Jesus came down with the Twelve and stopped at a piece of level ground where there was a large gathering of his disciples with a great crowd of people from all parts of Judaea and from Jerusalem and from the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon Then fixing his eyes on his disciples he said
‘How happy are you who are poor: yours is the kingdom of God.
Happy are you who are hungry now: you shall be satisfied.
Happy are you who weep now: you shall laugh.
Happy are you when people hate you, drive you out, abuse you, denounce your name as criminal, on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice when that day comes and dance for joy, for then your reward will be great in heaven. This was the way their ancestors treated the prophets.
‘But alas for you who are rich: you are having your consolation now.
Alas for you who have your fill now: you shall go hungry.
Alas for you who laugh now: you shall mourn and weep.
‘Alas for you when the world speaks well of you!
This was the way their ancestors treated the false prophets.’
Stopped at a piece of level ground
This is Luke’s account of a teaching that we also know as Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.
Sometimes it seems that the New Testament has been put together to confuse us. A challenge to play ‘Spot the Difference’ with the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. And where there is difference to wonder which is the right one; because you would expect there to be a right one.
Or would you? Think about any incident happening out on the street, in the workplace, anywhere. If the witnesses are questioned there will always be conflicting pieces of evidence. How we register an event is an individual experience depending on many things ,not least how important that event is to us personally.
The first obvious difference here is that there is no ‘Mount’ in fact Jesus comes down to level ground. The Judaic tradition recognises the link between Mountains and God; it is a place of encounter; the Word that comes from on high. It would be natural for Matthew, writing to his Judaic audience to have the Lord teach from above – for the disciples, being faced with persecution and isolation, to experience a ‘mountain’ moment.
Luke is writing to the Gentiles, to us, and his people have no common understanding of God. They have come in at ground zero and so the imagery is different. Through Jesus, God came down to our level; the Lord looks his people in the eye. Perhaps the only time he ever looked down on us was at his death.
In fact, much of his life was lived looking up; at the shepherds and the wise men; at John baptising him into his mission; at the man passed through the roof for healing; at the woman caught in adultery as he sat and wrote in the sand; at Judas as he walks out of the upper room to betray him.
On this occasion he stands and looks them all in the eye; not just the Twelve but everyone of his disciples who ‘look’ to him, not only for leadership and teaching, but for their life.
It can be easy when you have authority to simply speak without appreciating what it is you are asking; to expect others to act in a way that you wouldn’t - ‘do as I say’ rather than ‘do as I do’. What the Lord is asking them to do here is not easy- to be prepared for the persecution and the hatred; to rejoice in a way of life that will make them outcasts. But he shows that he stands there with them – he is also an outcast, one of them.
Dance for joy
To dance when you are persecuted, hungry, hated and abused would take some doing one would think. But the important word here is joy, not happiness. To be happy having all these things done to you would be foolish. Happiness is an emotion really too insubstantial to last; too fleeting to sustain us. Silly things, little things make us happy (thank goodness). But what makes us happy one day becomes boring the next and too much trouble within no time.
Joy is different; joy lives in our heart as deep seated as Grace. It depends very much on the experience of love and rightness and belonging. There is strength in joy; the smiling strength that you see in children’s hospital wards or Aids orphanages or detainment camps. It is the shining that you see in the eye of a person who may be terminally ill but who knows the joy of life; in the eyes of those that care for them. It is the inner sense that knows God is present despite everything; in spite of everything and delights in that knowing.
No wonder Luke chooses to stand us face to face with the Lord. Imagine, looking into those eyes and hearing those words. To have that memory in times of tears and hunger and poverty; to remember those eyes and thinking that, even then, he knew what his fate was going to be and yet…he promised Joy.