In this morning’s gospel reading, we hear Luke’s version of what we know as The Beatitudes. Beatitude, from the Latin beatus, is defined as: a state of utmost bliss, and is synonymous with felicity, gladness, happiness, joy, and especially blessedness. It is the word blessed which we hear at the beginning of each statement Jesus gives. In Matthew’s gospel, we hear a longer version of the Beatitudes which comes from a sermon Jesus gives to his followers, known as the Sermon on the Mount. It is this version I remember hearing each year when Franco Zefferelli’s epic “Jesus of Nazareth” was broadcast on TV just prior to Easter. You may remember Zefferelli’s strikingly incongruous Anglo Jesus with crystal blue eyes delivering the Beatitudes to a great crowd assembled around him, augmented by the uplifting sound of a string orchestra, giving the moment a dramatic sense of beauty and hope.
Luke’s version, known as the Sermon on the Plain, is spare with only four Beatitudes. Besides the location and brevity of Luke’s version, the other difference is that each statement of blessedness is balanced by a woe, emphasizing two rival ways of human conduct and the reversal of human values that we hear throughout Luke. The gospel writer sets the scene by telling us that people had come not only from Judea and Jerusalem, but from the coast of Tyre and Sidon. Traditionally, we understand the gospel writer of Luke to himself be a Gentile, outside the covenant between God and Israel. Where Matthew’s gospel is written for a community of Jewish believers who are asking questions about how their belief in Jesus intersects with the faith of their upbringing, Luke is proclaiming the promise of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ, outside of Judaism. What do we notice about these Beatitudes and their subsequent ‘woes’ in Luke? Let me suggest two things:
First, we may notice that each Beatitude is associated with something that we may not understand as a blessing or the doorway into a state of ‘utmost bliss.’ Being poor, hungry, sad, and disrespected are not ways our modern minds would associate with a state of happiness. We live in a culture that values wealth, prosperity, personal well-being, and being held in high regard by our peers. In Jesus day, if you were poor, hungry, sad, and reviled then there was a reason, and that reason must be because of your sin against God. There was a sense that someone’s state of being was associated with God’s bestowing on your blessing or divine retribution. If people of Jewish faith who had sinned in some way and were considered un-pure in the sight of their own religious leaders, then certainly it followed that anyone outside the belief structures and purity codes of Judaism were also to be avoided for fear of becoming unclean by association.
In our own day, we may see attitudes that are analogous with ancient views on morality. The difference is we may not associate these necessarily with sin, but by someone’s ethnicity, neurodivergence, sexual orientation, age, economic status, upbringing, education, and others. These differences, which are viewed with disdain and judgement, are pathologized as moral failures: you may be viewed as emotionally unstable, immature, lazy, ugly, and generally unworthy of respect, esteem, value, and love based on factors that are not in your control.[i] In a world that increasingly claims a view of ‘spiritual not religious,’ purity codes and non-traditional tribal structures claiming moral superiority still seek to exclude and disparage those who fail to rise to the occasion, meet societal expectations, and conform to specific group-think within a certain boundary.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus turns these tables upside-down by associating God, not with those who have it all together and fit within the norms of tribe and institution, but rather specifically with those who have been cast out, devalued by society, deemed unworthy of love, care, and respect. Jesus is telling us that the reasons that we are irritated by someone, hold them in disdain, and avoid them are the very reasons that He loves them, seeks their well-being, and pitches His tent in their camp. This is the very essence of the incarnation, that the infinite and all holy God, creator of all that is, would enter into our own finite flesh and blood, seeking to rescue, redeem, and save us from our vanity, self-obsession, and tribalism. Jesus message was that we are all created in the image of God, for the pleasure of relationship with God, and with the same capacity to create, redeem, and transfigure a world enveloped in sin and alienation. But this comes with the giving and acceptance of grace, recognizing that our petty divisions are of our own making and that we all are united both in our capacity for sin and our being loved by God unconditionally.
Second, I think the ‘woes’ that mirror the Beatitudes in Luke, are a call to self-awareness in the ways we most resemble that which we disdain. To be sure, that which we find repugnant and irritating in someone else is often a reflection of the very thing we can not countenance in ourselves. Jesus says: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
When we are triggered by actions, attitudes, or the very countenance of another, it is important identify and explore that trigger for clues as to a better awareness of self. What might be triggering you might not even be what is directly in front of you, but tied something ingrained deep within you. Perhaps this is something caused by your own experience of being cast out, devalued, deemed unworthy of love, care, and respect; something in need of deep healing. This is the reason Jesus counters the Beatitudes with the woes: we are all a part of God’s creation who have been deceived by Satan into believing that we are not enough and are unworthy of God’s love. Therefore, we have sought out to be worthy by a different standard and have perpetuated unworthiness by projecting it on to others. Jesus is calling us all home, to lay aside our projections of hurt, shame, and blame and know that by the gift of God’s grace, we are all truly blessed and are called to be arbiters of that same blessing to others. Let us pray:
O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Lectionary Year/Proper: Year C; Epiphany VI
[i] Kealty, C. (2022, February 7). Attention, Inattention, and Divine Pursuit: On Theology and Neurodivergent Experience. Earth & Altar. https://earthandaltarmag.com/posts/g6e3lcvza5peisjm8cvzdi0ovkuvfm
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