Oh, what a blessing: A sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Our gospel reading this morning has been the Luke version of the Beatitudes, more commonly known from their reportage in Matthew’s Gospel. These two versions of the Beatitudes are similar but not the same; and both were part of reports of Jesus’ first public preaching that themselves were not the same – indeed in some respects not even similar.

In Matthew’s Gospel, the Beatitudes appeared as part of the Sermon on the Mount, while in Luke we are told that they were part of what was known as the Sermon on the Plain, understandable given that our reading this morning said Jesus had ‘stood on a level place’. Apart from the locational difference there was also some reported difference between who had been listening to Jesus in each report. In Matthew, the implication was that the audience were all Galileans (Matt 4:23) while in Luke we are told that there was:

A great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. [Luke 6:17]

Finally, we have the differences in content between the two reports. While four of Matthew’s beatitudes appeared in Luke’s version, there were another four which didn’t; with those absent four being replaced by Luke’s four woes.

It might be that some sceptics would take these differences to suggest that there can’t ever have been any large gathering either on the mount or the level and that both gospel writers had simply fabricated the stories as part of a conspiracy to give ‘life’ to a mythical figure called Jesus. However, I take reassurance from those differences and might have been just a tad suspicious had both versions been identical in every detail. I say this not just because the differences in these two versions provide evidence of the very human capacity for people to remember things differently years after they took place – I am certain all of us can recall incidents in our own lives where family and friends have remembered some previous incident differently from how we ourselves remembered it. Add to this is the fact that while Matthew had been present when Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, Luke had not been present at the Sermon on the Level having written down what he had been told by others who had been there and was dependent upon their varied recall of that event.

I should note that the differences as to location and the beatitudes themselves have been variously explained by suggestions that Jesus, in his early ministry, might well have preached more than once to a large crowd in different places and with similar but not identical scripting. But they need not have been from different sermons given at different times in different places for, as Table Mount in Cape Town suggests, even mountains can have level places.

More importantly, however, we need to appreciate that the Beatitudes reported by each were part of a much longer sermon by Jesus wherever and whenever it had taken place, mountain or plain, one sermon or two. We have a real sense of that great length in Matthew’s gospel where it took three chapters (5-7) involving 110 verses to report it. And even though Luke’s report is contained within one chapter of only forty-nine verses, we still get the impression that each wrote about what had been a much longer sermon. So it is clear then that Jesus had preached for some considerable time to those gathered. Therefore, in their reporting some decades later, what we should find interesting is what were the key ‘take-outs’ that these gospel writers had heard either directly or from reports of Jesus’ sermon.  The difference in their noting who were in the crowd provides a clue. Matthew, whom experts have long noted addressed his gospel to a Jewish audience, implied that the crowd came from Jewish Galilee with no mention of anyone coming from anywhere else. Luke, on the other hand, as we particularly know from his sequel book – the Acts of the Apostles – was keenly interested in addressing Gentiles as much as Jews … and so we have his reference not only to attendees from Jewish Judea and Jerusalem but also from Gentile Tyre and Sidon.

Now let’s turn to examine the beatitudes themselves. It is worth noting that the key word Μακάριος (blessed) does not appear at all in the Gospel of Mark and only once in the Gospel of John where we read:

So after Jesus had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said … If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.’” [John 13:12-17]

However John, in one of his own sequel books – the Book of Revelation – had used the word many times. Indeed in that Book, John had created what might be considered to be an alternative set of seven Beatitudes [references: Revelation 1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7; and 22:14]. This alternative set, quite different in tone from those of Matthew and Luke, were not written for those who had been on the mount or plain that day at the start of Jesus’ ministry, they had been written after the Resurrection had taken place and were for an audience seeking to piece together an understanding of the astounding events that occurred that first Easter and afterwards. Consequently, John’s seven Beatitudes were all focussed on a post-Resurrection context and all anticipated a second coming of Christ, whereas the Beatitudes reported by Matthew and Luke might seem to have been aphoristic – profound truths about life.

At the start of Jesus’ ministry, people had heard reports of his capacity to heal and to speak words of great wisdom; in those early days there had not yet been any suggestion of the prophecy that Jesus would ultimately fulfil. Thus Matthew and Luke reported the wise counsel that Jesus had given to those listening as they confronted the contemporary circumstances of their lives. Matthew focussed on those things that would have touched the hearts of the Jews in the audience, while Luke spoke to the Gentiles as well. But does what they wrote speak to us, all these centuries later? At the level of aphorisms – profound truths about life – what Jesus was reported as saying in those two sermons spoke well beyond his time, through the centuries to our own time. Indeed we may expect that they will continue to have power in the time to come; and not just with believers but with others who find their poetic power so moving … especially those of Matthew, though perhaps less so those of Luke with his four woes.

Back on 29 January 2017, I preached on the significance of Matthew’s report of the Beatitudes in a sermon entitled “The Beatitudes – not a commentary but a call”; this morning our lectionary calls us to consider Luke’s reportage of what Jesus had said that day and its significance for us today.  To begin we need to reflect on the very words ‘blessed’ and ‘woe’; as we heard, Luke’s version of the beatitudes contains four that start with the word ‘blessed’ and four beginning with the word ‘woe’. In our everyday usages of these words, we could be forgiven for assuming that each occasion the word ‘blessed’ is used that some divine medal has been awarded to those so blessed; while each use of the word ‘woe’ seems to have indicated something of a judicial sentence.

