The Sermon on the Plain: Children of the Most High

 
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If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. (Luke 6:32-36 CEB)

  • In the previous section, Jesus told people to “turn the other cheek” and to give your shirt to someone who steals your coat. He also said a) love your enemies, do good to them, bless them, and pray for them, b) give without thought of reciprocity, and c) treat people as you would want to be treated (the “Golden Rule”). 
  • In this section, Jesus focuses on some of the same verbs he used in the previous section: love, do good, and lend. 
  • The repeated emphasis on lending is telling. Debt was rampant in the first century, just as it is today. Several of Jesus’s parables involve lending and debt. Endless cycles of debt created massive poverty. The idea of lending without expecting repayment challenges ideas—both then and now—about the way the market is supposed to work. 
  • Don’t miss the revolutionary character of these remarks. Remember, Jesus started off with “Happy are you who are poor.” In Luke, economics and power are always a subtext.
     
  • In this section, Jesus raises the ethical bar. Not only are we to treat people as we would be treated, but to “be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” The Golden Rule is difficult enough. Loving as God loves is quite a reach! 
  • That’s why Jesus builds up to it. He is arguing from the lesser to the greater. He begins with three rhetorical questions, which amount to, “If you do what even sinners do, why should you be commended?” If all we are after is reciprocity or transactional relationships “do to others as you would have them do to you” is a great place to start. But it’s still transactional. Jesus wants us to desire something more. 
  • Jesus wants us to be Children of the Most High, carrying on the family tradition of being kind to ungrateful and wicked people, just like our Father. 
  • The word “sinner” here is not judge-y. Yes, we are all sinners. If moral character is a spectrum, we are all ungrateful and wicked compared to someone else. The point is that even people we think of as morally “worse than us” (sinners) are capable of transactional relationships: I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. 
  • Self-interested altruism is the floor, but there is no ceiling: “Love like God.” 
  • Instead of the word sinners, Matthew’s similar passage in the Sermon on the Mount uses the words “tax collectors” and “Gentiles”— that’s us non-Jews. (Click here if you want to compare the two). 
  • Children of the Most High is a beautiful phrase. I wonder how we would think of ourselves, and each other, if we began each day with a reminder that we are Children of the Most High
  • Like Matthew, Luke ties our behavior toward others with God’s indiscriminate kindness. We demonstrate we are God’s children when we love as God loves.

Prayer:
God, our compassionate Mother and Father, I am already your precious child. Help me to live into my divine heritage.

The Sermon on the Plain: Love Your Enemies

 
Reconciliation_by_Vasconcellos,_Coventry

But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you. (Luke 6:27-31 CEB)

  • Jesus changes direction here so fast that it’s easy to get whiplash. He just said “Woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full, woe to you who laugh, and woe to you when people speak well of you.” But instead of continuing his diatribe he starts talking about love for enemies. 
  • It’s pretty clear Jesus has put his finger on class resentment. There are two sides, and you have to choose which one you are going to be on. God does take sides, and God is on the side of the poor and powerless. But Jesus begins to paint a picture of the life God wants for this community of prophets. 
  • In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount terms, we’ve jumped from the beginning to the end of chapter 5. We’ve skipped the part about Jesus not abolishing the law, and “you have heard it said… but I say to you.” As I said the other day, I think some of this is implied in the set-up. But Luke’s Jesus isn’t bothering to respond to critics and naysayers. He goes right to the hard stuff. 
  • Luke’s Jesus is all about the contrasts. Rich and poor. Violent and non-violent. Here the contrast is between those who live a violent, selfish life and those who live a nonviolent, generous life. Jesus envisions his community being the latter. 
  • Love… do good… bless… pray. This is how Jesus envisions us treating our enemies. And I will confess, that is not my inclination, especially when I consider the class and political injustices he has just indicated. 
  • But Jesus seems to understand that we cannot change the world simply by fighting. As Carl Jung said, what we resist persists. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. I mean that our resistance cannot be simply fighting or fleeing. We give energy to evil and selfishness when we oppose it with violence or respond in kind. 
  • For this reason, I hear Luke’s golden rule differently than I hear Matthew’s version. Luke’s Jesus sees it as a way to end the world’s vicious cycle of tit-for-tat
  • If we are to be a community of prophets, if we would like to see the Great Reversal, it will only come about if we actually live out this ethic of nonviolent mutuality
  • Love is the key to transformation.

