Woe to you... Most Christians are familiar with our Lord’s beautiful Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes which it contains. For many of us, the Beatitudes – Jesus’ list of blessings – remains a favourite prayer or passage of Scripture. Some of you could probably recite it by heart. And while the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes are an integral part of the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Luke also contains a lesser-known version of this Sermon and the Beatitudes. And, it is from Luke’s version that today’s Gospel narrative comes to us. Curiously, by the way, Luke places Jesus, not on a Mount, as does Matthew, but “on a level place,” as the text calls it, in other words on a sort of meadow or plain where everyone is presumably eye-to-eye. Scholars debate the significance of this, but most seem to think that Luke wishes to portray Jesus as a man of the people among the people, living, working and preaching the Kingdom from within their midst. Our Lord’s words are here addressed to the disciples to whom he directs his gaze, but the implication is that his words are also heard, or overheard, by the gathered multitudes which surround them. Now, the Hebrew Scriptures are of course replete with words of blessing and happiness, or beatitude. “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,” Jeremiah tells us in our first Reading today, for instance. And, “Happy are they,” proclaims the Psalmist, who avoid “the counsel of the wicked.” So, it is not surprising to find that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in turn gives us blessings or beatitudes, nine of them in Matthew, depending upon how you slice and count them; and Luke on the other hand, a mere four. Luke’s Beatitudes, or Blessings, are also shorter and more direct and practical than Matthew’s more spiritualised and mystical Beatitudes. All of which may further imply that Luke wishes to depict Jesus addressing the real-life issues of ordinary people in the here- and-now, people concerned with the practical matters of everyday life and, well, everyday beatitude. Luke’s Jesus by the way does not say as he does in Matthew’s account, “Blessed are those...” Luke rather has Jesus proclaim, “Blessed are you...” Luke’s Gospel is also, almost uniquely, one of radical reversals of fortune. It is a Gospel, in other words, in which we frequently find things turned on their head. What is up one day is down the next. The old and barren conceive. The Son of God is born in a garden shed. The poor become rich; and the rich end up poor. Think for instance of the beautiful Magnificat, the prayer in verse which Luke puts into the mouth of Mary, the mother-to-be of our Lord. She marvels that the Lord “has brought down the powerful from their Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Budapest The Third Sunday Before Lent 13 February 2022 Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26
thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” This is but one example of many turn-arounds and exchanges of fortune in Luke’s Gospel. Nothing is as we might expect, and alas little is as we so often see it in the world around us even today, in which too often oligarchs prevail, the powerful become the autocratic, and, the poor become alas ever more destitute. But for Luke, it is not like that. The rich do not always get richer. Power becomes weakness; the hungry eat; and the well-to-do go hungry. You can count on it. Expect the unexpected, Luke might well tell us. Have patience. And so if there is blessing and beatitude in the world around us, you can be sure there is also woe. In Luke’s telling, the familiar Beatitudes, or blessings, of the Gospel of Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount are balanced with woes and polar reversals not found elsewhere in the Gospels. “Woe to you...” cautions Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Woe to you, the rich and otherwise fortunate. Be on guard. Things are not as they appear. Things will not always remain as they are. Good fortune and riches are not necessarily a sign of God’s favour and blessing, no matter what wealthy televangelists may tell you. In fact, in God’s grand scheme of things, in God’s topsy-turvy economy as I like to call it, wealth and good fortune count for little or nothing. Jesus, in Luke’s version of our Lord’s sermon, proclaims that God’s favour is not just with the “poor in spirit,” as Matthew would have it, but with the poor period. A revolutionary thought, if there ever was one. Luke’s Gospel was, and remains, one of the most challenging and dangerous books of the entire New Testament canon. For, as one commentator explains, Luke depicts a world in which there are no more poor, hungry, or weeping people. For Luke, Jesus’ coming has changed all that is wrong with the world. In Jesus, the end-time of peace and justice, the Kingdom of God, has already touched this impoverished world of ours and given us a glimpse of a world of justice and divine grace. Present and future meld into one, as do the physical and the spiritual. And this inner or deeper reality becomes in turn the foundation or cornerstone of our Lord’s message for those who accept his words. If you are poor, you are rich; but rich in that which matters. If you find yourself weeping now, you shall yet laugh with joy at God’s bounty and mercy. If you are hungry, you will be fed with good things. All in God’s good time. If Luke’s world-vision is filled with reversals and about-turns, it yet offers hope for our world today, a world as filled with woe and misfortune as has been any age or time. We well shake our heads in disbelief to learn of the evil around us: the threat of war and the destruction it would bring; the abuse and neglect of children, the aged, and the sick; endemic poverty and civil strife in many corners of the globe. It would be all too easy to lose all hope; to lose all patience; to give up on our world. Indeed, it seems some have indeed lost all hope and serenity. But in Luke’s telling of the Gospel of Jesus, the bad news is sometimes the good news. Woes become blessings. And evil points us to ultimate Good; to salvation; to God. Every Gospel story after all, every word our Lord speaks, every gesture he makes, leads us to this conclusion; leads us finally to the Cross and Resurrection; or as Luke might tell us, the greatest reversal of all time and eternity.
Amen. The Revd Dr Frank Hegedűs