The blessed are the people we tend to envy. The rich, the full, those who laugh, those who have a good name. Backwards is the only word I can think of to describe it.
This and next week’s Gospel readings record consecutive sections of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain.” Naturally, they go together quite well. If you are going to preach from either, it would make sense to preach from both. You might consider preaching a two-part series of sermons as a way of concluding the revelatory season of Epiphany. If you are big on sermon titles or series titles, you might call it something like, “The Backwards World of Jesus.” This week’s text (Luke 6:17-26) shows we have got blessings and woes backwards. Next week’s text (Luke 6:27-38) reveals that our assumptions of how we should live are backwards.
In this reflection I will make some observations about the text, and then offer some thoughts about how you might preach from it.
Verses 17-19 introduce the sermon. If you try to imagine yourself among Jesus’ original hearers that day, you could see this introduction as a justification for why we should listen to Jesus. The crowds are growing, for Jesus continues delivering. He has been healing the sick, casting out demons, and emanating power. If anyone ever earned a few minutes behind the mic, it was Jesus. (By extension, if you think Jesus’ healings and exorcisms justify listening to Him, the resurrection is an even better reason!)
Verse 20a suggests Jesus is talking to His disciples, but this does not mean they were the only ones listening. Scholars dispute the precise make-up of His audience. At the very least it seems the disciples were meant to hear it, which makes it more directly applicable to present-day believers.
Verses 20b-26 form the heart of the pericope. Here Jesus turns everything we think we know about the world upside down and offers a backwards vision of what it means to be blessed and cursed. The two sets of statements match up well. The contemporary preacher could focus on one of these sets, or consider all four of them together.
- Blessed are the poor (20b), woe to the rich (24).
- Blessed are the hungry (21a), woe to the full (25a).
- Blessed are those who weep (21b), woe to those who laugh (25b).
- Blessed are those who are hated and excluded and reviled and spurned (22), woe to those who enjoy a good name (26).
Observations and Suggestions
It is hard to miss echoes of the Magnificat in Luke 1, where Mary sang of her blessedness by emphasizing God filling the hungry and sending away the rich.
It is also hard to miss the tenses. Take the blessings, for example. The blessedness describes the present situation (“blessed are…”), but not because of present circumstances. Their blessedness stems from what will be in the future. The hungry will be satisfied. The weeping ones will laugh. The reviled will rejoice with their reward. The only variation to the future nature of the blessings is the first. The poor are blessed because there is the reign of God. The reign of God in Christ is now. It began in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and it continues with His ascension to the right hand of the Father. He reigns now, even if we do not see it (Hebrews 2:8; 1 Peter 3:22). These tense observations invite the preacher to highlight the eschatological tension in which we live. Now, but not yet. We get glimpses of these blessings in the present, but we live primarily in hopeful expectation. We live by the promise. The best is yet to come.
The last set of blessings and woes (23 and 26) explicitly refer to the prophets of old. Recall what the prophets did—they challenged the assumptions and routines of their hearers. They criticized the world in which their hearers lived and offered a different take on the world. The fact they (and Jesus) were reviled and spurned for their proclamation suggests that the contemporary preacher might also find some resistance. But because the overall thrust of the sermon (and the Gospel) is the gracious promise of God in Christ, the preacher will proclaim this backwards world with hope and joy.
Concordia Theology: Various resources in helping you preach Luke 6:17-26 from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO.
Text Week: Resources from a variety of traditions to help you preach Luke 6:17-26.