Sunday, February 13, 2022
The Challenge of the Beatitudes
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
6th Sunday of Epiphany
Feb. 13, 2022
Over the years we hear about the occasional fight about posting the 10 commandments in public buildings. I remember a discussion 30 years ago at a school where I taught that was putting up a wall with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution for a big display. Several parents wanted to include the 10 commandments. Now I’m not going to spend any time on the issue but every time I hear this argument I think, so why doesn’t anyone ever want to post the Beatitudes? I mean if we really wanted to promote Christianity wouldn’t it be logical to be up front and use something that Jesus said and taught?
I think the answer is easy. The 10 commandments are clear and relatively easy to follow even though there are two versions of them in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Beatitudes are far more challenging and the two versions in Matthew and Luke are radically different. Without a doubt the version we have here in Luke is even more challenging than the version in Matthew.
Different you may say? Did any of you catch the difference? Or did you just sort of glaze over while I read the gospel thinking oh yeah, the Beatitudes, I know them. So, what are the differences and what difference does it make.
Let’s start with where Jesus is as he says them. In Luke this is the Sermon on the Plain and in Matthew it is the Sermon on the Mount. So, Jesus comes down to the crowd in Luke where in Matthew he takes the disciples up on the mountain. Remember in Luke the big thing is the great reversal where the world is turned upside down and everyone is equal. For Luke, this requires him to place Jesus on the same footing as the crowd.
Luke packs the entire teaching into one chapter of 30 verses where Matthew goes on for three chapters and 109 verses. Now we don’t know if Matthew added his verses or if Luke gives us a condensed version with a more general coverage of the topics. However, the thrust especially of the section we have is different. This is probably because Matthew and Luke are writing to totally different audiences living about 20-30 years apart, with Luke be the later gospel. Remember I have mentioned before that each gospel author has a specific audience and a specific agenda that governs how and what they chose to include.
In Luke his is a large crowd who have come to be instructed, not a group who are going to challenge Jesus as happens in so much of Matthew. This is in keeping with Luke being a gospel that is being spread to a predominately Gentile audience. There are people from not just Judea, Jerusalem, but also the coastal areas of Tyre and Sidon. Now it is important to know that Tyre and Sidon are predominately Greek, in other words Gentile territory. He is healing all people and casting out demons from all, regardless of their religious status. They seek to touch him for power came out of him. So, the setting and the people present are quite different.
Now we get to the heart of the differences. Rather than 8 statements of Blessed are… that we hear in Matthew, Luke has 4 blessings and 4 woes. Short and succinct they proclaim blessings to the downtrodden, the poor, the hungry, those who weep and those who are hated because of the gospel. And then the 4 woes to all who are basically anyone who is wealthy, powerful and well respected. That last category would be the people Matthew is trying to convert so he is not going to attack them directly. Matthew spiritualizes his beatitudes in part to make them more palatable for his Jewish audience.
Luke’s audience however is going to consist of more of those who his first 4 blessings would apply to and his woes would not be speaking to many in his crowd. It also struck me this week that Luke is the only gospel that has the Magnificat. The Song of Mary. Think back to that passage from Advent and the focus. Mary the humble servant proclaims the mighty will be pulled down from their thrones, but the lowly will be lifted up. The poor will be fed while the rich will be sent away empty. He has scattered the proud in their conceit. Do you see the parallels with the 4 woes? This is a consistent message in Luke of the preferential treatment of the poor to quote a doctrine of the Roman Catholic church.
Luke’s version challenged the dominant culture of the first century, but it also challenges the dominant culture of our world today and should make us uncomfortable. However, so many use success as examples of God’s favor towards us and we see that in the prosperity gospel. If you are successful, it is because you are faithful, but if bad things happen well obviously you are not in God’s favor.
This sanitizes the message of Jesus because it allows people to then say, well, they are poor it’s their own fault. They just need to work harder, stop being lazy, stop being sinful, pull themselves up by their own bootstraps or whatever phrase someone want to use. BTW the original meaning of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” in the late 1800s meant to try to do something that was impossible. Jesus’ message in his teaching in Luke on the Beatitudes is an in-your-face message of condemnation to the wealthy and powerful of the time.
As most of you know I was on vacation last week. Wendy and I took a cruise to the Eastern Caribbean. To be honest I really didn’t care where we went, I just wanted a week to unplug from the stress of the world and just rest. One of our stops was St. Thomas in the American Virgin Islands. There was no beach in walking distance to the harbor, so we got on an open sided bus and went up and over the mountain to a wonderful beach. What I couldn’t help noticing though was as we left the harbor the houses were for the most part ramshackle and obviously owned or rented by people who were poor. There was at least one large apartment complex that looked decent, but the apartments were small by our standards even in an American territory. As we ascended the mountain the homes got bigger and much nicer. Of course, the people in the poorer section were the ones who did the labor, the wait staff, the hotel maids for those of us on vacation. I watched to see if anybody else in that bus seemed to notice the poverty and not a word was said. It was like they were oblivious to what they were seeing. They looked right past it out onto the beautiful beaches and waters of the Caribbean. Jesus, I think would stop that bus and say, “Look around you these people are my children too.”
I think Jesus wants us to stop our bus here in Katy, in Houston, and say look around you. I love these poor and hungry just as much as I love you. You have attained much but you need share and care for those with little because I do. This is why we are looking, as part of our mission and vision work, to start to do more in our Outreach ministries. Emma Zone is working on a new effort for Lent. We are in the early stages of discussing with a new non-profit a new effort to help with food insecurity in our neighborhood and in case you didn’t know that’s a real issue here. Just come by the Nigerian church on the other end of Drexel when their food pantry is set up in the parking lot. Come by our parking lot most any weekday morning and see all the cars parked here. They are parents of the children at Hutsell who are coming to school to learn to speak English. The poor, the hungry, the immigrant are all right here at our front door.
As we move forward with our mission and vision work it is absolutely critical that our mission to those who Jesus has said are blessed needs to be a priority. Otherwise, we run the risk of falling into the other category.