LUKE 6:17-49. THE SERMON ON THE PLAIN
Much of this material is also found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. Luke’s less familiar version is known as the Sermon on the Plain, because Jesus “came down with them, and stood on a level place” (6:17).
Luke’s version (3 introductory verses + 30 teaching verses) is much shorter than the Matthew’s (4 introductory/concluding verses + 107 teaching verses), but includes some distinctive material, such as the Woes (6:24-26).
There are parallels in Luke to most of Matthew 5 and 7 but none to Matthew 6. It is unlikely that either sermon was delivered in the exact form that we have in Luke or Matthew. Both are surely collections of Jesus’ teachings from a variety of settings.
In Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount (5:1 – 7:29) follows almost immediately after Jesus’ baptism and temptation, preceded only by his call of the disciples (5:18-22) and a series of miracles that Matthew describes briefly (5:23-25).
Luke places the Sermon on the Plain (6:17-49) later in Jesus’ ministry. The sermon is preceded by his rejection in his hometown synagogue (4:16-30), other miracles and teaching (4:31-44), the call of the disciples (5:1-11), the cleansing of a leper (5:12-16), the forgiveness and healing of a paralytic (5:17-26), the call of Levi, the tax collector (5:27-32), a question about fasting (5:33-39), a question about the sabbath (6:1-5), the healing of the man with the withered hand (6:6-11), and the selection of the twelve apostles (6:12-16).
Luke places this sermon later in his Gospel because his concern is emphasis rather than exact chronology. Most of the above stories, beginning with Jesus’ visit to his hometown synagogue, are conflict stories—stories where Jesus offends religious authorities by favorable mention of Gentiles (4:20-30), touching a leper (5:13), forgiving a man’s sins (5:20-26), calling a tax collector and mixing with tax collectors (5:27-32), failing to require his disciples to fast (5:33-39), allowing his disciples to pluck grain on the sabbath (6:1-5), and healing on the sabbath (6:6-11).
In Luke’s version, these conflict stories provide the background for Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. In these stories, scribes and Pharisees take offense at Jesus for violating religious taboos. They try to defend a traditional understanding of God’s people (Godly Jews vs. ungodly Gentiles) and traditional morality (sabbath observance, etc.). Jesus counters, in each instance, by showing them a new way—but they refuse to see.
Jesus then gives his Sermon on the Plain (vv. 20-49), in which he further turns their legalistic world on its head. In this sermon, Jesus gives them a glimpse into the kingdom of God—an upside-down world by their standards.
Luke casts the scribes and Pharisees in a bad light in these stories, so we must ask whether we can realistically expect them to understand the upside-down kingdom that Jesus portrays. Aren’t they following Torah law as faithfully as they can? Isn’t it too much to expect that they should understand Jesus? Shouldn’t Luke portray them more sympathetically?
The scribes and Pharisees are trying to be faithful to the law, and for that we should admire them. However, they ignore the prophets, whom their forefathers killed (v. 23). In his Nazareth synagogue sermon, Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 61:1-2), who expressed God’s concern for the oppressed, the brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners (4:18-19)—verses that set the tone for this Gospel and the book of Acts (also written by Luke). Concern for the weak and widowed abounds in the psalms and the prophets (Psalms 10:17-18; 68:5-6; 76:9; 132:15; 146:7-10; Isaiah 35:5-6; 49:13; 42:7; Ezekiel 34:15-16, 28; Micah 4:6-7).
Even in the Torah, God provided for the poor to eat grapes and grain from a neighbor’s field (Deuteronomy 23:24-25)—required farmers to leave food for gleaners (Deuteronomy 24:19)—forbade charging interest (Exodus 22:25)—required slave-owners to set slaves free in the Sabbath Year (Leviticus 25:1-7; Deuteronomy 15:12-18)—and required land-owners to return ancestral lands to their original owners in the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-17). God reminded Israel that they were slaves in Egypt, so they should treat slaves with compassion (Leviticus 25:39-55).
