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Those who hear me preach regularly sooner or later begin to notice that I have a particular affection for the sermon on the mount, and especially for the beatitudes. Somehow, those keep cropping up.
But Matthew does not have a monopoly on Jesus sermons. Luke has his share of them also. But Luke's major sermon isn't nearly as long as Matthew's, and we don't hear as much about it.
And, if you will pardon the pun of the sermon title, Luke's sermon isn't nearly as poetic as Matthew's is.
Matthew opens his fifth chapter by saying, "When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him."
Luke, on the other hand, tells us, in the seventeenth verse of the sixth chapter, "He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon." As a result, what followed has come to be known as the "sermon on the plain."
Now, it has been suggested that Matthew was writing for the Jews.
And considering the place of mountains and mountaintop experiences in Hebrew Scriptures, it would seem to make perfect sense that Matthew would be putting Jesus on a mountain to deliver this sermon.
After all, didn't Moses bring the ten commandments down from the mountain?
But Matthew's placing of Jesus on the mountain is the end of his embellishment. He tells us, "Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:" And he proceeds to provide us with three substantial non-stop chapters of Jesus' teaching.
Luke, on the other hand, sets a stage for his readers. He tells us who was there: people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.
Now, as one who has seen a wide variety of styles of teaching, I am intrigued by the contrast in the relationship between the teacher and the students implied in Matthew and Luke.
Matthew tells us, "When Jesus saw the crowds he went up," but Luke tells us "He came down with them." Now, some teachers will take sides in this matter, arguing that one approach is correct and that the other is wrong. But in my opinion there is validity to both, and I think we can find evidence of both in Jesus' teaching. Thirty-six years ago, when I was teaching at Indiana State University--now the University of Southern Indiana--a colleague of mine who taught literature argued that the teacher must take a position above and beyond the student and attempt to elevate the student's knowledge and understanding.
On the other hand, a colleague of mine at the University of Kansas argued that the only time any real teaching took place was when the teacher descended to the level at which the student could understand the teacher.
And another question we have to ask of Jesus' sermons is this: "How many people in the crowds really wanted to hear him teach or preach?"
Luke goes on to say, "They had come to hear him AND to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured."
Now, far be it from me to be critical of Jesus' teaching; but I am suspicious that there were bunches of people who had heard that this man worked miracles, and that was their primary motivation for being there.
And most of the time when folks just passing through a town visit or call pastors, they aren't dropping in to hear the word of God or to discuss theology. They're usually more concerned with getting a room or a meal or gas for the car, or transportation somewhere.
But whatever those folks had heard about Jesus, they were there to be with HIM, in his presence. And I really do believe that PRESENCE was far more powerful than any expectation they may have had of what he might SAY to them.
Luke goes on to tell us, "And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them."
And we know from a story in the eighth chapter of Luke that a woman come up behind Jesus in a crowd and touched the fringe of his clothes and immediately her hemorrhage stopped.
And Jesus asked, "Who touched me? Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me." And when Jesus discovers who it was, he tells her, "Your faith has made you well."
But if it is true that much of this crowd is here to be healed of their diseases, and if Jesus' speaking to them is only of secondary importance, how is he to respond to that need? In addition to being a sermon ON the plain, it will also need to be a PLAIN SERMON, a plain message. And indeed, if we contrast the wording of Luke with the wording of Matthew, I think that we will find that he does exactly that.
"Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God."
It's tempting to think, "Yeah, I heard THAT before." But get inside the situation. Matthew did not SAY it like that. Matthew said "Blessed are THE poor in spirit, for THEIRS is the kingdom of heaven."
Luke has Jesus talking to the multitude in the SECOND person, directly, and on their level. If he had used the indefinite third person, as Matthew did, folks might have been asking, "Who ARE the poor in spirit? What does it mean to BE poor in spirit?"
It has been suggested by some theologians that Christians frequently subconsciously think that pastors are referring to someone ELSE when they preach about sin, or when they preach about Christians not practicing their Christianity. And maybe it's OUR FAULT. Maybe we speak too vaguely, too generally, too much in that indefinite third person, when we should, as Luke does, be using the word "you" more often.
