Commentary on Luke 6:17-26
The preacher has a clear focus on the blessings and woes named by Jesus for the crowds who have come to be healed and to hear him. These verses put today’s hearers on a level plain/playing field (verse 17) with all those to whom Jesus once spoke: the twelve, the crowd of disciples and the “multitude” from all over the area. All these people, including us, whatever our commitments to Jesus as teacher or master, whatever our understanding, get to hear Jesus open such a different world view from our own that it still leaves us gasping, both stirred and shaken (apologies to James Bond).
There are two reasons that Jesus’ words can leave us shaken. First, there is real power behind them, power to make things happen in his time and in our here-and-now. Before this teaching about God’s reign and the way of being expected of all who are in relationship with God, Jesus is on the mountain, a place of closeness to God, praying.
Prayer guides his next steps, the choice of the twelve and descent to the masses of folks waiting for him at the foot of the mountain. At that point we hear that “power came out of him” and healed everyone (dynamis, verse 19). Power flowed from Jesus, and not just any power, but the power of God. And that power was all about healing and restoring those who had come for help.
The multitudes and we dare trust Jesus’ capacity to speak truly of God for he demonstrates God’s power for good in healing and casting out demons. In verse 20, he spoke to his disciples (a larger group than the Twelve but including them). The blessings and woes that follow describe a world that reverses almost everything they (and we) know of how things work. Hearers of Luke’s gospel could recall Mary’s words in 1:46-55. Even before Jesus was born, she was inspired to speak of a great reversal in the physical circumstances of God’s people. Mary’s words are a patchwork of references from her scripture, recalling God’s promised mercy, so long awaited.
In Jesus’ own inspired speech in Nazareth in Luke 4 (see verses 1, 14, 18-21), he used prophetic words from Isaiah and language from the Jubilee year to promise fulfillment of God’s promised healing and freedom from captivity. Now in this third major presentation of Jesus’ messianic purpose, he once again describes a world shaped by God and not human mores.
Jesus’ speech in these verses is quite direct. Note all the “you” and “yours” (in the plural form) for both the beatitudes and the woes. His speech is also rhythmic. Those who are blessed and those who hear the prophetic “woe” find that their circumstances will be reversed. Poor and rich, hungry and filled, weeping and laughing, hated and admired are in the very process of being reversed or will be.
Justo Gonzalez calls this a “hard-hitting gospel”1 in that God’s good news to the poor is also tough news for those who are not poor. For God’s reign to be good news for the well-fed, rich, laughing, and admired, they will have to wake up and change their ways. We dare not overlook or spiritualize this aspect of Luke’s gospel. It is a gift he brings to us. Consider the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:14-31 or the man who would build two barns in Luke 12:16-21. Here riches distract from heeding the ways of God and lead these men away from life with God now and in the hereafter. Also consider Zacchaeus in 19:1-10 who is declared to be “a child of Abraham” after he explains his generous re-distribution of his wealth.
One danger for the preacher is to allow these words to imply that it is better to be poor, hungry, and the like than to be rich, well-fed, and the like. Does God only love us when we are miserable? That is not the brunt of these words. They are promises to those who are suffering in this world that God still sees them, loves them, and is intent on their thriving. Jesus’ words are also warning calls to his hearers that they are called to live with attention and generosity toward their neighbors, even as God is attentive and generous.
God is creating a realm, bringing it to life among us by that same power that emanated from Jesus, in which no one is hungry or mourning or poor or disregarded at the very same time that others are abundantly well-fed, rich, laughing, and respected. It’s the contemporaneity of these two opposite circumstances that God promises to remedy, and we are called to address in our own lives.
The gospel was written for Christians living a generation or two after the first groups of believers had gathered. In this teaching of Jesus, as so often in his gospel, Luke reminds his hearers that they are all called to continue to live lives “rich toward God “(Luke 12:21) no matter how long it seems to be taking for God’s reign to be fully present. That is an important word also for us.
The “wealth gap,” “food deserts,” the “education gap,” the “health gap,” and myriad other gaps and failures around the globe mark the two sides of the blessings and woes. It’s the gap we are called to address by this passage for God’s sake and our own. It’s what children of God do and what they repent of not having done, confident that God gives new opportunities to live with generosity and attention.
- Justo Gonzalez. Luke. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p.93