Luke Chapter 6:20-25

Here we begin the actual teaching of the Sermon on the Plain. Does anyone really think that’s a coincidence? Really?

Regardless, kept the section short because it engendered quite a bit of commentary. And if you do think this Mount/Plain was a coincidence, I hope that this next section helps make you feel even less certain about that.

20 Καὶ αὐτὸς ἐπάρας τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτοῦ εἰς τοὺς μαθητὰς αὐτοῦ ἔλεγεν, Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοί, ὅτι ὑμετέρα ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ.

And he raising his eyes to his disciples he said, “Blessed (are) the poor, that of them is the kingdom of heaven.

We are going to stop right here. Of course we all know that Matthew has this as “blessed are the poor in spirit“. so the obvious conclusion is that Luke’s version here represents a “more primitive” version of the Q text. This one is more primitive, supposedly, because it is simpler, because it has fewer words and a more straightforward message. Everyone knows who “the poor” are; who are the “poor in spirit” after all? That one takes a certain amount of consideration, and perhaps some explaining, after all. And I have to concede that this is not a terrible interpretation, or understanding of the two texts. Luke’s does seem more straightforward. But it is justified to use the term “more primitive” for that reason? I think not, or at least not necessarily. “Primitive” is rather a loaded word, one that’s at least a little pejorative. The intent may simply be to capture the aspect that Luke’s version is closer to Q; just as Luke’s version of the pater noster is, supposedly, closer to Q. Whatever the intent, the result is to raise up Matthew at the expense of Luke. This, in turn, helps preserve the illusion of Q…at least, I guess that’s what the intent is. 

Whatever the intent, the reality is that “blessed are the poor”/”poor in spirit” are two very different thoughts. I suppose it can be argued that the latter represents a more advanced stage in thinking, but it could also be argued, IMO, anyway, that “poor in spirit” is a bit of a shill for wealthy people. You don’t actually have to be poor, but just have the humility of the poor. It’s a nice thought, but it doesn’t quite jibe with some of the other teachings of Jesus, such as the bit about the eye of the needle. Also, FWIW, Mark and Matthew each use the word “ptochos” (beggar, beggarly = poor) five times each. For Matthew, once is here, and once is in the aphorism about always having the poor with you–a story that is not in Luke. IOW, the poor are not too far to the front of Matthew’s message. Of five uses of the word, once is a waffle and once is nearly a disparagement. Luke, OTOH, uses the word ten times, albeit twice in the story of Dives and Lazarus, but that still leaves eight other examples.

I did read somewhere–the cite escapes me, and shame on me for not writing it down; however, it was a reputable source–that Luke is the gospel of the poor. I put this out there to show that there is a school of thought–or one scholar, at least–that believes Luke devotes more attention to the poor than either Mark or Matthew. Now, on top of that, I notice that Paul apparently only uses the word four times in eight letters, and one of them is him saying how James the Just pressed Paul to remember the poor. As such, that’s not exactly evidence that the poor are at the top of his agenda, either. In contrast, the short epistle of James–probably not written by James the Just–uses the word four times, and all of them are in reference to the poor as we think of the term. IOW, the poor, far from being an early aspect of proto-Christian, or Christian belief, was a later one. It became more important in later works, rather than the earlier ones that are, at least, potentially closer to Jesus. As such, it is Matthew’s “poor in spirit” that is the more “primitive” version of this teaching. It is Luke, not Matthew, who advances the teaching on the poor. That also knocks another prop out from under the reasons why Q has to have existed.

There is one other thing that should be mentioned. There is an apocryphal Gospel of the Ebionites, the latter word relating to the poor. And there is a tradition that this was written, if not by James the Just, then by one of his later followers, as the Epistle of James may have been. I do not know what the arguments for this position are, but no doubt they rely on a great deal of speculation and inference, since there is no evidence to speak of. I have mentioned several times that much of what I had always been taught was the Christian attitude towards social justice actually was Jewish in origin and emphasis. We have seen from Paul that James was more concerned with maintaining the ties to Judaism than Paul was. So the question becomes, did the later attitude and teaching on the poor only emerge as this aspect of the teaching of James the Just had been more thoroughly integrating into the main stream of Christian thought? This is pure speculation, based on the sort of huge leaps of faith and tenuous connexions that I tend to disparage. But, FWIW, there it is. The fact remains, though, that when it becomes appropriate to talk about The Church, social justice was decidedly part of the message. And the idea of apostolic poverty was a main theme in the heresies of Western Europe from the 12th Century forward. The Waldensians, for example, were firm believers in apostolic poverty, as were the Cathars, who were exterminated by Innocent III in the early 13th Century. And then there was St Francis of Assisi, whose order became split into those who believed in maintaining the founder’s practice of poverty, and those who thought corporate wealth was just fine. So, yes, teaching about “The Poor” was something of a later tradition. I have been very surprised at the lack of emphasis on this topic as I’ve gone through the letters of Paul and the first two gospels.

