And turning His gaze toward His disciples, He began to say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way. (Luke 6:20-26 NASB)
It doesn’t take a pair of loops, a lifetime of review, and a PhD to notice that Luke’s “Sermon” is different than Matthew’s. One of the most obvious differences in in their set of “Beatitudes”. Luke clearly has a different use and point to make from these statements of Jesus. Part of that comes from the inclusion of “Woes” in Luke’s set missing from Matthew’s.
That Jesus includes “Woes” may not strike you as odd because there are other places in other Gospels where Jesus pronounces “Woes” on cities for instance. But when you think through how they juxtapose “Blessed”, it becomes obvious that these pronouncements of sadness are actually curses.
More Than Describing Poor and Rich
Think through this. Just because Jesus is re-framing wealth and poverty for His disciples doesn’t detract from the fact He is also pronouncing the quality on the human condition. Okay, that was a strange statement, so let me put it this way. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor…” and “Woe to you who are rich…” He is both changing a perception (in His disciples) and judging a category of people. The poor are blessed and the rich are cursed. That sounds strong, but it’s what He said.
The Radical Paradigm Shift
The first problem most Americans have with what Jesus said isn’t far from the problem the people near Jesus had. This is a radical paradigm shift for both cultures, ours and theirs. It’s especially radical for Americans when we consider that our “poverty line” is still “wealthy” for most every other people group in the world. We tend to feel a bit guilty when we spend time thinking about this because who want “woe”? And who wants to have “woe” spoken over them by their Savior?
One solution to this very popular with anyone comparing Matthew’s Beatitudes to Luke’s is to spiritualize the “rich” and “poor” categories. Luke doesn’t really leave much room to do that. His terminology points rather directly at social and economic categories. It’s only possible to interpret them as spiritual categories by using Matthew’s list. And using Matthew’s list the differences become glaring problems.
The obvious interpretation is probably the best interpretation for this passage. Having said that, keep in mind as this is read that Paul, the apostle with whom Luke is associated, stated he had been both rich and poor in his ministry. So, Luke has to maintain the tension between the spiritual conditions of rich and poor ones in relationship with Jesus, and the human social/economic category of the rich and the poor. But let’s look at that tension for a moment.
Reversals Now And When
The blessings/woes contrast is about reversals: poor become rich later, rich become poor later, etc. But the first blessing/woe seems to point to heaven, and therefore seems to have to do with salvation. The simple inference is that the rich cannot enter heaven. Well, that’s a problem since Jesus has said at other places they can enter heaven even when He says it’s difficult.
But what if what Luke is aiming at with this contrast is not as much of a pronouncement of blessings and woes as much as describing a progression. It’s possible that the believers to whom Luke writes experienced these reversals as they converted to Christianity. The rich often lost business relationships because of their choice of Jesus. The persecution often turned the laughter to mourning. The public perception of people plummeted once they became believers.
It could be Luke is simply reminding his readers that Jesus redefines their conditions. The poor are blessed and the rich will be sad. This is not to say that all Luke’s readers were poor. If Luke’s readers are also Paul’s audience, then there are plenty of wealthy people in Luke’s audience. Some of these needed correction (as in much of the church in Corinth). But some were commended (Philippians and Philemon). So as we read, these “woes” on the rich, let’s also keep in mind that they cannot be a universal condemnation of a social/economic human condition.
I believe that Luke is using these pronouncements of Jesus to condone and condemn human aspiration or motivation more than the actual categories themselves. That’s not a great interpretation. That’s not how Luke worded these blessings and woes, so keep in mind that other interpretations are not only possible, but may also be more honoring of the text.
But as any interpretation moves toward blanket condoning/condemning of these human conditions they will run up against other passages in Scripture which give a different point of view. The degree of divergence will depend largely on the degree of universality of the interpretation here. That’s why I move toward an interpretation using human motivation or focus. It’s not what’s being said, but it more accommodating of other statements of which I know Luke was aware (some of which made it into his Gospel).
Therefore, my lesson from this is to ensure my focus is on heaven, and rewards there. There I will be rich. There I will laugh. There I will be honored by my Master. These things may still happen to me here, but my focus needs to be on heaven. Heaven is where my Master intercedes for me with the Father right now. And heaven is where I will stand in the presence of my Master, right before His throne in the future.
That’s my view through the knothole. Help me out here, what’s yours?