Blessing and Woe: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week 6
Epiphany 6 (Year C): Luke 6:17-26 and Jeremiah 17:5-10
1) This week and next, we’ll focus on Luke’s version of Jesus’ most famous sermon. Matthew’s rendition is known as the “Sermon on the Mount;” Luke’s happens on “a level place,” not a mountaintop, and so is often called the “Sermon on the Plain.”
2) Luke tells us Jesus has been traveling, healing, and teaching throughout the region, drawing great crowds. This is the second time we hear some of the content of his teaching, the first time being the disastrous episode in his hometown synagogue (Luke 4:16-21). And sure enough, in this week’s sermon Jesus picks up right where he left off: having declared his mission “to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18), this week he begins, “Blessed are you who are poor…” (Luke 6:20).
3) It’s a trope as old as scripture itself: blessings and woes, the way of life and the way of death. We find it famously in Deuteronomy, for example (“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity”), or this week’s Psalm (“Happy are those… The wicked are not so…”), or this week’s reading from Jeremiah (“Cursed are those… Blessed are those…”) (Deut 30:15-20; Psalm 1:1,4; Jeremiah 17:5,7). Jesus adopts and adapts this ancient motif as a crucial framing device for his teaching as a whole.
1) Matthew presents Jesus as a kind of new Moses, and so sets his version of this sermon “up the mountain,” just as Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai (Matthew 5:1). Luke, on the other hand, presents Jesus as a figure in the ancient prophetic tradition, less a new Moses and more a new Jeremiah. And while prophets may pray on mountaintops, as Jesus frequently does in Luke (Luke 6:12), their prophetic work is done down among the people, in the nit and grit of everyday life: “He came down with them and stood on a level place” (Luke 6:17). What’s more, prophets famously declare new life in such “level places” - think of Isaiah announcing, “the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain;” and likewise, think of Ezekiel’s famous “valley” (Hebrew biqah, “valley” or “plain”) of dry bones God restores to life (Isaiah 40:4; Ezekiel 37:1). Luke’s Jesus is down and dirty: he walks, and heals, and teaches in the valleys and on the plains, meeting us exactly where we are.
2) Addressing his disciples and at the same time overheard by the large, diverse crowds, Jesus proclaims four blessings and four woes, symmetrically arranged in a balanced pattern (poor - rich; hungry - full; weeping - laughing; people hate you - people speak well of you). These aren’t ethical recommendations, as if Jesus is saying, Go and become poor, hungry, sad, and outcast. On the contrary, Jesus is providing a map of blessing and woe, an orientation to how the world - both the world today and the world to come - actually works, despite appearances. It’s as if he’s saying, Let me give you a lay of the land: as you look around, it looks like the rich, well fed, happy, and admired have it made, that God’s blessings belong to them, and that the rest of us - the poor, hungry, sad, and excluded - are left out in the cold, as if God’s forgotten us. But I’ve come to tell you that the opposite is true: the dawning kingdom of God belongs to you, the poor, the hungry, the sad, the excluded. When heaven comes to earth, as it has now begun to come, you will have the places of highest honor! And the rich? Woe to you who are rich, well fed, happy, or admired - for the comforts you enjoy today will be, for you, as good as gets...
4) Does this mean there’s no hope for the rich or admired? On the one hand, Jesus is crystal clear here that riches and worldly prestige present major obstacles to participating in God’s dawning realm. What obstacles? Luke-Acts as a whole suggests several, from distraction to arrogance to missed opportunities for generosity - see, for example, how Luke describes early Christian communities as sharing all things in common, and in that sense eschewing personal riches entirely (Acts 2:44-45). But on the other hand, these “woes” also function as exhortations, challenging the rich and prestigious to change their ways and join the movement. And after all, regardless of how camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle difficult it may be for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom, Jesus later puts it this way: “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God” (Luke 18:27). In other words, while the “woes” are indeed tough and uncompromising, it’s never too late to get on board!
5) Finally, in this passage Jesus invites us to take up an evocative “eschatological” outlook on the world. The blessings he announces are on one level very much in the present; they are “already” in effect. The kingdom of God already belongs to the poor (Luke 6:20). And at the same time, on another level, the blessings Jesus announces are still to come; they are “not yet” in effect. The hungry “will be filled,” those who weep “will laugh,” and the outcast will be rewarded (Luke 6:21,23). We can think of this as an “already/not-yet” eschatological paradox, or rather, as a function of how profound change unfolds over time: as the new realm of God begins to break into the world as we know it, we may stake a claim and rejoice in what’s to come even before it fully arrives. The first light of dawn is not the day - but we may nonetheless celebrate, like a dawn chorus of birds, that the long night has come to an end.
1) Standing “on a level place” in the tradition of Jeremiah, Jesus declares blessings and woes. But in Jesus’ version, the blessed aren’t those who “trust in the Lord” (Jer 17:7), but rather the downtrodden and disinherited: the poor, hungry, sad, and outcast, the very people conventional wisdom would put squarely in the “woe” category. And to those conventionally considered blessed - the rich, well fed, happy, and admired - Jesus cries, “Woe to you!” It’s a counterintuitive map of the world that turns widespread assumptions about divine favor upside-down. God’s realm is dawning, the Great Jubilee - and the good news, as it turns out, is addressed directly to those who need it most.
2) Is it addressed to us? Well, to the extent that we are poor, hungry, mourning, or outcast, the answer is Yes - and at the same time, Jesus indirectly encourages everyone to be in solidarity with these same people, the better to become potential instruments and channels of divine blessing. And to the extent that we are rich, well fed, happy, or admired, we can hear Jesus’ “woes” as direct challenges calling us toward more just and generous ways of life. God’s realm is dawning, the Great Jubilee - and it’s not too late to join the movement!
3) As we’ve noted more than once over the last few weeks, Mary’s song continues to echo in these opening stories in Luke’s Gospel: God is “lifting up the lowly” and “bringing down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1:52). And what will this “lifting up” and “bringing down” create in the end? The kind of “level place” Isaiah and Ezekiel envisioned, the “rough places a plain” where even dry bones can thrive: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (Isa 40:4; Ezekiel 37:14).