Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)

The “sermon on a level place” (Luke 6:17-49) is one of the longest teaching discourses in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.

Luke 6:23
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.Photo by Jordan Donaldson | @jordi.d on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

February 17, 2019

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Commentary on Luke 6:17-26

The “sermon on a level place” (Luke 6:17-49) is one of the longest teaching discourses in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.

Luke portrays Jesus as the final eschatological prophet who announces the partial manifestation of the Realm of God in the present and points to its completion at the apocalypse. While the early church expected that coming to take place fairly soon, Luke prepares the community for a delay.

Jesus’ followers are to live in the present on the basis of the values and practices of the Realm. In Luke 6:17-49, the Lukan Jesus spells out representative qualities of living as eschatological witnesses of the Realm of God in the midst of the old-age. However, people do not live in the Realm on the strength of their own will. God empowers the eschatological community with the Holy Spirit.

Jesus stands on “a level place” (or “a plain”). Matthew sets a similar sermon on a mount to emphasize that Jesus received those teachings from God (Matthew 5-7). The geographical setting has a different function in the Gospel of Luke. Some prophets use the word “level” that provides the background for its use in Luke-Acts (pedinos in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings). The word “level” often refers to places of corpses, disgrace, idolatry, suffering, misery, hunger, annihilation, and mourning (see Jeremiah 9:22; 14:18; 30:4; Daniel 3:1; Joel 1:10, 20; 2: 22; 3:19; Habakkuk 3:17; Zechariah 12:11). Jesus teaches the way of the Realm in the midst of the world as such a level place.

At the same time, the prophets foresaw God renewing the level places. The glory of God (salvation) would be revealed in them (see also Isaiah 40:4, 18; Ezekiel 3:22, 23; 8:4). While standing in a broken level world Jesus teaches the ways of the present and coming renewal via the Realm of God.

Today’s preacher might trace continuities between life as broken level world then, and life in the broken level places of today. How is our world similar to the level places of the prophets and Luke? As the text unfolds, of course, the question becomes, “How do we manifest the values and practices of the Realm in the midst of the level places of life?”

Whereas Matthew begins the sermon on the mount with nine beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), Luke 6:20-26 begins the sermon on the plain with four beatitudes and four woes. The word “blessed” here refers to being aware in the present of having a place in the movement towards the Realm. To be “blessed” does not mean an absence of struggle. Indeed, as 6:22-23 indicates, to be in the community moving towards the realm can invite hatred, exclusion, being reviled, and being defamed as others reject the Realm and its witnesses. To be blessed is to live through such opposition aware that the struggle is temporary and that “your reward is great in heaven,’ that is, that God will gather the faithful into the Realm.

To live under the verdict of “woe” means condemnation — suffering under curse in the present and receiving final consignment to eternal punishment after the apocalypse. The woeful may not experience apparent discomfort during this life. But they mistake the wealth, overflowing tables, good times, and clubby relationships for God’s highest purposes. Like the rich person of Luke 16:19-31, they will awake to a fiery existence.

Although the Lukan Jesus does not directly urge listeners to make a choice between the ways of blessing and woe, the fact of these two possibilities implies such a choice. Luke wants listeners to choose the way of blessing.

In my view, the references to poverty, hunger, and weeping in Luke 6:20-21 are double entendres. At one level, Luke has in mind people in these broad social categories. At another level, we see from the parallel beatitude in 6:22-23 that Luke also has the followers of Jesus in mind.

The church includes people who are poor for whom the community sharing all things in common is the means whereby God provides for them (Acts 2:44-45; 4:34). Although Luke rarely uses the vocabulary of “hunger,” Luke pictures people “hungering” for the Realm (see Luke 13:22-29; Acts 2:37; 8:31-38; 10:30-33; 13:42-52). Like other end-time writers, Luke depicts people weeping because of the qualities of life in the old age (see Luke 7:13, 32, 38; 19:41; 22:62; Acts 9:39; 21:12). Jesus himself is hated, excluded, reviled and defamed, as is the church in Acts, especially Paul.

A preacher needs to handle Luke 6:24-26 carefully. A temptation is to pose a simple reversal as if those who now have wealth, eat well, laugh, and enjoy high standing according to the standards of the old age, will be hungry, and will mourn and weep in punishment (see also Luke 13:28).

To be sure, condemnation awaits those who do not repent. But a longer view of Luke’s attitude towards persons with wealth and high social standing reveals a pastoral concern: Luke wants such folk to avoid condemnation by repenting and joining the movement towards the Realm, which means putting their material resources at the service of the community (see Luke 3:10-14; 8:1-3; 12:13-21; 18:18-27; 19:1-10; Acts 2:42-47; Acts 4:35-5:11; 6:1-6; 20:33-35). Luke intends to shock persons with wealth into repentance and sharing their money and goods.

Many Eurocentric congregations in the long-established denominations are in a peculiar relationship to this passage. For many are aware that today’s world is a fractured “level place” in the Lucan sense described above. But few such congregations are deeply hungry for (much less weeping for) the level of social transformation implied in the Realm. Only a few contemporary Christians and congregations are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed because of their witness. Indeed, my impression is that most congregations today in the long-standing denominations are in situations more like that of those of Luke’s world who had wealth, were full, and laughing, and were in good social standing according to the standards of the old age.

In such a context, the preacher’s calling may be to help the community to recognize its actual point of identification with the text (with those of means, etc.), to realize the consequences of continuing that identification, namely punishment, and to think afresh about how it might begin to move more towards witnessing to the Realm. To do so is to experience the blessing of Luke 6:20-23.