The Four Beatitudes

Ordinary 6C

Luke 6: 17 to 26 (Part 1 of 3 readings: Luke 6: 17 45)

Introduction

Most of us who take a quick look at this reading would likely say "Oh that's Luke's version of "The Beatitudes" or Sermon on the Mount, and then turn to Matthew chapter 5. We are much more familiar and are more comfortable with Matthew's account. We are not too keen on what seems to us negative, extreme, warnings. This is not surprising as the passage is not common sermon material.

One of the good aspects of following a three-year lectionary of Gospel readings is that we cannot avoid the less popular texts. In our goal to offer meditation notes on all Sunday Gospels we are therefore now going to take a look at St Luke's account of the teaching of Jesus. Scholars are divided over whether it is simply a different recording by Luke of the same event. It could have been, and is easily explained geographically (see W.M. Christie, Palestine Calling — 1939 — page 35). However, there is no need to follow this common assumption, since we know our Lord often repeated his teachings to different groups, with appropriate variations.

If it is helpful to declare our bias, it is a preference for the latter explanation: that it is not just a different account of the same events, but a report of Jesus' teaching from another occasion.

Notes On Our Text

Preamble: The importance of our passage necessitates we recall that (as verses 12 and 13 tell us) Jesus had spent a whole night on the mountain in prayer to God. At daylight he called his disciples and from them chose twelve Apostles.

Note: The word "apostle" identifies each of the twelve as having a definite charge, clothed with authority, acting and speaking with the authority of the person who sent them. Peter is always named first as having seniority.

Verse 17

When it was time to move, Jesus began coming back down the mountain. At some relatively level point (half way down, or at the bottom; we don't really know) our Lord paused and a crowd gathered around him.

Verses 18 19

The Lord was quickly engaged in various acts of healing, for he was always deeply moved by the plight of the helpless. No matter how tired he was, he always responded selflessly to the needs of others.

Verse 20

Our Lord then turned "his gaze on his disciples". The wider circle of the interested crowd were able to hear. But Jesus at this point addressed specifically those who claimed to be his devoted followers, his disciples.

He begins by announcing "Blessed are you who are poor". He is not talking to those who make a point of labeling themselves as "the poor" or who draw attention to their chosen alternative life style. He is referring to those who are poor as a consequence of having chosen to follow our Lord's way in search of real life and real riches.

In our Lord's teaching, true happiness is to be found in heaven. The poor he is referring to have actually begun to experience this for theirs "IS the kingdom of God" — now.  Jesus therefore clearly rejects the traditional belief prevailing is his culture: that material well-being was a sign of God's blessing. It is interesting how wealth and success in society are again being constantly paraded in some religious organisations as rewards for the "righteous". The world's values are constantly impinging on the teaching of our Lord.

Note: Some translations put "happy" for "blessed". The scholars tell us it is not easy to translate. One commentator explains "blessed" as "How much you are to be envied…..", because such a person has made a difficult choice and is able to persevere in it.

Verse 21

Again Jesus pronounced as blessed those who, for the greater glory of God, hunger now and weep now.

The reference to "hunger" can mean suffering shortages of food, but is often seen to include spiritual hunger. The former is virtuous when undertaken for the sake of the Gospel and the service of humanity. We probably only recognise spiritual hunger in the more obvious cases; and probably least in ourselves. Yet it is a form a hunger, which must be satisfied if we are to grow spiritually.

Taking time to meditate on Christ's teaching will almost invariably help us to get our priorities right and lead ultimately to the blessedness Jesus is talking about here.

As far as "weeping" is concerned there are several angles we can come from to probe the meaning of our Lord's words.

  • We can mourn deeply in sorrow over our interior weaknesses and failings.

  • We can mourn deeply the insults and blasphemy we hear daily heaped on the most sacred name of our Lord Jesus Christ; knowing as we do how much he has suffered willingly for the whole of humanity.

