(a sermon for November 3, 2019, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 6:17-26)
Amongst the very first textbooks I purchased as a seminary student, and one that still holds a space on my crowded bookshelf, is a copy of “Gospel Parallels.” Edited by no less than our own esteemed New Testament professor, the late Burton Throckmorton, this volume served a unique purpose in that it presented the three “synoptic gospels” – that is, Matthew, Mark and Luke – in such a way that you’re able to read all the identical or similar passages side by side. In other words, if you’re interested in comparing how each of those Gospels, for instance, records the events of the crucifixion it’s all right there on one page, complete with all the footnotes and textual cross-references. So it’s an essential tool for Biblical study and exegesis; but perhaps even more than this for me it’s served not only as a reminder that Holy Scripture tells a story but also that it’s also a collection of stories, each one told in its own unique way.
And such is the case with the four gospels and the story of Jesus: by most historical accounts Mark, with its precise language and great brevity, came first, followed by Matthew and then Luke which drew from Mark’s account and then expanded upon it, including, for instance, the story of Jesus’ birth and, in the case of Luke, even writing a second volume, recording the “Acts of the Apostles.” And then, finally, there’s John’s Gospel, which is sometimes referred to as the “Spiritual Gospel,” in that it looks at Jesus’ story through a more deeply theological lens, so to understand the “why” of our Lord’s coming. And it’s all the same story, by and large – at times even word for word the same – all about Jesus’ miracles and healings, his parables and teachings, and of course his death and resurrection. But for me having four different accounts is a lot like how family stories get told around the table, with one sibling having his or her own version of the story in question and the other offering up another version; one with a different emphasis and maybe with bits and pieces that were previously left out! It’s not that the story wasn’t true, or that it was changed or exaggerated somehow; rather it’s a story that’s gotten richer as it gets told from a different point of view. The same story, you see, but a different telling; and in the end, you end up with a much better understanding of what actually happened and even more so of what it all means!
Take for instance our text for this morning, Luke’s version of what is commonly referred to as “the Beatitudes.” It’s generally thought of as being part of what’s called “the Sermon on the Mount,” and that’s how these verses are presented in Matthew, as part of many teachings included in that “sermon,” and specifically pointing out that Jesus “went up the mountain,” (5:1) that his disciples came to him up there, and this is where Jesus stood to speak to the crowds gathered below on the hillside. I dare say that for most of us this is probably the image that comes to mind when we picture Jesus saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (5:3-4) Truly, it’s the stuff of many a Sunday School paper and a whole lot of Biblical-themed movies, a beloved scenario one would not easily seek to change!
But here’s the thing; Luke, in his version of the Beatitudes that we’ve shared today, does tell the story differently. Not only does Luke claim that Jesus “came down with them and stood on a level place,” not standing above the people but right down there where this “great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people” from all over were gathered – to the point of where Luke is specific about Jesus “look[ing] up at his disciples” as he’s about speak, suggesting he might actually have been sitting as he began to speak – not only that, but Luke emphasizes that the whole reason that Jesus had actually come down to this level place was because so many “had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases” and that “power came out from [Jesus] and [that he] healed all of them.” And really, that’s a significant difference in storytelling, because now, rather than this image of an incredible oration offered up to an attentive multitude from a lofty hillside cathedral what we get in Luke is… this literal throng of people all pushing and shoving to get close to Jesus, all of them in the fervent and even desperate hope that they might be cured of their troubles and unclean spirits. To put it bluntly, it’s an over-crowded, chaotic mess of a scene, but it’s in the midst of all this noise and confusion some incredible words of hope are being offered.
And therein lies the other big difference in Luke’s version of this story: because what happens on this “level place” is that Jesus does, in fact, heal them all; but then, as we’ve said, he looks up at his disciples (which in and of itself suggests that Jesus is surrounded by all these people!) and says, “Blessed are YOU who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are YOU who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are YOU who weep now, for you will laugh.” (Capitalization mine!) Understand the difference here: in Matthew, it’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn… blessed are the meek… blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” (5:3-6) For starters, there’s a slightly different selection of “blessings,” and that’s worth noting (Matthew records eight, as opposed to four in Luke); but the major difference has less to do with that than it does the point of view!
In Matthew, you see, is talking about “those” who, by their place in the world, are placed squarely in the midst of the Kingdom of God. Indeed, in the words of Craig Barnes of Princeton Seminary, these are the qualities that describe “what life looks like under the reign of heaven, a reign that has already begun in Jesus Christ and will someday be realized.” It offers us, writes Barnes, “a glimpse… of what it means to be a citizen of this reign of Christ… it’s a blessing, a grace that places you on a path that takes you somewhere you did not expect to go.” So on that basis, Matthew’s words kinda sorta suggest it’s something that’s still yet to come, and as we understand the truth of the kingdom’s eventual fulfillment, that sense of what will be rings true; truly, that’s the second advent we’ll be awaiting in our worship when that season begins in a few weeks.
