Monday, March 29, 2010

Scandalous Blessings: The Beatitudes of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke

So...this here's a paper I done wrote for my "Life of Christ" class. My next few posts will most likely be papers that I'm working on for the class. Let me know what you think!

Jesus makes the purpose of his ministry clear early in the gospel as recorded by Luke when he quotes the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19, NRSV). This public statement sets the backdrop for Luke’s rendition of Jesus’ opus magnum, the collection of sayings commonly referred to in this gospel as the Sermon on the Plain. In this paper, I will provide an overview of Luke’s beatitudes in contrast with those of Matthew’s gospel, as well as examine a few of the elements unique to Luke’s beatitudes.
Although it holds many parallels to a similar compilation of aphorisms in Matthew, Luke’s adaptation contains a unique social perspective of Jesus’ teachings, the magnitude of which is rarely seen in the other synoptic gospels. The setting of a plain itself lends to the image of equality conjured by Luke’s Jesus: he is not ordaining his elected disciples on a mountaintop as in Matthew, but speaking instead to the general public on an open, “level place” (6:17). Jesus chooses instead to “be with the people…with whom [he] identifies” (Craddock 86). The level plain literally brings together the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the disciples and the observers, all as equals.
Beatitudes are an unusual and versatile occurrence in the scriptures. Not quite “blessings,” in the traditional sense, beatitudes are more pronouncements of “situations of happiness,” according to John Nolland (279). Indeed, a better translation of “blessed” in the gospel beatitudes might instead be “happy,” although this does cause some difficulty to the reader in attempting to interpret similar passages such as Matthew 5:4. Aside from other less traditional examples in the gospels, such as Matthew 13:16, beatitudes can be seen represented in the Hebrew Bible, as well, such as the pronouncement of blessings and woes upon Israel in Deuteronomy 11:26-28. This instance, however, is arguable, as the Deuteronomic statement bases its authority on the consequences attached to either good or bad actions, rather than simple economic circumstance, as in Luke (Craddock 87). I will later examine the repercussions of this notion in further detail.
Peculiar to Luke’s beatitudes in particular is the second-person plural manner with which Jesus addresses his audience. Nowhere else in the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition is this method employed in quite the same way. The only beatitude that comes close, according to Nolland, is Tobit 13:14 (Nolland 280). While Matthew’s Jesus states, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke instead personalizes the message: “Blessed are you who are poor,” and, “Woe to you who are rich.” This latter statement likely would have caused quite a row among the populace, especially if there were a number of the wealthy mixed in among the poor on the plain. However, Fred Craddock, author of the Interpretation Series commentary on Luke, argues that this was probably unlikely:

The fact is that to say ‘Woe to you that are rich’ does not necessarily mean the rich were present. By means of a literary vehicle called an apostrophe, a speaker or a writer may address persons who are absent. To say ‘Woe to you that are rich’ to an audience of the poor was a rather popular way to encourage the poor. (88)

In the film The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus’ admonitions to the rich cause an unintended uprising among the poor, the fists of the crowd pumping in the air, the peasants ready for an insurrection. While this is a fancifully fictionalized depiction of the gospels, in this sense it is not a stretch of the imagination to picture Jesus as a rabble-rousing muckraker, stirring the congregated assembly (as well as the reader) to follow him and take part in his movement. If this is indeed the case, perhaps Luke’s beatitudes deserve re-examination as less of a passive itemized list of blessings and more of a call to discipleship that subverts dominant economic and social orders.
It also becomes clear through careful reading of Luke’s Sermon on the Plain that Luke’s eschatology differs in many ways quite distinctly from Matthew’s vision of the end of the age. The writer of Luke’s gospel is extremely centered on the eschatological present, which Nolland suggests was added by Luke to the original hypothetical source shared by the synoptic gospels (280). Within Luke’s beatitudes, the implicit emphasis in blessings and woes two and three is on the word now, suggesting that the Kingdom of God (a phrase seldom used by Matthew) belongs to the poor, the hungry, and the mourners in the immediate present, rather than providing a vague promise for happiness in the next life. In Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, by John Dominic Crossan, the author makes the distinction between the “pie-in-the-sky” promises of future blessings and what he refers to as the “sapiential” nature of Luke’s beatitudes:

