Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Times They Are A-Changin', Part 3: Luke's Sermon on the Plain

Cosimo Rosselli, Sermonne della Montagne (1481-82, Sistine Chapel)

Luke's somewhat truncated version of what is popularly known as the "Sermon on the Mount" of Matthew 5-7 is found in Luke 6:20-49. Since the Evangelist introduces the "sermon" by stating that Jesus sat down "on a level place" (epi topou pedinou, 6:17), it is regularly referred to as the "Sermon on the Plain," its obvious traditional identity with the Matthean version notwithstanding. In its context, this sermon directly contrasts the sneering, hostile response to Jesus by both his fellow citizens of Nazareth and the wider circle of Galilean scribes and Pharisees (4:1-6:11) with the character and status of his followers, the ragtag and unlikely bunch of "sinners," healed demoniacs and lepers, Sabbath "breakers", et al., who constituted the true Israel led by the 12 appointed as "apostles" (6:12-16). Like Matthew, Luke has Jesus introduce his discourse by uttering a series of "Beatitudes." Unlike Matthew, he appends a series of corresponding "woes" to the Beatitudes:

20 Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
    for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
    when they exclude you and insult you
    and reject your name as evil,
        because of the Son of Man.
23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
    for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

The kingdom of God, in other words, is a realm in which conventional wisdom—the wisdom of the world, i.e., the present age—is turned on its head. In contrast to the Matthean version, which pronounces "blessedness" on the meek, pure in heart, people who hunger and thirst for righteousness, etc., Luke's Beatitudes are less amenable to a moralistic misinterpretation. As Joel Green rightly notes, Luke's Beatitudes have an ascriptive rather than a prescriptive purpose (The Gospel according to Luke, 265). In other words, they define the ways things are rather than encourage the adoption of a certain pattern of behavior.

The term "blessed" (makarios) in these verses corresponds to the Hebrew ’ašrê (e.g., Ps. 1:1). It is often (e.g., by the NRSV) translated "happy," which is fine so long as one recognizes that this "happiness" is an objective state, not a subjective emotional condition that, in this world, always proves elusive and fleeting. On the contrary, the people deemed makarios are "happy" in the sense of being fortunate as the result of having been "blessed" (Greek eulogētos or eulogēmenos) as beneficiaries of God's approval and favor. The term "woe" (ouai), on the other hand, is reflective of the Hebrew hôy/’ôy, and ominously conveys the opposite of such "happiness," viz., the grief or doom that applies to the people in question.

The ironic, counterintuitive nature of Jesus' pronouncement is staggering: objective "happiness" is ascribed to those whose existentially unhappy lot now (note Luke's emphatic addition of the adverb nyn in both the second and third Beatitudes and Woes) involves poverty, hunger, grief, hatred, and exclusion. On the other hand, "woe" is ascribed those whom the world now considers fortunate, viz., the prosperous, the sated, the flippantly amused, and the admired. Jesus' logic, of course, is not based on empirical observation, let alone wishful thinking, but rather on the sure foundation of biblical eschatology: it is the kingdom of God that will effect this eschatological reversal of roles. Those followers of Jesus who find themselves marginalized, oppressed, ostracized, and persecuted, who obey the words of Jesus and live the life of love he preaches in this sermon, are assured vindication just as their oppressors are guaranteed to come to grief. And the reason for this is the simple fact that "[theirs] is (estin) the kingdom of God" (6:20). In other words, they can be assured of the future reversal of the kingdom because the future kingdom had arrived already in the person of Jesus himself. And because of the presence of the future, the one imperative Jesus utters in these verses makes perfect sense. Persecution and oppression, rather than being the occasion for bitching and moaning—American evangelical Christians please take note—ought to inspire joy and festivity instead, for such opposition is but a token of the fundamental clash of worldviews that Jesus' mission brought into the open. Indeed, such opposition serves as a reliable sign that they are on the right side and that reward awaits them in God's presence (6:23). As the Beatitudes put it, they will "laugh" and rejoice as the covenantally-promised restoration of God's people becomes a reality. They will be "filled" as they participate in the "messianic banquet" prophesied by Isaiah (Isa 25:6-8; 49:10-13; cf. Luke 12:37; 13:29; 14:14-24; 22:16, 18).

Of course, to those readers of Luke who have been paying attention, what Jesus says here is not entirely surprising. Indeed, a multitude of echoes may be found in the Beatitudes to both Mary's Magnificat ("blessed" [1:45, 48]; "hungry" versus "filled" [1:53]; "rich" [1:53]; for my discussion of Mary's hymn, see here) and Jesus' programmatic synagogue address at Nazareth, where he made the outrageous claim that he was the Spirit-anointed herald of "good news to the poor" prophesied by Isaiah (Isa 61:1-2; Luke 4:18-19). As with Mary's assertion that the eschatological reversal had already taken place in nuce with the conception of Jesus, as with Jesus' own declaration that the Isaianic hope had been fulfilled in the synagogue at Nazareth, so here Jesus proclaims a blessedness on the downtrodden before the time when the eschatological reversal is realized in human experience by virtue of the inauguration of God's kingdom in his own ministry. This, to use the theological jargon of the academy, is inaugurated eschatology, where the realities of God's promised future are brought to bear on life in the present age (the "already") in advance of the final consummation of those realities, for which we still hope (the "not yet"). And it is because of inaugurated eschatology that the decisive paradigm shift presented by Jesus in the Beatitudes both achieves resonance and demands proleptic implementation in the community of Jesus' followers in the here and now (more on this in a future post).