Prayer:
Divine Friend, hatred and resentment come so naturally. Help me to love my enemies.

The Sermon on the Plain: The Flip Side

 
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But how terrible for you who are rich,
    because you have already received your comfort.
How terrible for you who have plenty now,
    because you will be hungry.
How terrible for you who laugh now,
    because you will mourn and weep.
How terrible for you when all speak well of you.
    Their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets. (Luke 6:24-26, CEB)

Wow. Are you ready to hear this? I don’t think any of us are ready.

  • This follows the same form as the “happy are you who are poor” section. Jesus names four groups: people who are poor/rich, hungry/full, weeping/laughing, and rejected/praised. 
  • Old translations say “Woe to you.” This is classic prophetic language of the Old Testament, like Isaiah and Ezekiel, and was often followed by descriptions of war, famine, exile, and grief. Jesus is putting on the mantel of the old prophets. 
  • As we saw yesterday, Luke’s Jesus does not spiritualize poverty or oppression. His words are for people experiencing dramatic economic inequality, and so they are relevant to us today. They also hearken back to his mother’s words in Luke: He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. (Luke 1:52-53) 
  • It’s interesting that Luke’s Jesus uses the same logic here that Matthew’s Jesus uses when talking about hypocrisy in giving, prayer, and fasting for show: “You have already received your comfort.” It’s the same rhetoric applied to a different subject, which makes me think Luke and Matthew are, in fact, drawing from the same source document (Q). They’ve just applied it to different things. 
  • This section addresses people on the top, and it’s disturbing and stunning because we all know we want this stuff and spend a huge amount of energy in our lives to acquire it. Who doesn’t want wealth, food security, joy, and people’s praise. Are we not supposed to want wealth, security, and a good reputation? 
  • The implicit lesson, though, is that the system is broken. It’s not that we should all aspire to poverty, hunger, and social rejection. It’s that some people have and others do not. The system praises prophets (ahem, televangelists, ahem) who support the status quo, and they reject reformers and revolutionaries. 
  • Jesus implicitly invites his followers to be a contrast society, to demonstrate the kind of life that flips our corrupt system of inequality to something more just and loving. 
  • But we can’t make that point without directly confronting the power system that maintains injustice. Jesus can’t start off talking about love and peace without exposing the inequality and sin at the heart of human society. 
  • God takes sides. God has a preferential option for the poor. 
  • Too often, churches mute this section of the sermon. They want to talk about love and justice in the abstract without directly exposing and confronting specific injustices. People say it isn’t loving to make rich people uncomfortable, it isn’t loving to call others “false prophets.” Jesus will certainly talk about love in the next section, but first he must make it clear: He isn’t here to play. He’s here to tell the truth.

Prayer:
Just One, shine your light on our society, so that we may see it clearly and confront its problems  courageously.

The Sermon on the Plain: Happy are YOU

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From Mother Jones: “How We Won—and Lost—the War on Poverty, in 6 Charts” from 2014. Click image for article.

Jesus raised his eyes to his disciples and said:

“Happy are you who are poor,
    because God’s kingdom is yours.
Happy are you who hunger now,
    because you will be satisfied.
Happy are you who weep now,
    because you will laugh.

Happy are you when people hate you, reject you, insult you, and condemn your name as evil because of the Human One. Rejoice when that happens! Leap for joy because you have a great reward in heaven. Their ancestors did the same things to the prophets. (Luke 6:20-23, CEB)

There is so much here.

