“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” So begins the Gospel of Luke’s account of Jesus and his Beatitudes. But that’s not how I learned them as a kid in Sunday School. Instead, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,…” from Matthew’s gospel. Luke has: “Blessed are you who are hungry now”; Matthew: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Luke and his community remember Jesus’ words focused in on concrete human conditions, physical and socio-economic. The community around Matthew hears them expanded and internalized.
Other differences jump off the page. In Matthew, Jesus delivers the Beatitudes from the mountain top. In Luke, he stands on a level place. Matthew records nine “Blessed are’s.” Luke just four. And Luke recalls Jesus pairing the “Blesseds” with four matching “Woes”: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now,…” and so on. There are “Woes” in Matthew, but very different ones – placed at the end of the story and directed to hypocritical religious authorities.
This Sunday morning, I wonder if we might listen deeply to Luke’s less familiar and more uncomfortable account of the Beatitudes? For that’s what’s in front of us in our gospel reading. Listen deeply to the Blesseds and Woes of Luke’s Jesus in order to try and find in them good news for us here and now?
We have our first clue already in Luke’s setting for the Beatitudes. Jesus has just come down the mountain with his newly chosen twelve apostles. Waiting for him are “a great crowd of his disciples” and “a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.” Ask anyone from this parish who was on pilgrimage in the Holy Land a month ago, even on a modern tour bus it takes the better part of a day to get from Jerusalem in the south, or Tyre and Sidon way up north, to Galilee where Jesus was. The great multitude had invested much time travelling long distances on foot or by animal to be with Jesus. They formed an eager, sympathetic audience. The people wanted to hear Jesus. Be healed of their diseases and released from bondage to unclean spirits. All wanted to touch Jesus and feel his power.
Here’s the clue. Luke does not say that Jesus turns to the half of the multitude on his right and proclaims, “Blessed are you poor,” and then turns left to the other half of the crowd with, “Woe to you rich.” He addresses all of them together with both Blesseds and Woes. Almost as if Jesus says to them and to us, “Blessed are you when you are poor” and “Woe to you insofar as you are rich in relation to others.”
Let’s not miss the grammar Luke’s Jesus chooses. Second person: “Blessed are you who are poor,” rather than third person: “Blessed are the poor.” Jesus speaks directly to the people, you poor, his people. He does not theorize about some abstraction called “the poor.” And present tense: “Blessed are you who are hungry now,…you who weep now” / “Woe to you who are full now,…who are laughing now.”
It’s not accidental that Jesus directs his Blesseds first and foremost to you poor. The have nots. The destitute. After all, he tells that parable about poor Lazarus begging at the gate of a rich man with only the dogs to lick his sores (Luke 16:19-31). And Jesus calls attention to the widow who gave away all she had to live on – two small copper coins (21:1-4). But the people Jesus pronounces “Blessed” include others in addition to the economically distressed. Blessed are you who are hungry. Blessed are you who weep. And his fourth Beatitude: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you.” Who might these others be? Luke and the other gospels are clear. The sick. The blind. The lame. Lepers. Those possessed by unclean spirits. Women. Children. Gentiles. Sinners. Prostitutes. Tax collectors. Day laborers. Slaves. All those we might call the marginalized and the oppressed. All the little, insignificant, invisible ones. For Jesus to call these “Blessed,” the most miserable people of his society, is paradoxical talk. Non-sensical. Revolutionary. Our immediate response ought to be “Blessed are who?”
But all four gospels, especially Luke, are adamant that Jesus never romanticizes the plight of the poor or glosses over human need or suggests that human exclusion, affliction, hunger, or poverty represent anything but an affront to God’s justice. Repeatedly, Jesus intervenes on behalf of the poor. He brings the only son of a helpless widow back from the dead to secure her survival (Luke 7:11-17). Jesus feeds thousands and thousands of hungry men, women, and children with a few loaves and fishes (9:12-17). Jesus silences wailing and dries tears. The man possessed by a legion of demons, living among the tombs and wounding himself with stones (8:26-39). The Roman centurion whose beloved slave is mortally ill (7:1-10). Both the woman with the hemorrhages who touches Jesus from behind in the crowd – “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace” – and Jairus the synagogue leader whose twelve-year old daughter dies while Jesus is occupied with that woman: “Do not weep; for [the child] is not dead but sleeping….Give her something to eat” (8:40-56). Jesus himself is hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed. Just by speaking with those pushed to the edges of society, by feasting with them, by not despising them in turn, Jesus restores their dignity and invites them into a new community where solidarity is based solely on our common humanity and vulnerability. (For instance, the sinful woman who interrupts dinner at a Pharisee’s house to anoint Jesus, bathe his feet with her tears, and dry them with her hair – 7:36-50.)
