A Provocation: Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany: February 17, 2019: Luke 6:17-26

17    He went down with them.
       He stood on a level place.
           A great crowd of his disciples
           and a great multitude of the host
               from all of Judea
               and Jerusalem
               and the coast of Tyre to Sidon.
18       They came to hear him
               and to be healed from their sicknesses.
               Those troubled from unclean breaths were cured.
19      All the crowd kept seeking to seize him
             because power
                 from him
             kept going out
             and he was healing all.
20    He lifted his eyes
           into his disciples.
       He was saying:
           Godlike in happiness,
               the poor,
                   because to you is the Dominion of Elohim.
21        Godlike in happiness,
                the hungry,
                    because you will be satisfied.
           Godlike in happiness,
                the wailers,
                    because you will laugh.
22        Godlike in happiness you are
                whenever they hate you,
                    whenever people do,
                and whenever they cut you off,
                    and insult you,
                    and throw out your name
                        as bad
                            on account of the son of adam.
23        Rejoice in that day
           and skip
               for look:
                   your reward is in the heaven.
                       According to the same things
                       they were doing to the prophets
                           their fathers did.
24        But
               Woe to you,
                   the rich,
                   because you are receiving your summons.
25            Woe to you,
                   the filled up,
                       because you will be hungry.
                   the laughers
                       because you will mourn and wail.
26            Woe
                    whenever they speak well of you,
                        all of them,
                        all people,
                            according to the same things
                            they kept doing to the false prophets
                                their fathers did.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Matthew have a Sermon on the Mount when Luke has a Sermon on the Plain?
  • Why is that not the only difference between the sermons?

Some Longer Reflections:

Jesus is teaching and healing. And the people are seeking to seize him.

Their motivation would appear to lie in his restorative actions. They see in him the sign that God is acting to turn the world right-side-up.

The word that I’ve translated as “seized” needs a closer look. The word in Greek is ἅπτεσθαι, which is the root from which the word “haptics” on my Apple watch comes. In its mildest forms, it refers to the act of touching. It means “to lay hands on,” and thus I translate it as “seized.”

I was working with a group of pastors this past week, and one of them suggested that post-Super Bowl interviews offer the best look at what ἅπτεσθαι means. Key players are surrounded by reporters, players, fans, police officers, team staff: lots of people. Key players are surrounded (more significantly) by furious excitement. The Super Bowl is like that. Even if the game is dull, the event is a spectacle, and that spectacle if focused on the quarterback. In the interview, the pastor noted, people all around were grabbing at the quarterback, laying hands on him.

I think that pastor is right. Jesus was being mobbed.

And then Jesus delivers his Sermon on the Plain. The structure is interesting: three blessings are followed by an elaborate fourth blessing; three woes are followed by an elaborate fourth woe. These elaborate fourth steps are tied together in that they both refer to the prophets, true and false, and to the way people in the past received them.

This dance with the prophets of the past needs careful thought. It works well to imagine that true prophets announced woe and were therefore hated, which made them poor, hungry, and grief-stricken. And then, of course, false prophets announced blessings and were therefore spoken well of, which led to them being rich, well-fed, and filled with laughter.

That works.

But the prophets were more complicated than that. For one thing, the gospel of Luke (and all the gospels, in fact) is built out as midrash on the prophet Isaiah, who was held to be such a true prophet that at least two layers of later prophecy (named, not too creatively, Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah) were added to his life’s work long after his death. And Isaiah’s larger work is decidedly a mix of blessing and woe.

So the simple schema that links true prophecy with ringing denunciations will not hold. But neither will a retrospective schema that argues that true prophets were true because they were TRUE prophets. And we know they were TRUE prophets because they’re in the Bible and the being in the Bible makes them TRUE prophets.

Neither of these approaches is finally going to help.

So maybe the elaborate fourth steps are just conveniently linked by reference to the prophets, and maybe that doesn’t mean anything more. (Or, of course, maybe it does.)

The first three blessings and woes might be a better place to start. Even they are complicated, however. The last two in each series are clear reversals: people who are now hungry will be satisfied, those who are now stuffed will be hungry; people who now wail in grief will again laugh, and laughers will wail. These last steps are all anchored by the repeated contrast between NOW and a future reversal.

The first steps are a little different. People who are poor do not become rich; instead, Jesus says that the Dominion of Elohim is theirs. People who are rich do not become poor; instead, they are summoned into court.

This translation is atypical (as are many of my translations). The line is generally translated as relating to receiving consolation. But the Greek word, παράκλησιν, doesn’t exactly imply consolation or gentle comfort. The root of the word means “to call upon,” or even “to call out.” παράκλησιν means, properly, “to exhort,” which is not much like comforting.

I translate it as I do because of the story of the rich man and Lazarus. You know the story: Lazarus has a name, the rich man does not; the rich man has a home (a house with gates, actually), Lazarus does not; Lazarus has nasty sores and is thrown at the rich man’s gate. Both men die, Lazarus is gathered into Abraham’s lap, and the rich man is buried. From his torment, the nameless rich man tells Abraham to order Lazarus to bring him water. Assumption of privilege extends beyond death, apparently. Abraham notes that the rich man had received good things, and Lazarus had not. Traditional translations have him also contrast Lazarus’ comfort with the rich man’s agony. The word translated as “comfort” is παράκλησιν. I can’t read it as saying that Lazarus is now being exhorted.

But the word also means “called into court.” And if Lazarus has been called into court as a witness, then it makes sense that the rich man might be in agony. The storyteller notes that Lazarus was “thrown” at the gates of the rich man’s house. Perhaps Lazarus had been one of the rich man’s servants, and had been thrown out of the house because he had developed nasty sores. Maybe that is how the rich man knew his name, and imagined (even after death) that he could order Lazarus around.

But if παράκλησιν means “called into court” in the Lazarus and the rich man story, maybe it means the same thing here. Maybe the rich man has been called into court.

The Sermon on the Plain paints the world in black-and-white contrasts, not because (I think) the world is about bi-polar opposites, but because the world has both wailing and laughing in it, both hungry and stuffed people. The world also has both poverty and wealth, and always has had. But this is a Jewish story (not a surprise, since Jesus is Jewish), and Jewish interpretation of the Creation of the world understands that when God made the world, God created enough for all of life to flourish. Since the world has always had poverty and wealth, it is a human duty (in the faith of Jesus) to facilitate flourishing: people have to share so that everyone can bless God for creating so well and richly.

With that background in mind, Jesus has just said, “Woe to rich people: they will be called to answer in court for preventing the flourishing of Creation.”

Which is something like the prophet Isaiah said.

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