In Sunday’s Gospel we hear Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain”. He stands on “a level place” or “a plain” to speak to the crowd. Matthew sets a similar Sermon on a mountain to parallel the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
Whereas Matthew begins the Sermon on the Mount with eight Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), Luke begins the Sermon on the Plain with four Beatitudes and four Woes. The blessings and woes describe a world that reverses almost everything they (and we) know of how things work.
We learn from the first Chapter of Luke’s Gospel that he is writing to someone of high social standing; “most excellent Theophilus” – probably a non-Jewish, gentile, convert to the Christian community – someone who is being instructed on the way of Christ. So we need to hear Luke’s Sermon on the Plain through the ears of a high-standing elite person seeking to know the truth of Jesus’ way. What does it mean for such a person to join Jesus’ community?
Is Theophilus poor, hungry, weeping now? Most likely, not.
Is Theophilus rich, full, happy now? Most likely, yes.
Jesus’ teachings were not intended to tickle the ear. His goal in preaching was never intended to give people what they want to hear, but to give them instead what they need to hear. Although his miracles and healings and free meals had attracted great multitudes of people, He did not try to give them only what they wanted to hear. He gave them the hard truth – that following Him would be a tough road. Jesus spoke of poverty, hunger, and persecution as blessings, and of wealth, being well-fed and favored as bringing a curse. He taught people to love their enemies, and not to retaliate. He taught that one should give to those in need, knowing that they would never be repaid. These were not very popular teachings. Yet He knew that it is better to speak the truth and risk popularity, than to speak lies and risk eternity.
This is what we hear Jesus doing in the Gospel passage. These verses contain four blessings and four woes. And it is in these blessings and woes that we run headlong into Christ’s upside-down world which is actually right side up.
The first time you read them they are impossible. The second time you read them, nothing else is possible.
We who follow Christ are women and men of eternity. We put no confidence in the passing scenes of the disappearing world. Nothing less than forever is long enough for us.
There are two messages in Sunday’s Gospel. One comforting and one possibly discomforting. Blessed indeed is the disciple with the courage to hear both.