So, I wonder if Jesus is saying something like this with his Blesseds and Woes. The rich have the luxury of squandering time and energy on what ultimately does not matter. Woe to you. The poor find themselves closer to the real stuff of life and what truly matters. Blessed are you.
Listen. Woe to you when all speak well of you. Woe to you who are laughing now. Woe to you who are full now. Woe to you who are rich. What if these Woes are neither prediction nor punishment? What if they are social and spiritual diagnosis? Statements of fact and lament over the way things really are? Woe to you, woe to me, when we are rich in relation to others. Full. Already full of consolation. Too full. Stuffed. Glutted. Bound to what we possess. What possesses us. Woe to you rich. Woe to me rich. A call to conversion. To empty out some corners of our lives. To make room for compassion. Room for others. As this parish’s friend Samuel Torvend writes in his new book, Still Hungry at the Feast, in our culture of massive over-consumption, fasting represents both protest against the affliction of the hungry and solidarity with the afflicted.
Later in Luke’s gospel, we will hear that Jesus sends out seventy of his disciples as poor, with no purse, no bag, no sandals, no greeting on the road. He tells them to enter each new town offering peace to all. Staying in whatever house welcomes them, eating and drinking whatever is provided. And find it enough. More than enough, for the kingdom of God has come near (Luke 10:1-12, 17-20).
Still, I struggle with how to take to heart Luke’s version of the Beatitudes without mishandling them. I almost wish this were the 5:00pm Sunday Mass here at St. Paul’s, where I might stop right now and ask all of you in the room for your reflections. But since it’s 7:30am / 9:00am / 11:15am, how about this:
Blessed are you who lack the luxury of working from home during snow storms and closures – blessed are you who cannot afford to miss work, for yours are simple, everyday things received as rich gifts: a cup of coffee paid for by a friend, a neighbor shoveling the sidewalk, a ride across town.
Or try: Woe to you dominant enough in a relationship to be able to withhold – day after day, month after month – to withhold reaching out to the other person with a phone call, for as you rob them of the blessing of freedom and release, you yourself languish, unreconciled, in a prison stuffed full of isolation and self-absorption.
Or, maybe, and closest to my own heart right now, as I continue to accompany Debra, my wife, on her journey as a cancer survivor: Blessed are you undergoing four, five, seven weeks of radiation treatments at Swedish Cancer Institute – blessed are you cancer patients, family members, supportive friends and caregivers – for yours is the kingdom of God. Don’t misunderstand me. Cancer is horrible. Evil. A parasitic growth sapping the life of God’s good creation and vandalizing shalom. But in that small, crowded waiting room at Swedish, I saw the kingdom of God. Black folk and white folk and Asian folk shoulder to shoulder. I heard the kingdom of God speaking Spanish and Tagalog, as well as English. All markers of status and prestige stripped away. Women with breast cancer and men with prostate cancer, young and old, all wearing exactly the same gowns. The couple riding the car ferry from Bainbridge Island and the woman from the streets struggling to get to the hospital on foot. And without being morose, none of us had the luxury of mindless chit chat. Religious folk and non-religious folk, we could only talk of family and home and pain and hope. Blessed were we. And woe to me if that waiting room doesn’t transform my life once and for all, opening up room for greater compassion.
You can find Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes at 5:1-12 and Jesus’ “Woes” later at 23:13-36.
The book on Jesus, the poor and the oppressed, and the kingdom of God, is by a South African Dominican priest and scholar: Albert Nolan, Jesus Before Christianity, 25th anniversary edition (Orbis Books, 2008).
My colleague, L. John Topel, S.J., has written a whole book on Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke 6, beginning with the “Blesseds” and “Woes”: Children of a Compassionate God (Michael Glazier Books, 2001).
And check out: Samuel Torvend, Still Hungry at the Feast: Eucharistic Justice in the Midst of Affliction (Liturgical Press, 2019).