The prophets tried to move Israel from law (Level One) to compassion (Level Two). If Israel had done a better job of incorporating the prophets into its religious fabric, it would be better prepared for Jesus, who tries to move them to Level Three. However, the concern of the scribes and Pharisees for the status quo leaves them mired in legalism.
LUKE 6:12-16. JESUS CHOOSES THE TWELVE APOSTLES
While verses 12-16 are not included in today’s Gospel lesson, they are important as background. Jesus spent the night on a mountain in prayer and chose the twelve apostles from a larger group of disciples that was present with him (v. 13).
The mountain is more significant theologically than geographically. Mountains were places to pray and to encounter God. A mountain is the perfect place for the call of those who will constitute the core leadership of the church.
The number twelve, of course, corresponds to the twelve tribes of Israel. Like Israel, the church (the New Israel) is also organized around that number.
LUKE 6:17-19. HE CAME DOWN WITH A CROWD OF DISCIPLES
17He came down with them, and stood on a level place, with a crowd of his disciples, and a great number of the people from all Judea and Jerusalem, and the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; 18as well as those who were troubled by unclean spirits, and they were being healed. 19All the multitude sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all.
Jesus “came down with them, and stood on a level place” to deliver his sermon (v. 17a). The words, “with them,” refer back to 6:12-16, where Jesus chose twelve apostles. While they aren’t specifically mentioned in verses 17-26, the apostles come down from the mountain with Jesus and are present with him on the level place.
As noted above, the “level place” contrasts with the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus delivers his sermon from the mountain (Matthew 5:1). Luke is sensitive to the lowly and poor. Perhaps having Jesus come down to the level place is his way of emphasizing Jesus’ ministry to ordinary people in ordinary places.
A clue to the location of this sermon is Luke’s comment, “After he had finished speaking in the hearing of the people, he entered into Capernaum” (7:1).
“with a crowd of his disciples, and a great number of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon” (v. 17b.)
Three groups of people are present:
• The apostles (see comments on v. 17a).
• A great crowd of disciples
• A great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon
Luke usually portrays disciples in small groups. Only here and in 19:37 does he show us a large crowd of disciples.
The places mentioned in verse 17 are an interesting mix:
• Judea is the southern province. Jerusalem, located in Judea, is the home of the temple and the most orthodox Jewish leaders. It represents the religious status quo—Jesus’ opposition.
• Tyre and Sidon are Gentile cities on the coast just north of Capernaum. Their mention suggests the presence of Gentiles among the crowd at the Sermon on the Plain.
Together, these four places emphasize the breadth of Jesus’ ministry—from far north to far south—from orthodox Jews to Gentiles.
“who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; as well as those who were troubled by unclean spirits, and they were being healed” (v. 17b-18). They came to Jesus because they had heard that he could help them—and help them he did! To Jesus “people were not merely ‘cases'” (Hendrickson, 335). He responded to each person’s need individually.
“All the multitude sought to touch (Jesus), for power came out from him and healed them all” (v. 19). It would seem that the crowd expects too much of Jesus, because he has come to teach but they have come to be healed. But then Jesus heals all of them (v. 19)—and teaches them as well.
There is a lesson here for the church. Our primary mission, as outlined in the Great Commission, is to go, to make disciples, to baptize, and to teach (Matthew 28:19-20). However, if we are to be faithful to the Lord’s example, we must also address mundane needs as well—food, clothing, shelter, health, safety, disaster relief, and education. The needs, which the church has met over the centuries and is meeting today, are nearly endless.
LUKE 6:20-26. BLESSINGS AND WOES
20He lifted up his eyes to his disciples, and said,
“Blessed (Greek: makarioi) are you who are poor,
for yours is the Kingdom of God.
21Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22Blessed are you when men shall hate you,
and when they shall exclude and mock you,
and throw out your name as evil,
for the Son of Man’s sake.
23Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy,
for behold, your reward is great in heaven,
for their fathers did the same thing to the prophets.
24But woe to you who are rich!
For you have received your consolation.
25Woe to you, you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26Woe, when men speak well of you,
for their fathers did the same thing to the false prophets.”