  • If you remember Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, you may remember Jesus saying, “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the Kingdom of [the heavens] is theirs.” Luke says, “Happy are you poor… because God’s kingdom is yours.” Luke’s Jesus is not talking hypotheticals or in third person. Jesus addresses his listeners directly. There is a world of contextual difference between “theirs is the kin-dom” and “yours is the kin-dom.”  
  • Matthew’s Jesus (Sermon on the Mount) first talks about the “poor in spirit,” which the CEB translates as “hopeless.” But Luke’s Jesus (Sermon on the Plain) isn’t talking about “poor in spirit,” just “poor.” As in, cash poor.  
  • Matthew’s Jesus talks about “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Luke’s Jesus talks about “hunger.” As in, empty belly, weak knees, and lightheaded. This is not metaphorical hunger, but poverty-related hunger.  
  • All of this makes Jesus’s solidarity with the poor and oppressed much more concrete. Luke’s Jesus is about liberation and good news for the poor. We Americans cannot spiritualize it or talk about metaphorical poverty. We cannot preach to comfortable middle- and upper-class people about how wealth is morally neutral, and that Jesus was just concerned about the state of people’s hearts. Jesus is talking about class and oppression here.  
  • Later on, when Luke writes Acts, he will talk about how the early church sold and gave away much of their material possessions in order to share things in common and meet collective needs. Luke’s Jesus and Luke’s church is concerned about the material conditions of human pain and prosperity.
     
  • Luke’s Jesus says “Happy are you who weep now, because you will laugh.” I love this active, concrete verb, laugh. By contrast, Matthew’s Jesus says of mourners, “they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Hear the difference?  
  • Luke’s Jesus also adds the word now. “You who hunger now, you who weep now.” The added emphasis indicates Jesus thinks this is a temporary state. A Great Reversal is coming.  
  • As in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus concludes his “happy” section with “Happy are y’all when you are harassed and vilified.” And as there, the implication is that the people he is talking to, his students and followers, are like one of the ancient prophetic guilds. We are a community of prophets.  
  • I love the way the Common English Bible translates “The Human One.” The traditional way of rendering the phrase is “Son of Man,” but that sounds too patriarchal to modern ears and it misses the power of the term. “The Human One” is the one who is coming into the world who manifests what God intended human beings to be. Jesus is the next step in our evolution, the one who demonstrates the fulfillment of being made “in the image of God.”  
  • Christians are used to referring to Jesus as the Son of God, but “Son of God” was a term used mostly for pagan emperors. Jesus’s own preferred term for himself is Son of Man or “The Human One.” I wonder how much of our theology would change if we followed Jesus as The Human One. Adam and Eve—and most religious folks—try very hard to be more like God. Jesus invites us to be more Human.  
  • In comparing Luke and Matthew’s version of the sermon, I honestly do not have a preference for one over the other. They both have nuance and power. My favorite one is whichever I am reading at the moment.

Prayer:
Lord of Love and Life, how do suffering and happiness coexist? Teach me solidarity with my siblings so that I may be truly happy. 

The Sermon on the Plain: The Setting

Gorge_Amphitheatre

Jesus came down from the mountain with them and stood on a large area of level ground. A great company of his disciples and a huge crowd of people from all around Judea and Jerusalem and the area around Tyre and Sidon joined him there. They came to hear him and to be healed from their diseases, and those bothered by unclean spirits were healed. The whole crowd wanted to touch him, because power was going out from him and he was healing everyone.

Jesus raised his eyes to his disciples and said…
(Luke 6:12-20a, CEB)

What time of day is it? Probably mid-morning. Jesus has spent all night praying, and made his important choice of apostles at dawn. Then he comes down the mountain to a “large area of level ground,” and a huge crowd of disciples and people seeking healing gather around.

This monologue is often called “The Sermon on the Plain,” in contrast with Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount,” but I suspect these are both true descriptions. People in Jesus’s day did not have microphones and loudspeakers, but they understood acoustics and the practice of speaking to large crowds. The Greeks had built amphitheaters all over their empire three hundred years earlier, so everyone knew that the optimal arrangement for public speaking is a bowl-shaped hollow.

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Me, at a 2nd century amphitheater in Jerash, Jordan

If Jesus is on top of a mountain, speaking down to a crowd, his words will be lost in the wind. But you can find bowl-shaped places today around Galilee that are perfect for speaking to large groups. One famous Bible story has Jesus preaching from a boat to a crowd on the shore. I’ve seen the traditional place with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears. It makes perfect sense if you are familiar with how sound can carry over the water, especially if there is a wall or natural amphitheater behind you to reflect the sound. In both the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain, I suspect Jesus found an optimal natural amphitheater, where he could speak up to the gathered crowds—not down to them.

