As we work through the Gospel of Luke this year, we will have a number of opportunities to explore this gospel writer’s unique perspective on Jesus and on the early Christian community. Like Matthew, it’s probable that Luke wrote with a knowledge of the Gospel of Mark and with Matthew he had access to a source that provided much of the material for Jesus’ teachings that appear in both Matthew and Luke, teachings like the ones here, known as the Beatitudes. But each of the gospel writers introduce additional material that is unique to their gospel. In Luke, this includes many of the most familiar and beloved parables—the Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, are examples of this other material.
Seeing how Matthew and Luke deal differently with the same material is not just an academic exercise. It also helps us understand their unique perspectives. We might their differences as insight into their personal and their communities’ experiences of and faith in Jesus. They help us see how Jesus was being understood and how communities were coming together in the first several generations after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How they tell the story is an important part of the stories they tell.
There may be no place where the differences between Matthew and Luke are more evident than in today’s gospel reading. We hear Luke’s version of the beatitudes and some of what he reports Jesus says is very similar to Matthew’s version, but the differences are striking as well. In the first place, there’s the setting.
In the last two weeks, we have heard the story of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry—his first sermon in the Synagogue of Nazareth. Last week, we read the story of the calling of the first disciples. Now we are in chapter 6, and in the intervening verses, Luke recounts several healings and some of Jesus’ sayings. By contrast, Matthew begins with a brief summary of Jesus’ early public ministry and the calling of the disciples. In Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the beatitudes, is the first time we hear Jesus teaching in his own words.
For Matthew, having Jesus teach on a mountain is full of symbolic meaning. He presents Jesus as the new Moses and like Moses who went up Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah (the teaching or Law) Jesus offers his new teaching from a mountaintop.
There’s a mountain top in Luke’s version of the story but it serves a very different function. A few verses earlier, Luke writes, “Now in those days, e went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.” This is one of Luke’s key themes—that at significant points in Jesus’ ministry, he goes off and prays. In this instance, Jesus isn’t exactly alone, because in the morning he calls his disciples to him, and from among them names twelve of them his apostles.
This is where today’s reading picks up. After a night of prayer on top of a mountain, after selecting twelve apostles, Jesus comes down with all of his disciples to a level place, and begins to teach. We might think that Luke is only making an observation, that for whatever reason he chooses not to put Jesus’ speech on a mountaintop as Matthew does. But there may be deeper reason behind it. While on many occasions in the Hebrew prophets, the word translated as level place is a place of death and destruction, at times it is also the focus of prophetic hope, nowhere moreso than in Isaiah 40:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
I would not want to make to much of this parallel, but I do think it’s worth pondering whether it’s in the back of Luke’s mind as he writes, and given his earlier usage of Isaiah to draw a connection between Jesus and the prophetic tradition, that Jesus comes down from the mountain and teaches on the plain, seems very much like the revealing of the glory of the Lord, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
We see that glory revealed in the way Luke describes the scene. The crowd had come to hear him and be healed of their diseases: “And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.”
We see that glory revealed in what Jesus said. Even though these words should be hard for us to hear, they are words of power, words of the Son of God:
Blessed are you who are poor, blessed are you who are hunger, blessed are you who mourn… and the corresponding curses “Woe to you who are rich; woe to you who are full, woe to you who are laughing…
Luke’s version of the beatitudes are striking in the way they differ from the way Matthew records them. To remind you, with just two examples. Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Two crucial differences. First of all, in Luke they are addressed in the second person “Blessed are you who are hungry, blessed are you who are poor” and second, Matthew shifts the emphasis away from the actual condition of the blessed—the poor and the hungry, toward spiritual conditions “blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness.
It’s also worth pointing out, that for each of the blesseds in Luke, there’s a corresponding curse, or woe—Woe to you who are rich now, woe to you who are full now.
The immediacy of Luke’s version puts us on dangerous ground. Is he speaking to us, is he speaking about us? We may position ourselves among the poor or rich or we might bristle at the “identity politics” that are implied here. But with growing inequities here in the US, and with billionaires seemingly in the news every day amid calls for wealth taxes, or changes in the tax rates, we may find such language uncomfortable, or we may want to deploy it in our own political arguments. It’s important to keep in mind that even if we want to locate ourselves somewhere between the blessed poor and cursed rich in this passage, in global perspective, all of us are among the rich.
These are hard words that may make us uncomfortable. We don’t want to think about Jesus challenging the socio-economic status quo but before we too readily translate these words to our own context, we should remember where they are coming from; that level place where the glory of God is revealed and the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Jesus has come down with his disciples from the mountain, as the Son, the Word of God, he has come proclaiming the good news of God’s reign to the poor. The power that goes out from him heals the sick and casts out evil spirits. The words he speaks are words of life. They are a reminder to us of where God stands, where we encounter God, how God’s reign breaks in and disrupts our world. It’s a message we have heard before from Luke, when Jesus preached in the synagogue, The spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, release to the captive, give sight to the blind.
But we heard it even earlier, in the song of Mary, his mother, as her soul proclaimed the greatness of the Lord:
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Where do we seek Jesus? Where do we seek God? There, where the most vulnerable in our society and in our world are. There, among the poor and the hungry, among those who mourn. There, among the sick, hurting, those who seek healing.
Jesus came down with his disciples from the mountaintop, to preach and heal among those who had come in search of him. He came down to that level place, where the glory of the Lord was revealed, and the mouth of the Lord spoke. The God revealed in Jesus Christ, proclaimed in the word by the Word, is a God of the poor and hungry, a God who dwells there among the most vulnerable. May we seek God in Christ there, may we find God in Christ among the poor, the hungry, those who mourn and may we accompany Christ as his word brings good news and the power of his presence brings healing.