Matthew sets forth these “beatitudes” in a way that’s “now, but not yet,” which is fine and good and theologically correct. But did you hear what Jesus said? He said, “Blessed are YOU who ARE poor… Blessed are YOU who ARE hungry NOW… Blessed are YOU who weep NOW…” (again, capitalization is mine) As Luke sets forth the “beatitudes,” it’s not something that’ll happen someday in the life to come, but a blessing that applies to life right here and right now, life as it’s truly experienced.
Because I don’t know about you, friends, but there are times in my life when I do weep, moments when any kind of laughter or joy evades me. There’ve been moments when I’ve felt hungry, and not just for something to eat; but rather because in emptiness I’m yearning for something to fill up that space in my life. And yes… there are times that I’m poor; poor by the world’s standards of wealth, perhaps, but more often poor in the sense of lacking hope or strength or spirit (it’s no accident, you know, that the Greek word used here for poor is ptōchoi, which refers to one who crouches or cowers in fear; in fact, it’s also where we get the slang term for spitting, ptooey, which ends ups here suggesting someone who’s been constantly spat upon in life). I’m here to tell you, friends, that there have been moments in this life when I’ve been just about that poor in spirit; and unless I miss my guess, I suspect you can say the same!
So isn’t it good, then… isn’t it a true blessing to know that in the midst of all the difficulties and challenges that we endure in this life that ours IS the Kingdom of God; isn’t it good to know that in our emptiness we WILL be filled up with good things; isn’t it truly hopeful to have that assurance that even in the midst of all of our tears we WILL be laughing? And while we’re on the subject, isn’t it also great to know, as Jesus says and as is translated in from The Message, that when “every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit” your faith and your allegiance to God, not only are you “in good company,” but all heaven applauds the steadfastness of your faith?
Don’t misunderstand; Jesus is not saying that poverty and hunger, weeping and being hated are good things in and of themselves; nor is he suggesting that our relief, our comfort, our recompense is some measure of “pie in the sky,” so to speak. But he is proclaiming that in such sufferings, there is joy that is already ours in the reality of God’s kingdom even now coming to pass; a true joy that is ours in having the healing power of the Lord with us in times of trial. To quote some words of commentary on this passage from the Taize faith community, “Hunger and poverty, weeping and hatred are sometimes unavoidable… but these situations are not the deepest reality; behind this, already just visible, God’s Kingdom is present.” The blessedness that Jesus promises, it says, “is both an objective state of affairs for their current situation and the promise of a joy to come.” What Jesus wants for us – truly, what Jesus promises us for the here and now – in the midst of literally the worst of what life brings you and me is “to show us the incredible newness and fundamental otherness of this reality that is the Kingdom of heaven” in our midst.
And that blessedness is good news, indeed.
Of course, it should also be said that in Luke’s version of these blessed promises, Jesus also mentions a few “woes:” as in “Woe to you who are rich… woe to you who are filled now… woe to you who are laughing now…” in fact, (referring once again to The Message version of this text) “there’s trouble ahead [for you] if you think life’s all fun and games,” or “when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them.” Those verses echo Mary’s “Magnificat” in the Nativity story, which is no accident; this truth that the coming of Christ and his Kingdom proclaims a complete inversion of worldly ways and means; where the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up, when the hungry are filled “with good things,” and the rich are sent away empty. (1:52-53) In other words, friends, we need to remember that true happiness is never wholly achieved by the world’s misguided and all too often imbalanced standards, but rather by that of a kingdom that is even now being brought by a God who loves us beyond measure and wants for us to know true joy.
So let me again just state the obvious here: life is not easy. It’s filled with challenge and difficulty, contradictions by the number and utter uncertainty at every turn. And the sad truth is that we are all too understanding of what it means to be poor, and empty, and in mourning – if not literally or physically, then certainly spiritually – and I dare say that most of us in this sanctuary have felt the sting of being hurt or reviled or excluded in one way or another.
Like I said, Life is not easy… but that is not what all of life is about. We know this because God in the person of Jesus Christ has loved and redeemed and brought us into his kingdom, and because of this, in the midst of this life and in the life to come, we are also blessed.
Blessed are YOU, beloved. Blessed are you, and blessed am I. For ours is the kingdom of God… be thinking about that as we come to table of blessing this morning.
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry