Luke 6:17-26


Interpreting the Mission (1) – Overturning Expectations

Luke 6:17-26  -  Jesus Heals and Teaches Beatitudes

17 He came down with them and stopped on level ground.
A whole crowd of disciples
and a great number of people from all round Judea and Jerusalem
and the coastal area of Tyre and Sidon 
18 gathered to hear him
and to be cured of their diseases;
and those troubled by unclean spirits were healed.
19 The whole crowd was seeking to touch him
because power came out of him and healed everyone.

When he began to outline Jesus’ public ministry around Galilee, Luke had adopted Mark’s comment that Jesus’ teaching made a deep impression on them because he spoke with authority (4:32). At this stage of the Gospel, Luke stepped aside from the order of Mark’s Gospel to present at length some of the teachings of Jesus. (Luke used as his source a collection of teachings that was used also by Matthew.) He wished to connect Jesus’ teaching clearly to Jesus’ healing ministry. The obvious purpose of the teaching was to illustrate the nature of the call to conversion, which was the necessary context for true healing and wholeness. 

Matthew’s setting for the teaching was a mountainside. (A mountain had been the site of Moses’ encounter with the teaching God.) Luke situated the scene on level ground. Echoes of Moses did not stir the same instinctive reactions in Luke’s Gentile community as it did in Matthew’s.

Though Luke presented the teachings as a single address, they would have been given on a variety of different occasions and in a range of contexts. Luke’s source had already provided some preliminary collating of similar themes, but a number of the sayings seem in fact unconnected. 

20 He lifted his gaze and said to his disciples,
“Blessed are you poor,
because the Kingdom of God is yours.
21Blessed are you now suffering hunger,
because you will be satisfied.
Blessed you now weeping,
because you will come to laugh.
22 “You are blessed when people hate you
and when they ostracise you
and criticise and marginalise you as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
23 Rejoice and dance at that time
for your reward will be great in heaven.
Their ancestors used to do the same to the prophets. 
24But sadness awaits you who are rich now
because you have had your reward;
25and sadness awaits you too who have all you want now
because you will go hungry;
and sadness awaits you who now enjoy yourselves
because you will mourn and weep.
26 “And sadness awaits you when everyone speaks well of you
since their ancestors did the same with the false prophets.

The blessings took up the issues that Luke had introduced in Mary’s prayer on the occasion of her visit to Elizabeth (the Magnificat). Mary sang of a God who lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things; who scattered the proud, brought down the powerful and sent the rich away empty. In the synagogue at Nazareth Jesus, quoting from Isaiah, had celebrated the God who brought release to the captives, let the oppressed go free and gave sight to the blind. 

The issue of actual poverty and wealth would recur again in Luke’s on-going reflection on the teachings of Jesus. (It will be dealt with in this commentary when the context adds more substance to explore his thought.) Somehow Jesus seemed to see poverty closely connected with the experience of the Kingdom.

Unlike the poor and the rich, whose experience of inclusion or exclusion from the year of the Lord’s favour was immediate, the reversal in status of the hungry and the weepers would be different. It was the hungry and suffering now in the present situation, as well as those suffering criticism and marginalisation now on account of the Son of Man, who were in fact blessed now, precisely because such sufferings were brought on by their deeper experience of freedom characterising their life in a renewed world. Hunger, sorrow and marginalisation were not values in themselves. 

On the contrary, those satisfied, enjoying themselves and honoured in the present were able to feel that way precisely because they were indifferent to the call to conversion. Not having chosen life in the Kingdom, their present experience was one of denial; and coupled with their revulsion, hatred and exclusion of disciples, it indicated an unconscious background of fear, resentment, bitterness, and violence. In addition, unchanged and unconverted, they would not benefit from the Lord’s favour. 

The language used by Jesus (as well as by Mary) could suggest a reversal of fortunes through an eventual (and violent?) intervention by God. A thoughtful reading of the whole Gospel gives a fuller perspective on the imagery. Future reversal and its fruits will always be factors of personal conversion, expressed in practice in the relationships and attitudes that constitute life in society.

As far as Luke was concerned, whom did Jesus intend to number among the poor, the hungry, the weepers, the hated, excluded, reviled and defamed? Jesus was obviously speaking to a broad segment of Jewish society from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. Luke, however, was writing for his own community, and not people in general. Did the message apply to certain members of his community only? or to all of them?  

Next >> Luke 6:27-38