Luke’s version of the beatitudes differs from Matthew 5:1-12:
• Matthew has nine beatitudes and no woes, while Luke has four beatitudes and four matching woes.
• Matthew speaks in the third person (“they shall be filled”), whereas Luke speaks in the second person (“you will be filled”).
• Matthew spiritualizes the beatitudes by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Luke says simply, “Blessed are you who are poor” (v. 20). Matthew says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). Luke says, “Blessed are you who hunger now” (v. 21).
Some modern translations use the word “happy” instead of “blessed” to translate makarioi. That is an “unhappy” choice, given the connotations associated with the word happy in our culture. The blessing here is the security of knowing that one is right with God.
Both the beatitudes and woes are descriptive rather than prescriptive. They describe already established reality instead of calling us to new behavior calculated to garner blessings and to avoid woes.
• Jesus does not tell us that we should sell all that we have and give it to the poor so that we might attain the kingdom of God—although he will, in fact, require that of a wealthy man interested in gaining eternal life (18:22). However, in these beatitudes, he tells the poor that theirs is (present tense) the kingdom of God (v. 20). In the woes, he tells the rich that they have already received their consolation (v. 24).
• Nor does he tell us to meter our intake of food to prevent hunger. Instead, he promises that those who are hungry now will be filled and those who are full now will be hungry.
There is no mention of reward and punishment here. Instead, Jesus describes a reversal that is simply a fact of life. What you see is not what you get! He describes a mirror-image world where everything is backwards—where the rules are the opposite of what we expect. The kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God are very different—diametrically opposed. We know how things work in the kingdom of this world. Now Jesus tells us how they work in the kingdom of God.
Imagine visiting a foreign country with customs and traditions very different from yours. Imagine that your visit has an important purpose—a business deal or treaty negotiation. You want to prepare yourself to make the best impression possible—learning a bit of the language and local customs. You want to avoid giving offense by violating cultural norms. To prepare, you would read a travel guide or take a class in the customs and traditions of that country. Jesus came to prepare us for life in the kingdom of God. He is telling us what to expect. Listen carefully!
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20). This corresponds to “Blessed are the poor in spirit” in Matthew 5:3.
Who are the poor? They would include those whose worldly circumstances are constrained—but who look to God for blessings. While they include the financially impoverished, Jesus likely intends them also to include other disadvantaged people—powerless people—marginalized people.
Stein notes that David, in Psalms 40:17; 86:1; and 106:22, claimed to be “poor and needy”—but he was rich and famous. We must conclude that his poverty was spiritual rather than financial (Stein, 200).
Why would God bless the poor? Isn’t wealth a mark of God’s approval? Doesn’t God reward faithful people with material prosperity as well as spiritual blessings (Deut. 28:1-14)? Sometimes! However, our spiritual sensitivity tends to be inversely proportional to our financial prosperity. Our awareness of our need for God tends to rise in lean years and fall in fat years. Our compassion for the needy tends to wax when we ourselves are needy and wane when we are not.
Luke presents a strong emphasis throughout this Gospel on the great reversal that the kingdom of God brings, beginning with Mary’s song (1:50-54) and Zechariah’s song (1:74-77), and extending to the parable of the rich fool (12:13-21) the parable of the dishonest manager (16:1-13), the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31), the parable of the widow and the unjust judge (18:1-8), the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (18:9-14), the blessing of little children (18:15-17), Jesus’ encounter with a rich young ruler (18:18-30), the parable of the talents (19:11-27), and the widow’s offering (21:1-4).
Zacchaeus presents a happy counterpoint—an exception to prove the rule—a rich tax collector who sees the light, renounces ill-gotten wealth, and wins salvation (19:1-10).
This emphasis on reversal encourages disciples, who might be suffering but who know that they belong, not to the kingdom of this world, but to the kingdom of God.
However, Luke does not idealize poverty, but instead tells of disciples who pool their resources—owning everything in common—selling possessions and distributing the proceeds to take care of everyone’s needs (Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-35). The emphasis is on generosity rather than poverty—on not being possessed by possessions.
