Epiphany 6: 17 February Luke 6:17-26
After the transformation of Peter from a fish worker to a person who fishes for people (5:1-11) Luke returns to the Markan sequence of stories in 5:12 - 6:11 (Mark 1:40 - 3:6). He then reverses Mark's next two episodes (Mark 3:7-12 and 13-19), so that the choosing of the twelve disciples (6:12-16; Mark 3:13-19) comes before the scene with the great crowd (6:17-19; Mark 3:7-12), which is the first part of this Sunday's reading. Altogether Luke has, in effect, been using the stories from Mark to illustrate that Jesus has been fulfilling his mission. The summary in 6:17-19 serves to underline the success of the mission and to emphasise the breadth of his appeal.
At this point Luke switches to his Q source and introduces a block of teaching best known to us in its expanded version in Matthew 5-7 as the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew shifts to the Q material from near to the same point in Mark. At the end of the summary of Mark 3:7-13, which both Matthew and Luke use, Mark tells us that Jesus retreated up a mountain. Matthew uses that as the setting for bringing the block of teaching from Q. Luke emphasises that the crowds have gathered on level ground and places the block of teaching there.
As in Matthew, what Jesus teaches is addressed to the disciples, but essentially to all potential disciples as well, so that it is important that the crowds of 6:17-19 are in earshot of the message. For hearers of Luke's gospel it was only some few minutes earlier that they were presented with Jesus' declaration in the synagogue at Nazareth that he was anointed to proclaim good news to the poor. His opening words here are: 'Blessed are you poor!' (6:20). We are back with Jesus' central message.
'Blessed', but in what sense? Why does Jesus declare the poor happy, fortunate, blessed? Unfortunately the guesses have been wild and often wide of the mark. Are they blessed because despite their poverty they can have inner serenity, so that their poverty does not matter or is perhaps an advantage, causing them to trust solely in God and so find true happiness? There is much general truth in such an observation, but it falls short of grasping the full import of what is being promised here. At worst it can become a rationalising comfort for the comfortable.
The hungry are blessed because they are to be filled, the weeping because they will laugh. These are promises of reversal. The poor are blessed because there is a real chance they will cease being poor! The blessing is partly in knowing that such a reversal is coming and partly in the reversal itself. 6:24-25 confirms this with the opposite: future threats of reversal directed to the rich and comfortable. The sayings envisage change of the kind which Mary's Magnificat celebrated, liberation for the oppressed, food for the hungry, joy for those in mourning.
The promises can be spiritualised so that they no longer address real poverty. In Matthew's gospel they have been expanded and now serve to commend attitudes of lowliness and humility, hunger and thirst for righteousness. It is usually Matthew's version which derails the interpretation of the beatitudes we have here in Luke and which are likely to be closer to what Jesus said. But even in Matthew we should not miss the convergence between attitude and need. Lowliness is commended, but those who mourn are offered hope. The lowliness that counts is lowliness in solidarity with those who have been laid low. The righteousness for which to hunger and thirst is none other than the justice which addresses the needs of the downtrodden.
There is an opposite danger, in part caused by what might have been Luke's own supplement: the woes. We can reduce the focus to economic poverty. That would be typical of simplistic analyses of human need which focus only on outcomes. In the world of Jesus' day (as already in Isa 61) 'the poor' are the people, the people of Israel. They are poor in so many ways, dispirited, overtaxed, exploited, lost, hopeless in spirit. To these Jesus announces the promise of reversal when God's reign is established. It is about poverty, but in a much wider sense as well.
If Jesus was addressing the people of Galilee in these terms and holding out the prospect of change so that they could hold out for that blessing and rejoice, Luke and the early Christian movement took these promises also to apply to themselves, not just as core Israel, but also as people who were living at the margin. The assaults on Israel become for them the persecution and hate they would experience for espousing Jesus' message and trying to live it out. They stand in the tradition of the prophets who were also despised.
Another danger confronts us here: that the promise is quarantined for Christians. A beleaguered Christian minority needed this kind of hope, but the hope is there because the vision is of blessing for all who need it, not just Christians, not just Israel.
The blessedness was always more than a promise for the future. The community which prayed, 'Your kingdom come', was itself a place where the reign of God began to be realised. Some even argue that this was really Jesus' primary focus: changed lifestyle and changed communities in the present rather than in some dramatic reversal wrought by divine intervention in the future. The strongest advocate currently is Dom Crossan.
Certainly the tradition indicates that Jesus was more than a dreamer of future utopias. Much of his teaching is about how the change can take place right now. It included radical sharing of food and resources, later stylised in the eucharistic feast. Vested interests will often prefer a Christianity that will leave the status quo as it is and focus only on the world to come. Then we betray the poor when we call them blessed. Luke has illustrated the earthedness of the promise of change in the way he has been describing the impact of Jesus' ministry. Nazareth was not an announcement about another world and a far off future role, but about mission here and now. 6:17-19 is important commentary on blessedness. At the same time neither Luke nor Jesus spoke of such change without envisaging something more encompassing still to come.
Blessedness in solidarity with poor and the blessedness of the poor lie ultimately in the blessedness of sharing the life of the God of compassion and change and living out that hope, whatever it means in our situation. Such compassion begins where we are, as the rest of this block of teaching will indicate.
Epistle: Epiphany 6: 17 February 1 Corinthians 15:12-20