This is why it says he “raised his eyes to his disciples.” He was literally looking up at them.

I think this visual image is important, because it is a sharp contrast to the way modern public speaking happens. Our pulpits and stages are usually above the gathered audience, and the speaker is literally speaking down to us. This is only practical in modern buildings with electronic amplification. In old churches and cathedrals, they used domes or vaults of stone to create an artificial amphitheater over the heads of the congregation.

So in the great outdoors? I picture Jesus speaking up to his disciples and the gathered crowds. He looks tiny down there, one person among our many. He looks so… human. Like anyone else. Like one of us. So when he opens his mouth and the first words are “Happy are you who are poor,” I get chill bumps.

Prayer:
Incarnate One, thank you for coming down to our level and being one of us.

The Sermon on the Plain: The Audience

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During that time, Jesus went out to the mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night long. At daybreak, he called together his disciples. He chose twelve of them whom he called apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter; his brother Andrew; James; John; Philip; Bartholomew; Matthew; Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus; Simon, who was called a zealot; Judas the son of James; and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

Jesus came down from the mountain with them and stood on a large area of level ground. A great company of his disciples and a huge crowd of people from all around Judea and Jerusalem and the area around Tyre and Sidon joined him there. They came to hear him and to be healed from their diseases, and those bothered by unclean spirits were healed. The whole crowd wanted to touch him, because power was going out from him and he was healing everyone.

Jesus raised his eyes to his disciples and said…
(Luke 6:12-20a, CEB)

There is a lot going on in these two paragraphs, so we’ll spend a couple of days here. Today we’ll look at the audience.

Jesus has three audiences for his sermon. The first is his disciples. Not just the twelve who are named, but an unspecified large number of his disciples: a “great company” of them, in fact. Of these, Jesus chooses twelve whom he calls apostles (which means messengers, literally “sent ones”). These VIPs of the disciples are his second audience. (More on this in a minute.) The third audience is a “huge crowd” of people from all around who came to hear his teaching and be healed.

As in the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus has an indirect teaching style. He “raises his eyes to his disciples” before he starts talking. This teaching is meant for them, but the crowds get to learn by overhearing. So do we. Luke implicitly invites us to imagine which group we are standing in.

The night before this powerful sermon, Jesus spends all night in prayer. Was he praying about who to choose to be his twelve “sent ones?” The apostles are important to Luke. Luke uses the word more than any other gospel. It only occurs a couple of times in Matthew and Mark. Luke even goes on to write the Acts of the Apostles.

Here’s a note on why translations make a difference: Luke is a cheerleader for the apostles. Mark seems more skeptical of their set-apart status. But if you read Mark in the CEB (Common English Bible) translation, you’ll find that the translators insert the word “apostles” where it doesn’t actually occur in the Greek. The translators do this for clarity’s sake, but I think it obscures the difference between Mark and Luke’s opinion of Jesus’s students. 

For Luke’s Jesus, dawn brings a momentous decision. He calls the great crowd of his disciples together and picks his twelve. These messengers are going to carry Jesus’s Good News when he is gone, and this Sermon on the Plain is his first public lesson for them.

So to recap:

  • Jesus has already been in ministry, and tension is building between the way he and his disciples act versus the way other religious leaders and their students
  • Jesus has spent all night in prayer and chosen twelve to be his appointed messengers (apostles).
  • This is his first public event after picking his new leaders.
  • Jesus teaches them in full view of the crowds.

The characters are all in place. Tomorrow we’ll look at the setting.

Prayer:
Here I am, Lord; I am willing to be taught and sent.

The Sermon on the Plain: The Backstory

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Disciples_Eat_Wheat_on_the_Sabbath_(Les_disciples_mangent_du_blé_au_sabbat)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall

In Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, Jesus doesn’t talk about hypocrisy explicitly as he does in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. But “acting religious” is still in the background. Just before Jesus delivers his sermon, he has two disputes with religious leaders. In the first, the religious leaders complain to Jesus because they saw his disciples pick some heads of grain on the Sabbath (Luke 6:1-5). They seem to say, “Jesus! What in the world are you teaching your followers?” In the second, they go after Jesus himself, because he heals someone on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11).

