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.
Text & textual features
This passage is the start of a sermon which runs for the rest of the chapter. It is frequently referred to as the Sermon on the Plain due to its setting on level ground and its parallels with Matthew’s longer Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7).
Though the writer presents the teachings as a single address, they are more likely to have been presented at various times and places.
The similarity of Luke’s blessings with four of Matthew’s, along with their absence in Mark, leads most scholars to suggest that the common source is Q (See Synoptic Problem).
It is important to see the text in relation to what precedes and what follows in the rest of the sermon. The writer places the passage after three other key happenings. In v.12 Jesus prays on a mountain all night. In vv. 12-15 Jesus chooses from among the disciples, the twelve whom he names apostles. After coming down he responds to the afflicted multitudes and in vv.18-19 he heals ‘all of them’. Having modelled the prayer and compassionate actions he expects of his followers he puts them into words. The Beatitudes and Woes are challenging enough but Jesus goes further. He goes on to present his cornerstone teaching of love of enemies, the requirement to be merciful (or compassionate) and not to judge others.
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus commences his Sermon on the Mount with a set of nine blessings. Luke’s version is expressed more succinctly than that of Matthew. In comparison, Luke’s is stark, blunt, concrete and unqualified. The Lukan version gives four blessings and a matching set of four woes. They are written in the second person, that is to ‘you who are poor’.
The literary form of the blessings and woes recall those of the covenant and of the prophetic oracles.
The text amplifies a key theme of the whole Gospel. In the synagogue at Nazareth Jesus proclaimed his mission to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:18-18). Luke had introduced this message in Mary’s song of praise about God who lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, scatters the proud, brings down the powerful and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:46-55).
Characters & setting
Matthew’s setting for the teaching is a mountain. A mountain had been the site of Moses’ encounter with God. Luke situates the scene on level ground. Echoes of Moses would not arouse the same instinctive reactions in Luke’s gentile community as it in Matthew’s formerly Jewish one.
It is worth reflecting on who is the audience. Jesus looks ‘up to his disciples’ and gives them his first instructional teaching. However, he wants others to listen and hear, and for his disciples to know they are. The ‘great multitude’ are the burdened and afflicted who have sought and received Jesus’ healing power. They are the poor. If the disciples are to be students of Jesus, as the word disciple means, like Jesus they must bring good news to the poor. The ‘great multitude’ also denotes that this message is for everyone. In fact, this is the first time in this Gospel that Jesus teaching goes outside the Jewish people, as most people from Tyre and Sidon are gentiles.
Are there rich people among the listeners or among the disciples? Possibly so, since there is a great multitude. It is more likely that the audience for the written text, Luke’s own community includes some people of material wealth living in the midst of poverty. The writer has Jesus directly addressing the woes to them – “you who are rich” – and to other would-be followers who have possessions, instructing that the self-sufficiency of wealth, its associated benefits and being held in high regard interferes with discipleship of Jesus. He goes on to state later that they must share their wealth with the needy “expecting nothing in return” (verses 34-36).
Blessing and woe
The Gospel was written in Greek. The Greek word makarios is used in the blessings. The closest translation is Congratulations! The Greek word used for woe is ouai, an expression of denunciation of something or someone as blameworthy and can imply impending calamity as a result.
The poor and the rich
The first three blessings and woes all refer to the same people. The key distinction here is between the ‘poor’ and the ‘rich’. The ‘poor’ also are hungry and they weep, and they are reviled.
The poor are blessed because God takes their side. The blessing is immediate: they can experience God’s reign here and now (‘yours is the kingdom of God’). The fullness of life for which they long, however, belongs to the future. By contrast, the consolation and benefits of the rich is restricted to the present. In the future they will be hungry, mourn and weep. The sayings present a particular image of God, one who reverses how things are and preferences the poor, just as was stated in Mary’s song of praise.
The evangelist does not spiritualise the poor like the writer of Matthew does (“the poor in spirit”; “hunger and thirst for righteousness”). The insistence on literal material poverty here cannot be explained away. Typical of the whole of this Gospel, the Kingdom is linked to the practice of social justice here and now.
However, the Lukan text should not be used to set up a dichotomy between material and spiritual poverty. Brendan Byrne explains it this way:
[It] is often asked whether by the “poor” who are blessed by God Luke means the economically poor or the spiritually poor. The whole pattern of Luke’s Gospel suggests that the question poses a false alternative. The “poor” certainly are the economically poor; the Beatitudes, like the Magnificat of Mary, cannot be spiritualised away so as to have no bearing upon economics or social justice. At the same time, in Jesus’ day the “poor” had become a standard self-description for the faithful in Israel who wait hopefully upon the Lord… At the heart of their waiting for salvation – salvation in the total sense, including economic and structural salvation – lies a deep spiritual longing … In this perspective “the poor” can include the afflicted in general, whatever the cause or nature of the affliction they suffer. “The poor” are all whose emptiness and destitution provide scope for the generosity of God.
Therefore, ultimately because of their utter dependence on God, the poor are blessed. The woes are not divine hatred against the rich, but rather God’s displeasure with the oppression which they cause and their arrogant disregard of God. The rich long for wealth and not for God and neglect or exclude the poor, and therefore they are rejected with the prophetic ‘woe’.
Jesus preaches “the good news of the kingdom of God” (Lk 4:43). It is the great theme of his teaching in Luke and the other Gospels. The term appears 39 times in Luke. It is the restoration of God’s dream for the world, a new age of God’s life-giving rule over all creation. As noted above, in the Lukan view it is a reversal of the injustice in this world and salvation in the next. An emphasis in this Gospel is that the Kingdom is open to all the poor of God, Jews and gentiles alike. The timing of the Kingdom is elusive: it is here “among you” (Lk 17:20-21); it is “near” (Lk 10:11); but the disciples are to pray for its coming (Lk 11:2) and Jesus tells a parable “because they supposed that the Kingdom of God was to appear immediately” (Lk 19:11).