First let me offer a little background information on today’s Gospel passage. This is one of two sermons mentioned in the Gospels. Today’s is from Luke. It has been known as the “Sermon on the Plain.” The more famous one is from Matthews’s Gospel. It is known as the “Sermon on the Mount.”
The Sea of Galilee sits in a basin. It has the look of a lake sitting in a volcanic crater. It is surround on almost all sides by 1,000 – 2,000 foot hills. The “mount” on which Jesus gave his famous sermon sits on the northern part of the lake. A basilica sits at the spot located about 500 feet above the sea level.
One commentary from Brigham Young University says this about the two sermons:
The very real similarities between the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20–49) have led many students of the New Testament to see these two magnificent sermons as variants of one another
This said, I suggest that we consider two possibilities. First, Jesus gave the two sermons on different occasions and, second, Jesus’ rehearsal of the Sermon on the Plain was partially to introduce the Twelve to his growing number of followers.
One main reason for seeing the two sermons as separate events has to do with their settings. According to Matthew, when “seeing the multitudes, [Jesus] went up into a mountain.” In our minds’ eye, we can readily imagine Jesus climbing the broad hillside that rises above the north shore of the Sea of Galilee and, after “he was set, his disciples came unto him” (Matthew 5:1). Luke describes a completely different setting. He relates that, after Jesus chooses the Twelve following all night in prayer on “a mountain” (Luke 6:12), “he came down with them [the Twelve], and stood in the plain” (Luke 6:17). In the hills that ring the Sea of Galilee on the east, north, and west sides, a single area stands out as an extensive level area that matches Luke’s sketch.
It lies on the northeast shore about three miles west of Capernaum and stretches away from the lake for about a mile before abutting high hills.
There are theological and moral lessons to be drawn from these two sermons. They should not be based on poor interpretations of the passages. Let me give two examples.
At first glance, it would seem as if the Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is ”exalting the downtrodden simply because they are downtrodden, and cursing the comfortable simply because they are comfortable.” When Jesus blesses the poor and curses the rich, do we really believe that Jesus congratulating the economically deprived and condemning those with ample possessions? That would mean that Jesus is exhorting people to live in abject poverty and destitution. That’s simply not true. It flies in the face of Genesis where God exhorts his people to be fruitful and multiply.
Some argue that Matthew diluted Luke’s “poor” because it seemed too harsh, and changed it to the “poor in spirit” instead. There is a growing consensus that by “poor” Jesus means not a social class but those who know their need for God. They recognize their spiritual poverty. They know that this spiritual poverty will keep them from an enriched spiritual life which translates into life that is fuller, richer in other dimensions: physical, emotional, intellectual, pastoral, moral.
There are three items to consider here. First, The poor here are like the Old Testament `nawm mentioned in the commentary on 1:51-54. They are the pious poor. They belong to his kingdom and are under his rule. These beatitudes serve to comfort and reassure those who belong to God.
Second, Jesus offers promises to the poor, the hungry, those who weep and those who suffer religious persecution. God sees their spiritual commitment, which has cost them in the pocketbook. They stand in a long line of the faithful, including the prophets of old. It is often the case that standing up for Jesus and the truth brings ostracism. Thus, despite opposition, disciples are blessed, since God promises to care for them.
Finally, the beatitudes and woes serve as a call to be responsive to God in light of his promise of faithfulness to those who are his. The beatitudes indicate the kind of person God desires as his child. What Jesus is challenging us to consider was spelled out in a very fine 1986 document by the U.S. Bishops entitled, Economic Justice for All.
All of us must examine our way of living in light of the needs of the poor. Christian faith and the norms of justice impose distinct limits on what we consume and how we view material goods. The great wealth of the United States can easily blind us to the poverty that exists in this nation and the destitution of hundreds of millions of people in other parts of the world. Americans are challenged today as never before to develop the inner freedom to resist the temptation constantly to seek more.
These blessings are not a “works salvation” but represent an invitation to let God mold his children into who they ought to be.