But the beatitudes of Luke were more than just a series of awards and punishments. I mentioned that the word ‘blessed’ is the English translation of the Greek Μακάριος; but as I had said in 2017, that word also translates as ‘happy’ or ‘happiness’. Coincidentally an antonym for ‘happiness’ is ‘woe’, which we might therefore also read as ‘unhappy’.

So, as I did in that earlier sermon with respect to Matthew’s report of the Beatitudes, let me now insert the words ‘happy’ for ‘blessed’ and ‘unhappy’ for ‘woe’. Luke’s version would then read:

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

Happy are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame youon 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.

But unhappy are you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Unhappy are you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Unhappy are you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

Unhappy are you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

It is important to note that the state of being happy or unhappy above is in each instance not self-contained but related to an asymmetrical consequence – if you are in a circumstance of unhappiness, then in time yours will be the kingdom of God, you will be filled, you will laugh, your reward will be in heaven. Contrariwise for the other four beatitudes, the woes, if you are currently in a circumstance of happiness you will have received your consolation, you will go hungry, you will mourn and you will be seen as a false prophet.

Thinking about this, it is also worth noting that each of the four ‘happy’ beatitudes exactly opposed an ‘unhappy’ one; as an example:

Happy are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God

Is counterposed with:

Unhappy are you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

In the ‘happy’ part of the first coupling, we are given a sense of expectation, of hope that the future will be better. You might recall that line which recurs in the movie the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel:

Everything will be alright in the end, so if it is not alright it is not the end.

Against this promise of hope for a better future, stands the complementary ‘woe’ which speaks with sound philosophy about the false promise of wealth with its capacity to generate unyielding dissatisfaction of wanting ever more – that, if wealth is where our heart is, we can never be satisfied.

The same analysis can be done for the other three happy/unhappy, blessed/woe couplings; later you might like to examine them in the same way in order to find the hope proffered in the happy version of each against the unhappy finality of its partner.

This approach to Luke’s version of the beatitudes of Jesus is certainly valuable; but I would like to suggest there is another, much deeper, way of considering them as well. Ralph Waldo Emerson is said to have written:

Life is a journey, not a destination.

In turns out that it was an American theologian, Lynn H Hough who actually penned those words in 1920. Sayings like this warm our hearts, they give some sense to the valleys and mountain tops along with the steep climbs and descents in between that dot the way of our journeys through this life. They have a sense of spirituality about them; but somehow, to me, such sayings seem decaffeinated, lo-cal versions that just don’t have the punch of the real McCoy. Yes, life is a journey – that is almost a tautology; but life is not supposed to be an aimless wandering about, albeit with good intentions. I prefer the pilgrimage metaphor to that of a simple journey. The words of Paul speak more powerfully to me than those of Emerson or Lynn H Hough:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. [2 Tim 4:7]

So, if we consider Luke’s take on the beatitudes not just in the sense of wise words for the journey but beacons for the pilgrimage, how might we read their significance for us?

This week my mother received a letter from Sarojini, a friend in India. This friend works with the Christian Medical Centre, based in Vellore. Back in the early 1990s, my late father, Maurice, had volunteered there for some months which is how my mother and he had first met Sarojini and her husband John Pancharatnam.  This is part of what she wrote to my mother:

Now I find (work) difficult – the years … are beginning to tell. I am eighty next month and feel the time has come to go slow. This period of rest gives me time to reflect, thank God for his blessings and the wonderful way he has led me … I like the verse Rev 1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega” says the Lord God. I spent the early years of my life in a war-torn country … we came back to India after the war.  My mother taught me the value of prayer which has kept me going on now. I trust the Alpha and Omega in my twilight years …

“I trust the Alpha and Omega in my twilight years” – how beautifully put. Through all the “hills, mountains and oceans” of her life that had included times of joy and times of travail, Sarojini wrote that, now in her time of reflection, she gives thanks to “God for his blessings”.

Hearing of this letter and in preparing my sermon, Sarojini’s words “I trust the Alpha and Omega” resonated with what I was reading in the eight beatitudes of Jesus according to Luke. Jesus that day had spoken to a crowd who, at that time, did not yet know how prophecy would be fulfilled by Jesus through the Cross and Resurrection; they had simply come because of their own yearnings for some sense in life. They had had their own travails and pain and they were seeking healing, not only physical but also spiritual. They had wanted to be able to cope with their lives and had come to hear some special rabbi; little did they know that on that mountain or that level place it was the Alpha and Omega who had spoken to them and would ultimately offer them, through his own pilgrimage to the Cross, a life-changing experience, not just a life-coping one.

They would have heard what Jesus said and probably thought how profound and sensible were his words. But those words were deeper beyond any imagining. Jesus had not only been speaking to their journey, he had offered them a glimpse of the destination. And what a destination! Not just the possibility of a fulfilled life in this life, but a life beyond death. The fifth of John’s beatitudes from Revelation would in time come to offer itself to them, as it does so to us:

Blessed (ie happy) and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power [Rev 20:6]

In the spirit of these words, let the Alpha and Omega speak to each of us through the Beatitudes we have heard from Luke this morning; may these words not just be life-coping but life-changing for us.