Jesus delivers his Sermon on the Plain against this background. He knows the religious authorities find him offensive. He wants to impart to his disciples how they are supposed to be different from typical religious people. Jesus seems to be saying to religious leaders, “I wish y’all cared as much about human beings as you do about being right!”

Two reflections on this:

  • One of Christianity’s enduring problems is anti-Jewishness. Even though Jesus was a Jew, and all of his first followers were Jews, and even though the Hebrew Bible is largest part of our Bible, many Christians still traffic in antisemitic stereotypes and speak disparagingly of Judaism. Christians still use the word “Pharisee” to describe religious hypocrites, for example, unaware that such use is offensive to modern Jews.

    I try to use the phrase “religious leaders” instead, because hypocrisy—or “acting religious”—is just as much a problem for Christians as anyone else!
     

  • We are in the middle of a Reformation today. Many public religious leaders have revealed themselves to be nothing more than political climbers who “act religious.” People who have left the church in disgust have done so not because they dislike Jesus and his teachings, but because they see so much of the institutional church is against Jesus’s teachings and way of life.

    I have seen this thrown into sharpest relief a) politically, in the election and support of Donald Trump by white evangelicals, and b) theologically, in the schism of the United Methodist Church. “Acting religious” has seldom been as obviously harmful to human beings, to organized religion, and to the health of the planet. Again, this is not a Jewish problem. This is a Christian problem, and a problem with religion in general: “I wish y’all cared as much about human beings as you do about being right!”

So when Luke’s Jesus delivers his version of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Plain, we hear an explicit contrast: “Happy are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours,” but “how terrible for you who are rich, because you have already received your comfort” (Luke 6:20, 24).

I can’t think of a message the church needs to hear more right now. God is not pleased with the status quo, with people “acting religious” while supporting policies that make the rich richer and the poor poorer. People who act religious worry about nominal protocol violations or gay marriage. People who follow Christ have other priorities.

Prayer:
God in whose image we are made, help me to love people more than people’s praise.

The Sermon on the Plain: Contradictory Gospels

Critical and Devotional Readings
Around_the_Sea_of_Galilee._Plain_of_Gennesareth_and_the_Lake._Luke_5-1_LOC_matpc.22961
 

Matthew has a Sermon on the Mount. Luke has a Sermon on the Plain: “Jesus came down from the mountain with them and stood on a large area of level ground” (Luke 6:17).

If you pick up Luke’s story from this point, you will hear Jesus say many of the same words in Matthew’s story, only slightly different. In one story he’s sitting down on a mountain. In the other, he’s standing on a level place. What gives?

One preacher I knew asserted that Jesus, like any good preacher, re-preached his sermons. This preacher harmonized the differences by claiming that these are two separate events. This is certainly a reasonable theory. I’ve heard amazing speakers reuse their material.

But most scholars of the Bible have a different theory. It’s unlikely that Jesus had a stenographer among his disciples, furiously scribbling down everything he said. It’s more likely that someone compiled a list of “Jesus sayings,” and that Matthew and Luke both reconstructed their stories around these sayings. This hypothetical “sayings gospel” has been lost to history. Scholars refer to it as “Q,” which stands for source in German (quelle). 

Some literalist Christians are shaken when they learn that the gospels were not beamed directly by the Holy Spirit into the authors’ heads, guiding their hands regarding historical accuracy, and that there may be contradictions or discrepancies in the authors’ accounts.

I’m not a literalist, so I LOVE the contradictions. I love seeing the way different people see Jesus differently. The early Christians had the chance to compile all four gospels into one consistent account, and they rejected that option. They wanted a diversity of perspectives! For me, that is a far more “inspired” view of scripture than boring, artificial consistency.

So when I read the Sermon on the Plain and compare it to the Sermon on the Mount, part of what gets revealed is how Matthew and Luke see Jesus differently. And their different perspectives have direct implications for how we view Jesus today.

Any good story requires a bit of background. We’ll look at that tomorrow.

Prayer:
Great Mystery, play with us in paradox.