This morning’s reading from Luke gives us the other great collections of Beatitudes in the Bible. Matthew’s Beatitudes, like Matthew’s Lord’s Prayer are better known. But Luke gives us a different take on the Beatitudes that deserve to be out of Matthew’s shadow…
Beatitudes have a simple formula – “Blessed are…” or “Blessed is…” The Beatitudes in Luke and Matthew are especially important because they come directly from the mouth of Jesus.
At first glance it seems that Matthew and Luke are telling us about the same event; a sermon with a large crowd that launches the active ministry of Jesus. In Matthew’s telling this is the Sermon on the Mount. Luke doesn’t give us a mount, it’s just the Sermon in the field. But though it may seem at first glance that Matthew and Luke are telling essentially the same story, they are not.
Luke is just a bit stingy with beatitudes. Matthew gives us eight, Luke only gives us four… And while Mathew gives us all beatitudes, Luke gives us warnings as well – one for each beatitude. Luke seems to have met my Celtic Grandmother – for whom the silver lining was only important because it helped you find the dark cloud.
Just to be clear, beatitude is a fancy word for blessing. In the Vulgate Latin translation, beatitudes all begin with the word beati, in English blessed. It is a bit ironic in our Anglican tradition that we still have a thing for Latin. So, the blessings given throughout our tradition are called beatitudes – a word that no longer appears in them.
There is another difference between Mathew and Luke in their blessings, beyond just the number… Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” Luke quotes Jesus as saying, “Blessed are you who are poor…” Two things have changed. Mathew is speaking in the third person – He is speaking to us about someone else who is poor in spirit. Luke has this in second person – you who are poor. In Luke’s telling Jesus is speaking directly to his listeners and, by extension, us.
That is already a huge difference, but an even bigger difference is that Matthew has Jesus speak in an abstract theological form – the poor in spirit. For Luke it is not a theological notion. Jesus is speaking to the poor – and not the poor over there somewhere, the poor who are in our midst, the poor who are us.
Throughout the beatitudes Matthew continues that theological abstraction – poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on. Luke is very concrete – the poor, those who weep now, those who are hungry now… There is an urgency in Luke’s telling that does not exist in Matthew’s.
But there is still one more massive difference between Luke’s and Matthew’s telling of this sermon, namely the addition of warnings: Woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full… The closest Mathew comes to a warning is his conclusion: “blessed are you who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness”. But for every blessing in Luke there is a corresponding woe.
Luke has also divided the four blessings and the four warnings into clear units, each with a conclusion. The blessings conclude with “blessed are you when people hate you… and defame you.” The warnings conclude with “woe when people speak well of you…”
Look a bit further at those two conclusions. Both sections end with a nearly identical observation. “… for that is what the ancestors did to the prophets…” or “to the false prophets.” The ancestors defamed the prophets and acclaimed the false prophets. We all want praise and acclamation, but Luke is warning us that the path that leads to praise is the path of the false prophets. If we are listening for applause, then woe to us…
Beatitudes are an interesting feature of scripture in that they don’t tell us what to do. They tell us who we are. When Jesus says blessed are the poor, Jesus is not telling us that we need to become poor. He is telling us that the poor are blessed, which may require us to rethink our view of the poor…
The psalms are full of beatitudes, some of which have become embedded in our speech. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” is a beatitude from the 118th psalm. It will come back to us shortly in our communion liturgy. We may not even recognize it as a Psalm or, for that matter, as a beatitude.
The very first psalm is a beatitude: “Blessed are those who do not walk in the counsel of the wicked…” It is tempting to hear these as instructions – do not walk in the counsel of the wicked. But that is not what the Psalm says. It tells us about people who do not walk in the way of the wicked, or do not sit in the seat of the scornful. Such people are blessings not by what they do, but by who they are.
It’s very hard to know what Jesus meant when he spoke these words that Luke wrote down. We not only have to wonder what Jesus meant; we have to wonder what Luke meant… What we get is interpreted through the eyes and ears of Luke and various anonymous translators over the millennia.
Jesus, in Luke’s telling, has accomplished an astounding thing. He has turned the beatitudes, the blessings, into an occasion of scandal. This does not happen in Matthew’s careful hands…
Blessed are the poor is something we have heard enough that it has lost some of its power. But the faithful at the time of Jesus knew that if someone lived in relative comfort and luxury, that this was the result of God’s blessing on them. This idea is still with us today. The so called “Gospel of Prosperity” is built on the notion that God wishes to show us love by making us rich. Just to be clear, the Gospel of Prosperity is heresy, a lie.
Each of the beatitudes that appear in Jesus’ sermon in Luke’s Gospel are things that nobody in the audience would have thought of as much of a blessing. Blessed are you who weep… Blessed are you who are hungry… Blessed are you when people say horrible things about you… This is a list of things that good and faithful people would normally think of signs of something wrong.
And just in case the point has not be driven home clearly enough, Luke’s Gospel goes to the next logical thing… woe to you who are rich, woe to you who have plenty to eat, to you who are laughing, to you about whom people speak well… These are things most faithful people then and now would think of as blessings.
This is the start of Jesus’ ministry, and he is already starting a revolution. Everything that society (and that includes much of the religious establishment then and now) teaches us to value has, in fact, no value. Not only do many of the things we value have no value, but they also endanger our souls. Woe to us that love them…
What Jesus calls us to do is not so mysterious. We are to love God and to love our brothers and sisters. To love God is to love God’s justice – the ideas cannot be separated. If someone is poor or hungry while others are well fed and comfortable that is injustice… it is ungodly… woe to us if we are OK with it… woe to those who normalize injustice…
Saint John Baptist had a way of speaking truth to power that offended everyone. He is portrayed as a prickly person who made folks uncomfortable. Saint Desmond Tutu is closer to us in both time and space, and he seems to have had a way of speaking truth to power that was so loving and good humored that nobody could resist him.
But that is a very rosy memory. There were those who despised Tutu. He was arrested. His life was under constant threat wherever he went, not just in South Africa. As Luke would put it, people excluded him, defamed him, and reviled him. He seems to have accepted it as a blessing and seems to have been able to love those who were offended by him.
The Arch’s life illustrates how Luke’s blessings and warnings define us. If we live in humility and love, we are blessed and we are blessings to others. Woe to us if we fear to live in that blessing.