Blessings and Woes
17 He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, 18 who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, 19 and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.
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.
Observations & Reflections
In chapter 6, Luke shows his edition of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. It differs slightly from the account in Matthew but the differences have not been the cause of many concerns since the spirit of the message seems to be consistent. Additionally, it cannot be certain that any of the gospels recorded the sermon word for word. Like any good sermon, each audience member is going to remember certain parts and forget others.
Some of the more jarring parts of Jesus’ sermon are the woes for those who didn’t seem to have committed any specific sin. For example, woe to the rich and woe to the well-fed. In America we would praise such people! What’s the deal?
On first glance it would seem that Jesus might have a problem with people who have been blessed in this earthy life. As much as that might be true, I think the message is more complicated than that. In this snippet of the sermon Jesus is making two very sharp points. The first is targeted at the popular notion that what happens in this life is a result of one’s merit. The second is an echo of the Jewish ethic about social responsibility.
One the first matter, the ancient cultures believed that one’s blessings or curses in this life is a reflection of their own sin. For example, a sinful person would be poor but a godly person would be blessed financially by God. This thought process is displayed in some of the questioning of Jesus by the pharisees.
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1)
The question was not uncommon for the day. In Job chapter 8, one of Job’s friends blamed his suffering on his sins and said that if he repents then he would be restored.
Does God pervert justice?
Does the Almighty pervert what is right?
4 When your children sinned against him,
he gave them over to the penalty of their sin.
5 But if you will seek God earnestly
and plead with the Almighty,
6 if you are pure and upright,
even now he will rouse himself on your behalf
and restore you to your prosperous state.
7 Your beginnings will seem humble,
so prosperous will your future be.
In the ancient mindset, you reap what you sow and it’s in this life and not the next. This was especially true for the Sadducees who did not believe in the afterlife. However, Jesus’ message was very much counter to this opinion. In the sermon on the mount Jesus declared that we will get true justice in the next life, not this life. This view, however, cannot be separated from the second point that Jesus was making, which is that there is no justice in the land when people are starving and the poor are maligned.
When God delivered Israel to the promised land, He gave them very specific instructions. Many of those instructions can be characterized as trying to keep social and economical equalities. For example, if a person became poor and had to sell his or her property, they would eventually receive it back during the year of Jubilee. Likewise, all debts would be canceled. With the fields there were many allowances for the poor or oppressed to get access to food even if it was not their field.
but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. (Exodus 23:11)
Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. 6 Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, 7 as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. (Leviticus 25:5-7)
In addition, any normal joe could pluck grain by hand and eat it from anyone’s field, which is what Jesus was doing in Luke 6:6. It was also illegal to charge interest on money lent to the poor. This system did not stop with debts owed to humans either. At the altar of God there were many allowances for those who could not afford the required offerings. In every aspect of God’s law there are provisions for the poor and checks in place to make sure the wealth and power doesn’t end up getting consolidated at the top.
Jesus was rightly pointing out that those who had great wealth and power in Judea, while others starve, are going to be judged harshly. God’s economy is not one that is based solely on merit but also on mercy and grace. When the poor increase and the wealthy get more rich there is a surely a misuse of power in land. These drastic imbalances should not exist if people are following God’s law.
As we read through the gospel of Luke the reader should take note of the remarks made about social inequality. Luke, among the gospels will emphasize this part of Jesus’ message more than any. To understand the gospel message of Jesus (through the eyes of Luke) there is no justice without mercy and charity. They are irreversibly linked.
[Featured image is a magnificent 1800’s altar-piece titled “Sermon on the Mount”, by Henrik Olrik]