In any case, the listeners to the sermon on the plain cannot help but know that Jesus is talking to them.
And Jesus goes on to say, "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh."
And what was Matthew's version? "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." Again, Luke is more direct. The words come through in the second person "you."
But more than that, again Luke's words have Christ dealing with the immediate physical issues of his audience.
Luke's words say nothing about hungering for righteousness, and Jesus listeners in this case are sure to hear an emphasis on physical rather than spiritual hunger.
As for mourning, or weeping, whereas Matthew's words promise comfort, Luke's words have Jesus telling his listeners that their behavior will in fact be reversed: they will change from weeping to laughing.
And a final aspect that should not be overlooked: Not only is Jesus meeting his audience directly by addressing them with the word "you"; not only is he addressing physical needs; but he is also confronting immediate needs. Hear the words again: "Blessed are you who are hungry NOW. Blessed are you who weep NOW."
And Luke continues Jesus' sermon: "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man."
We're more familiar with Matthew's account: "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account."
But I really do think that Luke's SIMPLICITY is more direct in his use of the words "hate" and "exclude." And if we take this verse out of context, I believe that we also have a description of racist and sexist attitudes: hatred, exclusion, revulsion, and defamation. Indeed, anti-semitism turns this verse on its head, when self-righteous Christians hate, exclude, revile, and defame Jewish people because THEY don't accept Jesus as THEIR Messiah.
But getting back to the subject, Luke continues Jesus' sermon, "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."
Well, Matthew is a bit more formal than this but the message is pretty much the same: "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
You know, it's difficult to get in the mood for leaping for joy when someone's giving you a hard time. I'm more likely to want to find a hole to crawl into. But when Jesus tells me that surely my reward is great in heaven, I hear him telling me that EVEN IF I'm not in the mood for jumping up and down, that GOD is looking with favor on me for keeping the faith, for MAKING the effort, for hanging in there. And I do take consolation in knowing that there are those who have gone before me who HAVE had far greater concerns than I, not the least of whom was Jesus himself.
Of course, as Jesus told us, there were the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures.
But there were also the martyrs of the early church, and there have been the leaders in the church down through the ages, for anyone who has ever dared to do anything new and different in the church has gotten into trouble for it.
Several years ago, the last time the conference was in the process of trying to figure out how to select its next bishop, the late Bill O'Quinn, who was then District Superintendent for the former Lakes District, observed that it would be nice to have a "visionary" for the next bishop.
But then he went on to say that through our political process it seemed that we could only elect politicians; so perhaps it was only God and not church bodies who chooses the prophets. And I suspect he's right.
Well, so much for the beatitudes of the sermon on the plain, because suddenly Jesus shifts gears and gives us something that we don't find in the sermon on the mount. He gives us the flip side of the beatitudes.
"But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation."
And there is a familiar ring from the sermon on the mount. For when Jesus spoke of almsgiving, of prayer, and of fasting, he talked of those who made a public display of these practices and he remarked, "They have received their reward."
Now a good question here is, "Did Jesus really hate rich people?" And I don't think he did. Rather, I think his focus here is on those who place all their value on earthly possessions.
Remember what he said in the sermon on the mount regarding "treasures in heaven"? And "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also"?
"Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep."
And this can be troublesome. Does this mean that we should NOT be full? Does it mean that we should NOT have laughter in our lives? Not necessarily. I don't believe it is so much condemnation as it is warning. We are being warned that there are lean times as well as full times, and we are being warned that there will be times of weeping as well as times of laughing.
And then a concluding woe: "Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."
We speak well of the false prophets and we persecute the real ones. Which makes me wonder how I should want others to respond to my sermons--or anything else I do, for that matter. Should I WANT others to "speak well" of me?
And thus ends Jesus "plain message." And of course it IS similar to Matthew's sermon on the mount. But Luke gives us a strikingly different perspective, more direct, less poetic, but DEFINITELY worth trying on for size. And MAYBE it fits us better.
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