We wonder why Jesus should bless the poor and pronounce woes on the rich. We can offer only tentative answers. Perhaps the rich are tempted to trust in their wealth, while the poor are more likely to trust in God. Perhaps the rich used improper methods to attain their wealth. Perhaps they are inclined to take advantage of more vulnerable people. However, we know well-to-do people who lead lives of faith and less-well-to-do people who do not. We know well-to-do people who are generous and less-well-to-do people who are not. There is an enigmatic quality to Luke’s Beatitudes, which may explain Matthew’s spiritualizing them. It is much easier to accept “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3) than“Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20). However, Luke’s version points out the special place that God has in his heart for the poor and vulnerable. There is no reason why “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are you who are poor” cannot both be true.
Jesus blessing of the poor is good news for the first disciples, who had “left everything and followed him” (5:11).
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled” (v. 21a). This corresponds to “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness” in Matthew 5:6.
Luke on several occasions uses the metaphor of a messianic banquet to portray the blessings that await the faithful. “They will come from the east, west, north, and south, and will sit down in the Kingdom of God” (13:29; see also 12:37; 14:14-24)—a metaphor drawn from the Old Testament (Isaiah 25:6-8; 49:10-13; 65:13; see also Psalm 107:9). While the blessing of the poor (v. 20) is present, the blessing of the hungry and those who weep (v. 21) is future.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (v. 21b). This corresponds to“Blessed are those who mourn” in Matthew 5:4.
“Weeping and mourning are stock responses to rejection, ridicule, and loss” (Green, 268), so the promise of joyful laughter suggests that these people will enjoy acceptance, affirmation, and the restoration of that which was lost—plus much more!
The last beatitude, “Blessed are you when men shall hate you, and when they shall exclude and mock you, and throw out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake” (v. 22) corresponds to Matthew 5:10-11, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”.
This beatitude is different in that it promises a reward to those who endure rejection or persecution because of their faithfulness to Christ. The corresponding woe, “Woe, when men speak well of you” (v. 26), promises punishment to those who are like the false prophets of old.
As noted above, Jesus has already experienced a series of conflicts with religious authorities (Luke 4-6)—just as Old Testament prophets experienced opposition and persecution. People are willing to receive gladly anyone who tells them what they want to hear, but God sent prophets with a message that the people did not want to hear—a call to repent—to change direction—to quit sinning. The person who faithfully delivers that kind of message can expect opposition. Jesus reassures the disciples that, if they experience opposition because of their faithfulness, they can expect great rewards in heaven (v. 23).
Luke’s church, in the midst of persecution, needs to hear this promise. We need to hear it too. There are unsung heroes among us who have suffered because the world did not appreciate their Christian values and principles. Jesus says, “Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven, for their fathers did the same thing to the prophets” (v. 23).
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (v. 24). Jesus has pronounced four blessings (poor, hungry, weep, hated). Now he pronounces four corresponding woes (rich, full, laughing, well-spoken). This woe corresponds to the beatitude, “Blessed are you who are poor” (v. 20).
The rich include those who are financially prosperous, but that term also “connotes belonging and power (and)…a sense of arrogance that does not require the visitation of God (see 1:53; 12:16, 21; 14:12; 16:1, 19, 21-22; 18:23, 25; 19:2; 21:1)” (Johnson, 108).
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (v. 25a). This woe corresponds to the beatitude, “Blessed are you who hunger now” (v. 21a). It emphasizes the passing nature of privileged living. Those who have become accustomed to having plenty of food find it especially difficult to tolerate half rations.
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (v. 25b). This woe corresponds to the beatitude, “Blessed are you who weep now” (v. 21b).
“Woe, when men speak well of you, for their fathers did the same thing to the false prophets” (v. 26). This woe corresponds to the beatitude, “Blessed are you when men shall hate you” (v. 22). Humans are prone to speak well of those who agree with them or those who might give favors in return for flattery. God, however, judges by a different standard. He will reward those who speak the truth rather than the false prophets who speak what people want to hear.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2007, 2010, 2012, Richard Niell Donovan