17 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. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 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.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “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.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
The world of the author’s community
Scholars generally agree that the Gospel according to Luke was written in elegant Greek some 50 years after the death of Jesus, probably in the 80s. The Gospel is the first of two works by the author, its companion volume being the Acts of Apostles. Tradition has given the name of Luke to the author, but there is no certainty that Luke was the author’s name, and if it was, that he was the Luke mentioned in the Acts of Apostles and the Letters of Paul. Luke may have been a Syrian from Antioch. Most scholars conclude from elements in the Gospel that the author was a Gentile writing for a community predominantly made up of Gentile Christians. More details about the Gospel according to Luke can be found HERE.
Each Gospel is a testimony of faith originating out of a Christian community. The author reflects the concerns and issues of the community. In Luke’s predominantly Gentile Christian community, it is likely that the material wealth of some of its members, the poor among and around them and questions of wealth and poverty were issues of debate. These concerns are a characteristic of the Gospel in general and this text in particular.
The world at the time of the text
The situation of the text is early in Jesus’ public ministry in rural Galilee. It was a society of very sharp social boundaries and a large gulf between the poor and the rich. Most rural people were poor agricultural peasants. They lived at a subsistence level, frequently in danger of hunger or starvation if the crops failed. Roman rule also marginalised them. They were forced to pay high taxes on what they earnt. The wealthy – urban and temple elites and landowners – were a small proportion of society and benefited from land rent and civil and religious taxes.
In addition to the material poverty, many may have associated reference to the poor with the “poor ones” who remained faithful to God in times of difficulty. These humble people were known in Hebrew as the anawim or the “faithful remnant” of Israel.
Jewish people at the time of the text would have been aware of the blessings found in the Hebrew Scriptures, eg, in the Psalms (Ps 1; Ps 112). At other places blessings are accompanied by curses. In texts about God’s covenant and the delivery of the Torah through Moses such as Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 there blessings for fidelity and curses for infidelity to the covenant. These also were the foundations for the oracles (or divine messages) through the prophets. Their oracles were either imminent realisation of curses for being unfaithful to the covenant or future blessings of covenant fulfilment. Examples can be found in Isaiah chapters 13 – 23.
The text is set in Galilee in the northern part of the provinces of first-century Palestine. To the south was Judea and its capital, Jerusalem. The inhabitants of Judea were mainly Jews. Galilee also had a large Jewish population but also had many who were not Jewish. Further north on the Mediterranean coast were the cities of Tyre and Sidon in Phoenicia (part of modern Syria). Most of their population was not Jewish. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the multitude consisted mainly of Jews but also of gentiles.