  • We can weep with Christ at the dreadful suffering throughout the world, which afflicts so many people.

Those who mourn over these matters will in time, Jesus promises, know deep joy.

Verses 22 and 23

The next blessing is for the unfortunate victims of persecution whose reputation is endangered because a person will not deny Jesus Christ. They may be insulted publicly, but worse, they may be cut off from family, friends and even their society? "If you experience this" says Jesus, "blessed are you".

"And don't forget" adds the Lord, "that our great prophets and leaders down through the ages have all been treated like this in one way or another".

Verse 24

Then our Lord comes to the 4 woes, corresponding to the 4 blessings. These are also addressed to the disciples of our Lord! The first to get pulled up are "the rich". "Woe to you who are rich" It is easy for us to read this verse and write it off as applying to everyone else who has more possessions than we have: but certainly not to ourselves. Jesus is not asking us to beat our breast in public; but he does demand that his followers — who may be rich — do not place their dependence on their possessions.

You are rich, in this passage, no matter how little you own, if it means more to you than the growth of the Kingdom of God. Woe to you is this applies to you; for you are making the mistake of putting your own comfort and pleasure ahead of everyone else's needs.

Verse 25

A similar attitude towards ensuring you are well fed at the expense of others receives the same kind of warning from Jesus. He is not sending us on a guilt trip because we may be well fed. Again he points out that if we follow him, the standards of the Gospel message require that preoccupation with our own satisfaction and security will hinder the spread of the Gospel.

Remember, these are warnings, not threats. If we claim to be his followers, we have to listen carefully to his teaching and practise what he urges us towards. Whole Churches and masses of people claim to be followers, but are very selective in what they want to hear. This is what our Lord is addressing.

Verse 26

Finally Jesus warns his disciples not to pander to people in authority for fear of being spoken ill of, or ridiculed. It is one thing to watch "political correctness" but it is not becoming of his disciples to fall over themselves to curry favour with people who "count" in affairs of the world. Otherwise Gospel values are compromised.

Conclusion

We pause here to reflect on these admonitions before continuing, (next week) in the next reading, which deals with our Lord's address to the wider public listening, not just the disciples.

The following passage comes from notes written around A D 1900 by Bishop Ryle.

"One mighty lesson stands out plainly on the face of these verses. May we all lay it to heart, and learn wisdom. That lesson is the utter contrariety between the mind of Christ, and the common opinions of mankind, — the entire variance between the thoughts of Jesus and the prevailing thoughts of the world. The conditions of life, which the world reckons desirable, are the very conditions upon which the Lord pronounces "woes." Poverty, and hunger, and sorrow, and persecution, are the very things, which man labours to avoid. Riches, and fullness, and merriment, and popularity, are precisely the things which men are always struggling to attain. When we have said all, in the way of qualifying, explaining, and limiting our Lord's words, there still remain two sweeping assertions, which flatly contradict the current doctrine of mankind. The state of life which our Lord blesses, the world cordially dislikes."

The people to whom our Lord says, "Woe unto you," are the very people whom the world admires, praises, and imitates. This is an awful fact. It ought to raise within us great searchings of heart.

Let us leave the whole passage with honest self-inquiry and self-examination. Let us ask ourselves what we think of the wonderful declaration that it contains. Can we subscribe to what our Lord says? Are we of one mind with Him? Do we really believe that poverty and persecution, endured for Christ's sake, are positive blessings? Do we really believe that riches and worldly enjoyments, and popularity among men, when sought for more than salvation or preferred in the least to the praise of God, are a positive curse? Do we really think that the favour of Christ, with trouble and the world's ill word, is better worth having than money, and merriment, and a good name among men, without Christ? — These are most serious questions, and deserve a most serious answer. The passage before us is eminently one, which tests the reality of our Christianity. The truths it contains are truths, which no unconverted man can love and receive. Happy are they who have found them truths by experience, and can say "Amen" to all our Lord's declarations."

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