The term sapiential underlines the necessity of wisdom—sapientia in Latin—for discerning how, here and now in this world, one can so live that God’s power, rule, and dominion are evidently present to all observers…It is a style of life for now rather than a hope of life for the future. This is therefore an ethical kingdom, but it could be just as eschatological as was [an] apocalyptic kingdom. (63)

Understanding this, however, the paradox of the beatitudes thus becomes one of the “already” and the “not-yet,” presenting a kingdom fulfilled in the minds and hearts of the listeners of Christ’s message, but not yet brought to worldly fruition. As R. Alan Culpepper, author of The New Interpreters Commentary on Luke, succinctly states, “The beatitudes and woes announce that the end is not yet; when God establishes a just reign there will be a radical reversal in the fortunes of the rich and the poor” (145). In the topsy-turvy kingdom of God, beggars become kings and mourners dance, while the wealthy and apathetic are turned away empty-handed, their only hope of redemption to follow the path of Zacchaeus: repent, give away their accumulated possessions to the beggars, and pay back what they unjustly took from the less fortunate.
It has long been believed that author of Matthew’s gospel was writing for a wealthier audience than was the author of Luke. Numerous examples exist, among them the fact that while Matthew recounts the parable of the “talents” (25:14-30), Luke instead provides the same parable (19:11-27) with minas as the currency in focus, the equivalent of three months' wages, and 1/60 the value of the talents (twenty years' wages) mentioned by Matthew. This may have been another attempt of the writer of Luke’s gospel to better associate with the poor, as the use of talents may have served as an unidentifiably high sum to Luke’s audience.
However, the extent of the poverty to those whom Jesus is speaking in the Lukan beatitudes certainly deserves closer inspection. According to Crossan, Luke’s use of the Greek word ptochos is drastically understated in its translation as “poor” in English. Typically, the Greek word penes was used to denote the state of systemic poverty accompanied by class or economic stress. However, ptochos denotes absolute destitution. As Crossan says, “The poor man has to work hard but has always enough to survive, while the beggar has nothing at all” (69). Jesus does not merely bless the lower class in general, he specifically blesses the homeless, the afflicted, the outcasts, those with no means of self-sufficiency.
This narrowing of the blessing through the use of the word ptochos is especially disturbing, as it suggests the bestowal of blessings for reasons outside of immediate personal control. But therein lies the radical nature of Jesus’ message in Luke. This suggestion has even given way to speculation among scholars that the writer of the gospel of Matthew sought to pacify Luke’s beatitudes by adapting “poor” to “poor in spirit,” and “hungry” to “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” thus opening the blessings to people of all classes, rather than only the despondent. According to Culpepper, “Spiritualizing the beatitudes grants those who are not poor access to them, but it also domesticates Jesus’ scandalous gospel” (Culpepper 144).
Despite the seemingly stripped bare, almost practical tone of Luke’s Beatitudes, they are not without their theological implications. The final blessing is reflective of the context in which the early church gave birth to the gospel of Luke. For example, Culpepper says the use of the phrase “Son of Man” in the final blessing “in this context clearly reflects the post-Easter confession of Jesus as the exalted Lord.” Moreover, early Christians would have drawn relatable parallels between themselves and the situation of the disciples listening to Jesus’ teachings. “The condition of being despised is then related to the church’s experience of being persecuted, and reward is promised for those who are faithful to the Lord even when they are cast out and reviled” (Culpepper 144).
Luke’s Jesus exudes the teachings of the Nevi’im—or the Prophets, as we know them—of the Hebrew scriptures. The tension of blessings and woes in this socially conscious gospel parallels the hopeful foretelling of the prophet Amos: “The time is surely coming, says the LORD, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it” (9:13, NRSV). Luke presents a Jesus of both compassion and fire, radical in love and in social activism, proclaiming the kingdom of God both here and here-to-come.

Works Cited

Craddock, Fred B. Luke. Louisville, KY.: John Knox, 1990.

Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.

Culpepper, R. Alan, and Gail R. O’Day. The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John. Nashville, TN.: Abingdon, 1995.

Meeks, Wayne A., and Jouette M. Bassler. The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1993.

Nolland, John. Luke. Dallas, Tex.: Word, 1989.

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