The Sermon on the Plain

by Auriol Farquhar

(Based on Luke 6:17-26)

Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is very different from Matthew’s. In fact it is a much harsher and demanding set of statements, and is not just about blessings, but also about woes. The poor are blessed, the hungry are blessed, the people who weep are blessed and anyone who is excluded, reviled or defamed because of their belief in Jesus is also blessed; BUT if you are rich, your stomach is full and you are laughing and having a good time, or people speak well of you – well – woe to you.

If we take this literally, that’s not much comfort for us in this Church today. I don’t think that any of us are what I would call poor. Most of us own our own home, some own more than one house; many of us own at least one car, go on holiday when we want to, eat and dress reasonably well; I doubt if any of us go hungry and I have seen most of you laughing and enjoying life!
We may not be considered ‘rich’ by today’s standards, but most of us are comfortably off, or at least managing a lifestyle that is comfortable; many of us have people who speak well of us and pay us compliments for what we do – so does all of this mean that we are not blessed?

I must admit that I have trouble with the idea of being like the disciples and giving up everything I own to follow Jesus; how many of you would do that?  How many of you would be prepared to give up what you have probably worked hard to achieve in your life; and maybe gone without in the process so that you can provide for your later life?
Surely there’s another way of looking at this that would make sense in the modern context; certainly in most first and second world countries.

 Mmmm where to start?

Let’s start with the context of the time. Luke places the Sermon on the Plain, not the Mount, later in Jesus’s ministry than Matthew does. Before this sermon Jesus has been rejected in his home town synagogue, performed miracles such as healing a leper and the man with the withered hand; he has taught about fasting and the Sabbath and he has also chosen the twelve apostles. Luke’s sermon takes place on the plain, the level surface, where no-one is elevated above anyone else.

Luke‘s concern is emphasis rather than exact chronology. Most of the above stories are conflict stories — stories where Jesus offends the religious authorities. In Luke’s version, these conflict stories provide the background for Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain. In these stories, scribes and Pharisees take offence at Jesus for violating religious taboos. They try to defend a traditional understanding of God’s people (godly Jews versus ungodly Gentiles) and traditional morality, such as observing the Sabbath and not even healing on it. Jesus counters, in each instance, by showing them a new way. But they refuse to see it.

Jesus then gives his Sermon on the Plain in which he further turns their legalistic world on its head. In this sermon, Jesus gives them a glimpse into the kingdom of God — an upside-down world by their standards:
Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad, and expendable.  Woe to you who are rich, full, happy, and popular. Yup, that’s the fabulous Good News of the Kingdom of God.  A world turned upside down. What is tempting is to edit Jesus’s words, a bit like Matthew does – by writing “poor in spirit,” instead of “poor,” and “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” instead of plain old “hungry”. But Luke gives no comfort here. We might like to think that Jesus was exaggerating or speaking figuratively. There must be some way we can wiggle out of the “woes” column and into the “blessed” column instead, right? Right? 

I found an interpretation that resonates with me. What do all the ‘blessings’ have in common: the kind of poverty that makes people completely dependent on God. What do all the ‘woes’ have in common? People concerned with seeking their own satisfaction. We can look at this message as saying that when we are God-centred, regardless of our material circumstances, then we are blessed, but when we are self-centred – then we will find nothing but woes.

When Jesus blesses the poor and hungry, the sorrowful and the ridiculed, he isn’t saying that we should all aspire to poverty, hunger, sorrow, or being verbally abused. He is saying that God is present with us, even when the world has abandoned us, that God loves us, even when everyone else hates us. We find blessing in seeking God, being hungry for God, and loving the people God loves.
When Jesus announces woe to those who are rich, eat well, and enjoy fame and admiration from people, he isn’t saying that wealth, good food, and popularity are bad things. He is saying that when we are focused on satisfying our own appetites for these things, like many people today, we have turned our attention away from God, and our self-centredness will cut us off from God’s spiritual kingdom.

When we seek God, we feel the pain and sorrow God feels for people who are hurting. We stand up to injustice. We affirm that every human being is worthy of love in God’s sight. When we are hungry for God, we want the things God wants. God wants every person on earth to know him and love him.

Jesus isn’t commanding you to work at becoming poor so you can receive blessing!  In this day and age we would probably just become a burden on the state for taxpayers to support anyway! Jesus is stating how things are and how things will be in the Kingdom of God. The things that appear to be valued in this world have no value in God’s economy. In God’s economy, the only thing that has value is grace. God’s economy levels the playing field for everyone, and quite often that is not comfortable for us. Because, whether or not we want to admit it, we often prefer the way the world elevates some and values others less; it can make us pleased if we think that we are more well-off than someone else, or are more popular or more successful in careers, etc.

Jesus isn’t encouraging us to get rich or become poor. Jesus is inviting us to put everything at his disposal and follow him – to use what we have in his cause. He sees us. He knows us. Not the good face we put on so others will think well of us.  When life is hard, when things are going badly, when you are experiencing the kind of suffering and hardship that happens on the level places of life, Jesus is standing there with you, sending healing power your way. But he will also be there when things are going well, as long as we acknowledge that they are going well because of his grace.

What we need to realise is that what we have, comes to us by the grace of God. Our God is the God of those who have nothing but God. We need to appreciate that and become more God-centred – using what we have to help others and not making acquiring material goods and ‘stuff’ the be all and end all of our existence. We need to share, to be concerned for others and to love others; it won’t make us rich, but will make us happy and help us to live a life full with the richness of God.
I bet that most of the time, it just plain doesn’t occur to us that we would be lost — utterly and wholly lost, physically and spiritually — without the grace that sustains us.
God sees us, and wants to bless us. There isn’t anything we can do to change that. Nothing we do can make God love us less, and nothing we do can make God love us more.

Yep – Jesus was turning the world on its head for his listeners. If we listen today he is doing the same thing – turning our values system on its head.

As one American theologian writes: “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’ The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and lay down your life for others.’ The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’”

Jesus does not offer an easy path – but for us, as Christians, it is the only one.

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