible, he continues, then why bother with the warnings at all?

The woes are warnings and therefore invitations to repentance. It is possible for even the hardest human heart to be changed – to love one’s enemies, to share one’s goods, to be merciful as our Father is merciful.

Heeding the warnings requires a clear and honest look at our situations as the rich, full, laughing, and praised. That’s much easier said than done. We can refer back to the Rich Man and Lazarus. How many times did the rich man simply step over that poor wretch at his gate without even noticing the need? How easy can it be to take our privilege for granted and to become habitually blind to the human dramas in the world around us? It is very easy indeed. Ignore the warnings long enough, and woes become curses.

It’s one thing to make personal changes in priorities and practices that lead to a more just and equitable way of living. That is certainly a part of the way of discipleship, especially in the Lukan account. But this cannot be a purely individual affair. At the very least, all the pronouns in this section are plural, and all the verbs are addressed to “you all” rather than merely to “you.” The communal and, dare we say, systemic nature of the woes can be hidden in the imprecision of English grammar, but it is starkly visible in the Greek.

I have just read an online article by Bob Smietana from the Religion News Service entitled “Woke War: How social justice and CRT became heresy for evangelicals.” If you don’t know the day-in and day-out excellent work Smietana produces, I would encourage you to follow him on whatever platform you might prefer.

He notes that one of the current ideological battle lines in the Evangelical Christian world (in the United States) is the fight to sustain the dichotomy between personal faith and social action. He quotes evangelical influencer, Owen Strachan, who declares that Christians can follow Jesus or be “woke” on issues of racism. But, Strachan says, they can’t be both. Social justice warfare, according to Strachan and his ilk, is the latest and greatest Christian heresy of which liberal and progressive Christians are guilty.

I’m an ELCA Lutheran and hardly likely to take seriously Strachan’s pronouncements. But much as the South won the ideological Civil War in the United States, evangelicalism has won the popular theological war in the hearts of many, many American Christians, regardless of denominational label or heritage. So, a progressive/liberal preacher, such as I am, has to take these arguments seriously, since they come in the doors of our congregations every Sunday.

“In an interview with Religion News Service, Strachan explained further that wokeness undermines the unity of churches by emphasizing racial and ethnic differences,” Smietana reports. “The gospel, [Strachan] said, erases such distinctions, while wokeness pits people against each other.” If that is the case, then Jesus is engaged in the Sermon on the Plain in such “pitting people against each other.” Naughty Jesus!

Individual repentance and social justice work are not diametrically opposed in the gospels. That should be clear from the Sermon on the Plain. Instead, they are two sides of the same coin. Smietana also quoted Professor Anthea Butler (author of the book, White Evangelical Racism) in the article, who gives an excellent explanation of what is going on. “On the one hand, evangelicals wanted souls to be saved,” Butler writes in her book. “On the other, they wanted everyone to stay in their places.”

That desire to have things both ways is not consistent with what we read in the Sermon on the Plain. We who are rich, full, laughing, and praised – we can make constructive changes, or we can sustain a status quo that will be the death of us. The good news is that the power for healing and wholeness flows out of Jesus and into us, if we are willing.

But what about those “blessings”?

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.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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Text Study for Luke 6:17-26 (Part One)

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).

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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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