Familiar words anew

Image of 'The Sermon of the Mount' by Jesus Mafe

Sermon for 13 February 2022, 3rd Before Lent (Year C)

Readings: Psalm 1; Luke 6.17-26

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks powerful words of consolation (and caution). 

These are Luke’s version of what we call the ‘Beatitudes’: the blessings given by Jesus in his teaching. It’s likely that you are more familiar with the eight sayings from the Sermon on the Mount as found in Matthew 5:3-12, and they may in fact be so familiar that if I start to list them you’ll be able to join in:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,

for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are those who suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Common Worship

And because these sayings are so familiar, the ones from Luke feel almost incomplete. 

But I think this actually teaches us more about the general teaching of Jesus – not the parables and responses to specific questions, but the broader themes of his teaching which so compelled the crowds to come and listen.  That this teaching device appears in different forms suggests that it was one Jesus would use and reuse, reinterpreting the broader message for different purposes (in the same way that you will have already come to recognise certain forms, messages, and turns of phrase in my own preaching).

In Luke, these sayings are not part of the Sermon on the Mount, but the Sermon on the plain – another instance when crowds have gathered to her Jesus speak. Here, he balances four blessings with four woes: comfort and caution. This echoes similar pairings from the scriptures and traditions people would have encountered in the temple (our Psalm this morning is one of them, as was our possible Old Testament reading of  Jeremiah 17.5-10). 

Now, you may well have heard quite a few sermons about the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. Common sermon titles might be: The Beautiful Attitudes, or The Upside-down Kingdom. Quite often, interpretation will focus on either a list of virtues to which we should aspire, or a radical overturning of priorities in the Kingdom of God (in which the first become last while the last become first; the greatest become the least while the least become the greatest; and the strong become weak while the weak become strong).

But as Jesus teaches the crowd on the Plain, it seems to me that a different angle on this same message starts to come through. 

There are, of course, the broad strokes of who is valued most in the Kingdom of Heaven and those to whom Jesus has come to proclaim the Good News: not the rich, bur the poor; not the full but the hungry; not the happy but the sorrowful; not the well respected, but the outcasts. (And, of course, each of these has both literal and metaphorical meanings). These sayings bring us back to Jesus’ ‘manifesto’ from Luke 4.14-21 (‘The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’). These are Jesus’ priorities, cropping up again and again in different ways. 

Yet as I meditate on these words, listening for Jesus as he draws comparisons with blessings and woes, it occurs to me that beyond the words – beyond the familiar themes and structures of his teaching – there is something else to uncover.

And this is where my ponderings, my conversations with the Spirit, have led me (so far): 

There is something here about where we allow ourselves to live. Do we focus on the earthly present, or on eternal life? What is our direction? Are we storing up our riches on earth or in Heaven? Where our priorities? What do our lives look like if we live truly believing that the benefits we could gain in this life are less important than the love that stretches through eternity?

Or perhaps there’s something about equality and equity: where, if we follow the calling to live in the Kingdom of God now, we should be seeking equity for the disadvantaged and oppressed. We should lift up the voices and concerns of those less privileged by our society, placing their concerns before our own – because we have already gained our rewards and now it is time to share or give them up in order that others might benefit.

And maybe these words are also to inspire us into an attitude of Blessing – to seek through both words and actions to make Jesus’ words true, to shape our minds and our mouths to share these words of life in every moment, to warn us away from the words and attitudes which corrupt us and spread death in our hearts. 

The power of these familiar words is that we can meditate on them, muse over them, turn them over and consider different meanings. This is the process through which we can invite the Holy Spirt to join us in conversation: as it says in Psalm 119, Open my eyes that I may see the wonders of your law. 

And in this way, these teachings become inscribed in our hearts – pert of our very being, shaping us ever closer into the image of our Lord. They become our first instinct, the wisdom we reach for when posed with a question or concern, or simply when we find cause to reflect. 

So this is my challenge today: Here are some familiar words from Jesus (whether from Luke or Matthew), carry them in your heart and think on them. Wonder what different things they could mean. Offer those thoughts in prayer. And consider what you might be inspired to do in response. 

Jesus spoke these words many times to different people because he knew the message was important.

What might he be saying to you today?

Let us pray with his teaching:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.

‘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 on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

‘But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
‘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.

‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.’

Luke 6.20-26, NRSVA

Cover image:

The Sermon on the Mount by Jesus Mafa

Source:    http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48284
Attribution:      JESUS MAFA. The Sermon on the Mount, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. Original source.

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