20 Et ipse, elevatis oculis suis in discipulos suos, dicebat: “Beati pauperes, quia vestrum est regnum Dei.

21 μακάριοι οἱ πεινῶντες νῦν, ὅτι χορτασθήσεσθε. μακάριοι οἱ κλαίοντες νῦν, ὅτι γελάσετε. 22μακάριοί ἐστε ὅταν μισήσωσιν ὑμᾶς οἱ ἄνθρωποι, καὶ ὅταν ἀφορίσωσιν ὑμᾶς καὶ ὀνειδίσωσιν καὶ ἐκβάλωσιν τὸ ὄνομα ὑμῶν ὡς πονηρὸν ἕνεκα τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου:

23 χάρητε ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ καὶ σκιρτήσατε, ἰδοὺ γὰρ ὁ μισθὸς ὑμῶν πολὺς ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ: κατὰ τὰ αὐτὰ γὰρ ἐποίουν τοῖς προφήταις οἱ πατέρες αὐτῶν.

“Blessed are those hungering now, that you will be filled. Blessed are those weeping now, that you will laugh. (22) Blessed are (you) when people hate you, and when they cast you out and cast in insults and throw our your name as knavish because of the son of man; (23) for rejoice on that day and leap, for behold your reward is great in the sky; for upon the same things the forbears of them did to the prophets.

These verses are not exactly part of the Beatitudes as they are set out in Matthew, or, at least, in some editions of Matthew. These lines come at the end of the Beatitudes proper. I suppose this is part of the “masterful” arrangement of Matthew vs the muddled arrangement of Luke. The sentiments expressed obviously extol the outcast, or perhaps those despised. In ancient society, this would–or at least could–include the poor. For example, both of the words “mean” and “villain” refer to lower-class people and serfs. Assuming that these are the people referred to, far from being a muddle of Matthew’s arrangement, this represents an excellent pairing with the opening line. The poor will inherit the earth, and the poor people who are despised and outcast now will be filled, they will get the Great Reward in the Sky. The order of the verses are rearranged because, since the “poor” and the “poor in spirit” are not the same people, the order of the verses here reinforce each other to emphasize the point about the poor. This is important because it undercuts the whole–and wholly ridiculous–idea that Matthew’s treatment of the so-called Q material was infinitely superior to that of Luke. The two are different. Matthew made certain editorial choices, Luke made others. And there is no burden of proof on the opponents of Q that requires these latter to explain why Luke differed in every single instance. That’s absurd. The burden of proof is on those who claim Q ever existed, and that should never, ever be forgotten or conceded.

As for the content and its intent and its raison d’être, the question is whether this fits circumstances of Jesus’ lifetime. This seems to be meant as a morale booster for a community that was under some pressure from the outside. So why is it here? Now, if this does refer to the poor, then that question is largely answered, I believe. The poor were under pressure and duress. Does it go beyond that? Or, if you do not believe that these lines do refer to the poor, but to the Christian community as at large, then you have to discuss the circumstances under which these words were conceived. One clue is to look back at Matthew’s “poor in spirit”. He did not couple that verse with the verses about being hungry. That implies that Matthew saw the groups as separate. That, I think, would imply that he did not intend these verses about being outcast as referring to the general way the poor were despised. And recall that Matthew blessed those who hungered and thirsted for justice; Luke leaves it at those who were, quite simply, hungry, as in physically hungry. This, in turn, implies that Matthew did not connect the two ideas, that the poor were not those who were outcast. The implication of this chain of logic is that, for Matthew, being outcast was a condition of being a Christian rather than of being poor.

When were Christians experiencing anything that can reasonably be described as “persecution”? There is, quite frankly, no indication in the gospels that the followers of Jesus were in any way being subjected to anything that can be called “persecution” in the lifetime of Jesus. Yes, Jesus was supposedly crucified for his beliefs, but I have pointed out many times that only Jesus was arrested and punished. This is pretty clear evidence that the people arresting Jesus were not the least interested in any of Jesus’ followers. Recall that the Passion narrative is likely the later creation of some group of Jesus’ followers–I would suggest the Galilean group, led, or at least subsidized, by Mary the Magdelane–so it reflects the Christians’ own perspective. As such, it seems that there was very little in the way of persecution in Jesus’ lifetime. So, if these lines  are not to be seen as a description of the poor, then they are unlikely to date to the time before the Resurrection. Ergo, by necessity they describe circumstances of the earlier days of the proto-church, such as the “pressure” that Paul and his associates applied to the followers of Jesus.