Who, then, are the "poor," "hungry," mournful, and downtrodden whose good fortune are announced here? As is well known, Matthew's version of the Beatitudes pronounces the good fortune of the "poor in spirit" (ptōchoi tō pneumati) and "those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" (hoi peinōntes kai dipsōntes tēn dikaiosynēn) (Matt 5:3, 6). Two approaches, in particular, must be avoided. The first, common among "conservative" popularizers, is to read the Beatitudes through the grid of Matthew and thus to "spiritualize" the reference to the "poor." The "poor," on this reading, are those who are "spiritually poor" irrespective of their economic situation, those who recognize their spiritual poverty and depend entirely on God for their spiritual status. The second, more common among "liberals" and academics, is that approach's mirror image. Rightly viewing the Lukan version to be closer to the Q tradition from which both Evangelists drew, they deduce that the referent should be restricted to the economically disadvantaged per se. Richard Hays, for example, asserts that "Luke rejects the spiritualizing interpretation of these Beatitudes" (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 124).

Of course, as Hans Conzelmann noted long ago, Luke was not guilty of "Ebionitism" (The Theology of St. Luke, 233). Poverty in and of itself was (and is) not praiseworthy, a desirable state that automatically portends a glorious future in the eschaton. Indeed, verse 22, which attributes the persecution of such people as being "on account of the Son of Man" (heneka tou hiou tou anthrōpou) makes it clear that the intended reference is to the followers of Jesus, portrayed as the marginalized and suffering remnant. Thus an implicit spiritual component to the "poverty" of the people Jesus congratulated here is clear, more than justifying Matthew's "spiritualizing" redaction. In the Old Testament, the "poor" (Heb. ‘ānî) are what we might term "the pious poor," those in special need of God's help (cf. Ps. 12:5; 14:6; 22:24; 37:14; 69:29; 70:5; 86:1; 88:15; Isa 61:1). In time "poor" became the preferred self-designation of the impoverished, oppressed remnant people of God (‘ănāwîm; cf., e.g., Isa 10:2; 26:6; Pss.Sol. 5.2, 11; 10.6; 15.1; 18.2; 1QpHab 12.3; 1QM 14.7; 1QH 5.13-14) (cf. W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Matthew 1-7 [ICC] 443). The point, as is recognized by the "spiritualizers" of the Beatitudes, is that sustained economic deprivation and social distress prove to be triggers that cause the poor to look to God alone to supply their needs and, ultimately, to vindicate them against their oppressors. As Darrell Bock nicely puts it, Luke is speaking here in "soteriological generalizations" (Luke 1:1-9:50 [BECNT] 574). It is the poor who, in contrast to the rich's tendency to find security in wealth and social prestige, tend to find their security in God alone. And it is to such poor who place their security and hope in God alone to which Jesus sends his congratulations here.

But it would be a grave mistake to downplay, let alone deny, the socio-economic element explicit in the term.  Not only does the term ptōchos primarily speak of economic poverty in the Greek literature of the period (LSJ, s.v.), the Old Testament background referred to above clearly underlines this component. Moreover, an emphasis on economic privation here comports nicely with Luke's sustained polemic against wealth and possessions in his Gospel (along with plentiful material drawn from Mark and/or Q, note the uniquely Lukan parables of the Rich Fool [Luke 12:13-21] and the Rich Man and Lazarus [16:19-31], the latter of which will be the focus of my next post in this series). 

It is all too easy for affluent Westerners to ride roughshod over what Jesus said in these verses because of their dominant cultural assumptions, according to which the poor are, in general, responsible for their own economic distress. To be sure, they give lip service to a category of the "deserving poor," but by and large cast aspersion on the poor in their midst as shiftless denizens of a "culture of dependence." (Even worse, they often criticize their government for sending "their" money for poverty relief in third world countries, thereby ignoring, to their shame, the desperation of their fellow human beings.) When I hear my fellow Christians say such things, it grieves me, for this is a distinction and an attitude not shared by our Lord. Poverty, of course, is ultimately rooted in the sin that has, from the beginning of human history in the mists of time, defaced God's world. And it has never been the particular concern of the wealthy and powerful to mitigate the suffering of the poor voluntarily, out of their own good heart, as it were. Jesus, however, has promised an eschatological reversal in which his oppressed people are vindicated and their oppressors brought low. This is no bit of pie in the sky, baseless optimism, however, for it is the inauguration of the Kingdom of God in his ministry and (especially) in his death and resurrection, that serves as the guarantee of this eventuation. This reign, then as now, is invisible, and so we must walk by faith and not by sight. But, we believe, this reign is a reality, and so we must live both in hope and in the attempt to implement the values of the kingdom, not least in the communities of faith in which we live. How this should look must await the final installment of this series.

1 comment:

  1. The "spiritual" connection in Lk. 6:20 also includes the description of his hearers: Jesus is addressing his "disciples" (which here is a bigger number than the twelve, as shown in 6:17). But to poor disciples, Jesus says "yours" is the kingdom of God; and to rich disciples, he says woe to you. The "material" importance is also seen in 6:30--give to everyone (even enemies) who begs from you, which follows 6:27, about loving your enemies; this is repeated in 6:35, with the emphasis (again) on loving enemies and lending to others without expecting repayment.
    As for the "spiritual" beatitude of Mt. 5:3, it is possible to translate it as: blessed are the poor in the Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The inauguration of the kingdom begins in Mt. 3 with the anointing of the new king with the Spirit descending from heaven at his baptism. The Spirit then leads the king into the desert to suffer hunger and temptations to become like the greedy kings of earth. Jesus refuses and begins to announce his new kingdom of (and from) heaven; and he calls disciples to leave prospering fishing businesses to follow this poor "Messiah." Jesus is the first and foremost "poor in the Spirit," but he will also baptize his poor disciples with the Spirit in the future (as promised by John the Baptist), and then they will also be "the poor in the Spirit" (who are part of his new kingdom of and from heaven).