Sermon on the Plain
Just about everyone has heard of the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. It’s three chapters long, and it begins with the familiar Beatitudes or Blessings.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
And so on.
Our Gospel for today is Saint Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. They aren’t as familiar as Matthew’s and, in some ways, they’re more basic and earthy.
Matthew “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . .”
Luke “Blessed are you who are poor . . . .”
Matthew “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . .”
Luke “Blessed are you who are hungry . . . .”
Which is it? The poor “in spirit” or just “the poor”? “Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” or “You who are hungry”?
Some folk might look at these texts and ask, “Who got it right, Matthew or Luke?” What did Jesus really say?” Matthew says that the sermon was preached from a mountain with the crowds gathered below. Luke has Jesus standing on a plain with the people gathered around him. Matthew has nine Beatitudes while Luke has just four. And those four are followed and matched by four “woe’s” or warnings.
But rather than ask about which is the correct version of the sermon, I like to imagine that Matthew and Luke are both right. According to them, Jesus’ public ministry lasted for a whole year. In the course of that year, he would have preached in many places and to numerous audiences. And the message would have been adapted, depending upon who he was speaking to.
In 1943, Psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper on human motivation in which he said that there is a hierarchy of needs. At the base we all need to have enough food and shelter and safety—before we’re free to focus on higher needs like love, esteem, and self-actualization. If Jesus was speaking to a crowd of poor and hungry people, he would have had a different message than if his audience was a group of middle or upper income folk. Some people are just flat out hungry while others hunger for righteousness and meaning. Both need to be fed, but in different ways. The first group needs a meal while the second might benefit from spiritual introspection.
Too often we tend to paint the world in binary or dualistic ways: good/bad, right/wrong, spiritual/material—when the reality is a lot more complicated. This is all a way of saying that Matthew’s Beatitudes and Luke’s Beatitudes focus on different people with different realities. The Good News is that He speaks to us all—and he starts where we are—with our level of need.
Those who come in for heavy warning are the ones who deny that they have any need. In Luke’s original telling, the four Beatitudes are all together, then they’re followed by the four woes. Let’s listen again to the passage, but this time I’m going to change the order, so that you can more clearly hear how each blessing is matched to a warning.
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
It’s not that Jesus is out to condemn or wishes woe on anyone. We’re all in need. When we recognize that fact, then we’re open to God and to our friends and neighbors. We place ourselves in peril only when we think that we don’t need anybody, that we’ve got it all together, that we’re not vulnerable.
That’s why, week after week, we have a confession. I admit, it’s not my favorite thing to do. But serves as a humbling reminder that we aren’t all that we might like ourselves to be. There is enough poverty and emptiness in us that God still has room to work.
May you be blessed.