The chain of logic supporting that conclusion is, I believe, quite strong, even if it’s not overwhelming and irrefutable. It does, however, provide a level of certainty that is not frequently found in such biblical arguments. Taking this conclusion as a datum, as a given, there is then one further conclusion to be gleaned. Since Luke changed the words from “poor in spirit” to “poor”, and since he rearranged the material to the form seen here, it’s reasonable to conclude that he made the changes because he wanted to make them. This, of course, raises (but does not beg) the question of why did he make the change? I would suggest it’s because the levels of persecution implied had been either forgotten, or had never really been learned by the group for which Luke wrote. The memory of those days was dim, perhaps vague to the point of being perceived a story than actual events. So Luke rearranged the material to fit into a new paradigm, one in which it was the poor who came to the fore, in which they were the ones being despised. Most likely this new paradigm arose in circumstances in which the poor had become a more prominent segment of the Christian community. This makes sense, I think. Whether I’m correct is, however, a different matter.

21 Beati, qui nunc esuritis, quia saturabimini. Beati, qui nunc fletis, quia ridebitis.

22 Beati eritis, cum vos oderint homines et cum separaverint vos et exprobraverint et eiecerint nomen vestrum tamquam malum propter Filium hominis.

23 Gaudete in illa die et exsultate, ecce enim merces vestra multa in caelo; secundum haec enim faciebant prophetis patres eorum.

24 Πλὴν οὐαὶ ὑμῖν τοῖς πλουσίοις, ὅτι ἀπέχετε τὴν παράκλησιν ὑμῶν.

25 οὐαὶ ὑμῖν, οἱ ἐμπεπλησμένοι νῦν, ὅτι πεινάσετε. οὐαί, οἱ γελῶντες νῦν, ὅτι πενθήσετε καὶ κλαύσετε.

Except woe to the rich, that have your appeal. (25) Woe to you, those filled now, that you will hunger. Woe, you laughing now, that you will mourn and weep.

And on cue, here we have Luke casting woe to the wealthy, the full, those happy now. This provides some really strong support to the thesis set out in the previous comment. There is one issue: the word that I’ve rendered as “appeal”. That obviously doesn’t really work very well. If you sneak a peek at the Latin, you would notice that the word is “consolationem”; and, in fact, this is how most English editions translate the word. The problem is, Classical Greek, first of all, doesn’t use the word very often; and second, never uses it to mean “consolation”. This usage is confined to a couple of uses in the LXX and one other time in the NT. This is why I get so uneasy about the idea that such an animal as “NT Greek” actually exists. Classicists, or specialists in the Hellenic language, will rarely–if ever–use the term “NT Greek”. “Koine”, yes, but not NT Greek. It’s really obvious that, far from going back to the original Greek, many of the Reformation scholars were content to fall back on the Vulgate from time to time. This is not the first time when we’ve had to use the Vulgate because the Greek word was too rare to be understood. An argument could be presented–and perhaps won–that not going along with consolation makes me a bit of a prig, a charge for which I’m not sure I’d have a defense. Regardless, I do believe it’s important to point out these potholes in the road as they come up; really, it does help remind us that this whole issue is not as settled as we often pretend.

Just a final note. It’s important to grasp that Luke is casting woe to the materially wealthy, to those that have and their prayers of prosperity answered. They have their reward now, and later they will be hungry. And the implication is that the hunger, while perhaps allegorical, will be allegorical to the point of physical. After all, the notion of Hell is that our immaterial souls feel physical pain and torment. Even the most cursory glance through Dante will demonstrate that most amply.

It’s also interesting to wonder if the emphasis on Matthew’s version of these verses is not somehow tied up in the desire to de-emphasize the perils and coming torments of the prosperous. “Poor in spirit”, after all provides a fair bit of wiggle room, that can be applied subjectively; “poor”, however, does not, and the way Luke drives the point home eliminates whatever wiggle room may have been left. These words are uncomfortable in a way “poor in spirit” are not. Matthew provides hope; Luke does too, but he threatens punishment as well. And let’s recall Paul’s injunctions in 1 Corinthians telling the wealthy to share their meal so that other members of the community do not go hungry. Luke is the first evangelist who was obviously aware of Paul, and, we presume, Paul’s writings. Did Luke have those words of Paul in mind when he rearranged Matthew’s version of this material? 

24 Verumtamen vae vobis divitibus, quia habetis consolationem vestram!

25 Vae vobis, qui saturati estis nunc, quia esurietis! / Vae vobis, qui ridetis nunc, quia lugebitis et flebitis!

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on June 18, 2017, in Chapter 6, gospel commentary, gospels, Luke's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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