Commentary on Luke 6:20-31
Saints come in many varieties, but in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain Jesus focuses on certain kinds who receive his attention throughout his ministry: the poor, the hungry, the crying, and the hated or ostracized.
All of those people, he promises, are “blessed” (makarios in Greek).
Blessed and woe
“Blessed” has become a very churchy word with little meaning for most people. “Happy” is another common translation of makarios, but that word has grown too small in contemporary usage, I fear. Think of makarios as “unburdened” or “satisfied.”
Jesus also addresses people who are the opposite of the first groups: the wealthy, the satiated, the laughing, and the acclaimed. To all of these he cries out, “Woe!”
In this context, “woe” functions as a sharp contrast to “blessed,” yet the Greek word ouai does not mean “cursed” or “unhappy.” Certainly not “damned.” Like the English word yikes, it is more of an attention-getter and emotion-setter than a clear characterization or pronouncement.
Jesus therefore promises relief to some groups, to those people who travel rough roads through life. To others, to folks who find existence rather enjoyable or easy, he cries, “Look out!”
The big question for the preacher to consider is why those comfortable people should look out. What’s wrong with health, wealth, and merriment? Hold onto that question for a few paragraphs.
The passage’s rhetoric of binaries and reversals needs to be taken seriously. But at the same time interpreters should not overstate what Jesus is up to and assume the blesseds and woes are clear promises about rewards and punishments coming in the future. If the reign of God “is among you” (Luke 17:21) already, even now, then the blessed and woe statements signal something for people to experience in the present.
Jesus sees the world through glasses that distort the conventional values everyone else sees. His spectacles turn everything upside-down, just as Mary’s prophetic vision does in Luke 1:46-55. Things operate differently in the reign of God, as seen while that new state of affairs becomes manifest in Jesus’ ministry. His work and message actively benefit the disadvantaged, not the privileged (cf. Luke 4:16-19; 5:30-32).
He brings satisfaction and belonging to those who suffer from poverty—which includes more than the people who lack money but also the powerless and the disenfranchised.1 His ministry feeds the hungry, which likely anticipates the wondrous deed he performs in Luke 9:12-17 and his penchant for eating with others. It also lays a foundation for the hospitality and meal-sharing that are hallmarks of the community he creates. The people who cry, who live in perpetual loss and grief and who have lost hope, will not be forgotten but will experience joy (e.g., Luke 7:13; 8:52; 23:27-28; 24:52). Exclusion and persecution prove to be no match for those who share in Jesus’ prophetic, liberative ministry.
Focusing on Jesus’ good news for the distressed brings us back to the question of why other people need to watch out, or why they should be pitied. Don’t they already enjoy the satisfaction and the blessedness that Jesus promises others? Why doesn’t Jesus just say that everyone will receive plenty and security? Is he suggesting that the reign of God operates as a zero-sum game in which every winner corresponds to a loser or every one of today’s pleasures will get repaid with a punishment tomorrow?
No, not if the woe statements signal a reality that already exists. Jesus urges his hearers to reassess their lives in light of God’s unfolding reign. It seems to me that Jesus’ woe statements are revealing something—that the things we assume are advantages are actually illusory. What if money, food, comfort, self-won security, respectability, and the like are things that kill our souls—not just in some far-off afterlife but right here, right now? What a tragedy to mistake them for benefits given by God, then.
As the passage continues, we get a better sense of how to keep our souls alive and not be tricked by counterfeit blessings.
A theology of love, nonretaliation, and solidarity
The lectionary reading ends with commands about love and nonretaliation, even though Jesus’ sermon itself continues beyond verse 31. His words in Luke 6:27-30 are much more general than those in the parallel passage from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:39-40, 42, 44). Details in the Matthean version set Jesus’ commands in a context of unjust or humiliating demands placed upon a person. The absence of those details in Luke makes for a much stronger focus on nonretaliation as a virtue in any and all circumstances. (The so-called Golden Rule in Luke 6:31 is quite similar to what appears in Matt 7:12.)
Many hear Jesus’ words about unlimited generosity and become worried—with good reason—about whether these teachings encourage victimization. It takes little imagination to see the damage these verses can cause when plucked from context and made to overlook domestic abuse and economic exploitation. Plenty of other biblical passages suggest that Jesus would agree with that concern. The task for preachers is to figure out exactly how Jesus’ radical ethic of self-giving applies and does not apply, without stripping away everything remarkable or challenging about his notion of generosity. His point isn’t to deprive anyone of their dignity; it is to demonstrate the mercy of God (Luke 6:36), which is a mercy so extravagant it looks foolish by our conventional measures.
Do not run too quickly past the explicit and implicit ways in which Jesus’ sermon invokes the compassion and mercy of God. Jesus is doing theology here, not ethics rooted in abstract notions of obligation or decency. He is describing ways of living that conform to God’s commitment to see the poor and unprivileged raised up.
The communion of saints—that intimate unity we share through Christ with one another, including those who have finished their race—creates a community, a new social reality. Jesus’ sermon describes that community as odd. Its values do not match life experience, in terms of who typically experiences happiness and how. Nor do they conform to the cold logic of cost-benefit analyses. Jesus calls the church to more than acting differently or seeing the world differently. He calls us, each of us, to a new existence in which God’s generosity benefits the downtrodden. That generosity creates a culture formed and sustained by the mercy of God. Woe to those who are missing opportunities to experience tangibly the giving and receiving of that mercy.
Rich, satiated, carefree, and respectable people can share immediately in the new existence God has instituted, but only to the degree to which they participate in Christ’s calling to enter into true solidarity with those who find themselves destitute, underfed, mournful, and vilified.
Woe to those who refuse to risk that solidarity. Look out! What blessedness we are missing.
On the connections between Luke’s language about wealth and issues relating to power, privilege, and social standing, see Joel B. Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 79-84, 113-17.