Today our Gospel reading is well-known to us. It is, of course, the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. Pictorial renderings of this scene are as familiar as its words. From ancient icons to childhood Sunday school images, we recognize Jesus standing on a high place above a yearning crowd, spatially intermediate between the people and God. The crowd literally look up to Jesus, perhaps with his beatified aura reflected in their eyes. The scene is set with today’s opening narrative description of the Sermon on the Mount. Luke says, “Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people.”
Wait a minute…That’s not right. Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place? It’s as if someone has punked the Gospel book. That is, until we realize that today’s Beatitudes are not from the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, in Luke’s Gospel there is no Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is in Matthew, and it, indeed, begins with the words, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down…he began to speak, and taught them.”
Are these two separate occasions in the life and ministry of Jesus? Did Jesus preach two different sets of Beatitudes? Maybe, but that misses the point, I think. Matthew and Luke are trying to convey different theological truths in the ways they portray this sermon. So, what are those truths?
Matthew wants to emphasize the spiritual, and in so doing it is important to him to locate Jesus on a “high place.” It is both geographically and metaphorically universal in religion that people meet God and connect with the divine on mountaintops. By setting the Beatitudes on a mountain, Matthew hearkens to this pervasive spiritual phenomenon. Jesus’ Gospel words come down the mountain to the people just as, for instance, God’s commandments came down Mount Sinai through Moses millennia before.
Luke’s less-referenced version of the story, which we read today, actually offers a much more radical and uniquely Christian truth. In Luke, it is not God’s words that waft down a mountain and settle among the people. Rather it is God’s Word, the very person of Jesus, who himself comes down onto a level place with the people. God deigns to descend to our level, in other words, and be intimately with us.
This is further emphasized by the difference in the message Jesus preaches. Matthew’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit” becomes, in Luke, “Blessed are the poor.” “Blessed are you who hunger for righteousness” becomes “Blessed are the hungry.” In other words, Luke takes Matthew’s spiritual claims and recasts them with a gritty realism.
Let’s hear again the Beatitudes from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain: “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. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”
I think we prefer Matthew’s more spiritualized version of these promises because in Luke it seems as if Jesus may be peddling an opiate for the masses by promising those who actually, physically suffer in this life a delayed reward in the next life. But what if Jesus isn’t talking primarily about the afterlife? What if what Jesus means is that the poor, and the hungry, and the sorrowful, and the persecuted have a blessing, an advantage, now, in this life, in this moment that the rest of us lack? That seems like a contradiction. Can it be that the suffering simultaneously are blessed?
Writer Monika Hellwig thinks they are.[i] Hellwig believes that the acutely vulnerable understand their vulnerability while the rest of us live under the willful illusion that we are self-sufficient. It is that illusion that often prevents us in the here and now from a living connection to the Spirit of God. Hellwig uses the category of the poor to make ten declarations about their blessedness. We could substitute anyone who is vulnerable or suffering. Hellwig says:
- The poor know they are in urgent need of redemption.
- The poor know not only their dependence on God…but also their interdependence on one another.
- The poor rest their security not on things but on people.
- The poor have no exaggerated sense of their own importance, and no exaggerated need of privacy.
- The poor expect little from competition and much from cooperation.
- The poor can distinguish between necessities and luxuries.
- The poor can wait, because they have acquired a kind of dogged patience born of acknowledged dependence.
- The fears of the poor are more realistic and less exaggerated, because they already know that one can survive great suffering and want.
- When the poor [hear the Gospel], it sounds like good news and not like a threat or a scolding.
- The poor can respond to the call of the Gospel with a certain abandonment and uncomplicated totality because they have so little to lose and are ready for anything.
What about those of us who are not poor, or grieving, or in distress? Philip Yancey suggests we take Hellwig’s list and turn them into “I” questions, in order to reveal to ourselves the false security in which we sometimes live, and which hinders our connection to God. Let’s try just a few:
Do I really and truly recognize that I am in need of redemption? Do I recognize my interdependence with other people? Can I distinguish between true necessities and luxuries? Do I have patience to wait on good things? Does the Gospel feel like liberation or scolding to me? Am I able to respond to God’s call with joy and abandon rather than begrudging hesitancy? What about you?
Philip Yancey says that the Beatitudes are “profound insights into the mystery of human existence. God’s kingdom turns the tables upside down. The poor, the hungry, the mourners, and the oppressed truly are blessed. Not because of their miserable states, of course—Jesus spent much of his life trying to remedy those miseries [and so should we]. Rather, they are blessed because of an innate advantage they hold over those more comfortable and self-sufficient…Human beings do not [easily or] readily admit desperation. When they do, the kingdom of heaven draws near.”[ii]
If today we aren’t poor, or hungry, or sorrowful, or oppressed, then the Beatitudes remind us that we have been, or someday will be. (That’s what the second half of the Beatitudes are all about.) As fragile, mortal creatures, our well-being is always temporary, and our self-sufficiency is always illusory. The Beatitudes cause the scales to fall from our eyes and grant us the gift of shedding the illusion, so that we realize anew just how dependent we are upon one another and upon the God who creates us in love. Then, for us, too, the Gospel becomes Good News. We recognize with wonder that God does not dwell on high but on a level place among us. We recognize that rich or poor, joy-filled or sorrowful, we are blessed because God comes down into our real lives, our daily routines, our actual struggles, and abides with us and in us. And when we know that Jesus speaks to us, we cannot help in turn but speak those words of blessing to God’s suffering world.
[i] Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I Never Knew, 115.
[ii] Ibid, 116-117.