Summary of the Text
The context: The beatitudes are one of the most well-known aspects of Jesus teaching. As in the more familiar account in Matthew (5:1-12), Luke presents these words as Jesus’ first public teaching; his previous speeches have been responding to questions related to his own person and task. Immediately before our pericope, Luke sets the scene (6:12ff). The time and place are left vague; Jesus ascends a mountain at night to pray; when the day comes he is joined on the mountain by twelve chosen apostles; together they descend to a level place where “a crowd of disciples” joins them (v 17) followed by a “multitude of all the people.” The Greek for people (λαος) is often used in the Greek Old Testament as a specific reference to the people of Israel. We begin with Jesus alone on the mountain, but by the time he speaks on the plain he is in the midst of a vast multitude of the people.
Where is Jesus? We find him amongst the crowd, where he is healing the sick and those possessed by evil spirits, with power coming out from him. We see here an early high point of Jesus’ career as a healer and worker of powerful deeds which begins in 4:33. There is a temptation to race to what Jesus says in verses 20-26 which should be resisted. If we begin our preaching at verse 20, what do we miss? Do we see Jesus amongst the crowd who are desperate to touch him, seeking healing? Do we notice that in the blessings and woes Jesus is not addressing the crowd, but teaching his disciples (v 20a)? As Ambrose reminds us, “How would a crowd see Christ, except at a low level? It does not follow him to the heights; it does not climb to majestic places. So when he descends, he finds the weak, for the weak cannot be high up.”
Blessings and woes: Luke records four blessings, paired with four woes (Matthew has nine blessings and no woes). These blessings and woes are an example of a great reversal: those who exist in a state of ‘unsalvation’ (poor, hungry, weeping) hear a promise of salvation, while the rich, well-fed, and laughing will lose what they have attained. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) could be seen as a narrative form of this teaching.
Who are the poor and rich Jesus is referring to? A πτωχός refers to one who is not merely poor, but destitute. As Marcus Aurelius put it: “A πτωχός is one who needs another and does not himself possess everything that is necessary to live.” The psalmists and prophets see this as the condition of Israel who are left relying only on the help of God (e.g. Psalm 9:10; 12:6; Isaiah 41:17; Zephaniah 3:12) and it is these people to which Jesus explicitly says he has come to bring good news (Luke 4:18).
Do we hear this passage as an admonition to poverty, hunger, and mourning (see James 4:8-10)? Or do we hear God’s promise for those in the midst of these states of ‘unsalvation’? Is the problem of the riches simply wealth in itself, or is it seeking salvation (or comfort) in wealth rather than God? The good news is that the position of poverty is attainable! Jesus is addressing those who have already left everything to follow him (Luke 5:11, 28, cf. 14:25-33).
The treatment of the prophets (22-23, 26): Verses 22-23 give encouragement to followers of Jesus who experienced social exclusion and isolation – after all, they have left everything to follow him (cf. 1 Peter 4:14). The question raised throughout this passage comes to the fore: will the listener orient themselves towards God, seeking solidarity with the poor, hungry, and weeping, or will they seek the approval of others (v 26)? If the poor are the blessed who trust in the Lord, then the rich are also those who seek their affirmation in “mere mortals” who will “speak well” of them – here we find the connection to the Old Testament lection, Jeremiah 17:5-10. We also hear echoes of Jeremiah’s conflict with false prophets, those who cry “peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:13).
Jesus reorients reality for his listeners: the poor are blessed, while the laughing will mourn and weep. Jesus’ teaching is not so much an invitation for his disciples to participate in this new reality, but an assurance that it is worthwhile. Relying on God rather than wealth or worldly success reshapes our perspective and frees us to tell the truth about suffering in the world without being concerned about people in power speaking well of us. As Martin Luther put it, a disciple of Jesus has the freedom to not call good evil, or evil good, but call a thing what it is.
Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 2000-2010), NT III:103.
Cited in Michael Wolter, The Gospel According to Luke, trans. Wayne Coppins and Christoph Heilig (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), 1:269.
Jacob Traeger is a Church Planter and Mission Facilitator in Canberra, Australia with the Lutheran Church of Australia. He currently serves at Immanuel Woden Valley Lutheran Church. Jacob studied Jacob is passionate about equipping God’s people to live all of their lives out of their identity as children of God, as well as pointing those who don’t know God yet towards their creator and savior.
Jacob is married to Kate, whom he met while studying at university in Adelaide. They enjoy playing board games and hiking in Canberra’s bushland.
If you have kept from your youth the commandment of love, and have given to each person as much as to yourself, how has it come to you, this abundance of money? For it takes wealth to care for the needy: a little paid out for the necessity of each person you take on, and all at once everything gets parceled out, and is spent upon them. Thus, the man who loves his neighbor as himself will have acquired no more than what his neighbor has; whereas you, visibly, have acquired a lot. Where has this come from? Or is it not clear, that it comes from making your private enjoyment more important than helping other people? Therefore, however much you exceed in wealth, so much so do you fall short in love: else long since you’d have taken care to be divorced from your money, if you had loved your neighbor.
St Basil the Great, To the Rich
Thomas Aquinas on Peter’s Wealth
An old joke can sum up the failure nicely: It’s said that Thomas Aquinas was once brought into a great city where he was to meet the pope. He saw huge churches, clerics in ornate garb, and great armies lined up to defend the church’s rule. And as he took all this in, the pope looked at him and said, “No more can St. Peter say ‘silver and gold have I none,’” referencing the story in Acts 3 where Peter says those words to a lame man begging to be healed.
“Indeed,” responds Thomas, “but neither can he say, ‘rise, take up your bed and walk.’” In the years since World War II the American church has consistently chosen to chase power, prestige, and mainstream status. We have gained all of those things. The tragedy, of course, is that those are the very things that Jesus warns us about so frequently in the Gospels.
A movement designed to obtain power and prestige and status will end up where Jesus predicted it would and where the American church has ended up. Modern American Christianity was never intended to produce morally upright people given to sacrificial love of neighbor. If it were intended to do that, we would not continue to restore discredited, unrepentant leaders to roles of authority within the movement.
Taken from: In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World by Jake Meador Copyright (c) 2019 by Jake Meador. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com