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Saturday, January 12, 2013

The 'Sermon' on the Mountainside Plateau— Lk 6:17-49

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Matthew, who reserves the listing of the Twelve for a later point in his gospel, nevertheless records that Jesus went up onto a mountainside, where he delivered the discourse Luke records after the all-night prayer vigil, the constituting of the college of the Twelve and the healing—all of which Matthew leaves out or reserves for another point in his gospel. In the light of Matthew’s statement that Jesus went up on a mountainside for the discourse, we can be sure that he knew of the mountain all-night prayer vigil and that it took place at this time.

When therefore Luke records in 6:17 that Jesus came down the mountain with the disciples and stopped at a level stretch (i.e., a plateau, not a valley; see the translation of The New American Bible), his setting for the following discourse, usually called “The Sermon on the Mount”, is actually the very same as Matthew’s.

In v. 17-18 Luke has informed us that this large crowd, which included not just Galilean Jews, but pagans from the coastal areas, and a contingent from Judea in the south, had “come in order to hear him, and be healed of their diseases”. Jesus was therefore in their eyes not just a rabbi, but a charismatic healer, who also had remarkable insights into the Torah (= the Scriptures). Luke records the healings first, and only afterwards the lengthy discourse, which in actual practice may have been interrupted for questions from Jesus’ hearers. To call it then a “sermon” is somewhat of a misnomer.

What Jesus said in these talks was not addressed to the world at large, or even to all the Jews who came to hear him, especially those who already suspected and doubted him. Rather, as v. 20 makes clear at the outset, to those in that number who had declared themselves to be his disciples. Jesus returns often to that point in the chapters that follow. In verse 27 he addresses “you who hear (i.e., give heed to) me”. In v. 46 he said “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not put into practice what I am teaching you?” In vv. 47-49 the true disciple is contrasted with the false one. The radically loving behavior demanded of disciples in vv. 27-49 is contrasted with that of “sinners” (vv. 32-34). So it is clear that the so-called Sermon on the Mountain was never intended by Jesus to be a “way of salvation”. Rather, it represents the most demanding standards of discipleship for those of us who trust Him as our Savior and wish to live for Him.

Matthew and Luke differ as to whether Jesus say “Blessed are the poor”, or “Blessed are you poor”. It probably makes relatively little difference which was the exact wording, if indeed in the Aramaic spoken by Jesus this fine a distinction was possible. In Luke’s version it is clear that Jesus is not making pompous generalizations about the value of human suffering. Rather he was addressing disciples, who because of their commitment to him and their obedience to his mandates might well find physical poverty to be their necessary lot. In fact, when you read St. Paul’s catalog of sufferings experienced in his missionary journeys, you will find that he experienced all of these very things! Such will be the experience of many—even if not all—Christians who in the course of history will take seriously their obedience to the Savior.

Notice too that the promised redress of the sufferings is “in heaven” (Luke 6:23), not through revenge or violent revolution.

Luke also differs from Matthew in that in vv. 24-26 he records that Jesus stated these predictions in the negative as well, as a two series—of blessings and of woes. In this, Jesus was following the example of the pronouncing of the blessings for obedience to the Torah and curses for disobedience read out on Mts. Gerizim and Ebal at the time Joshua and Israel entered the Promised Land.

These woes await any disciple who puts personal ease and comfort above obedience to his Lord’s commands. Such a man “has received his reward” on earth. Nothing good awaits him thereafter.

Verses 27-38 concern the radical demand that disciples of Jesus not return harm for harm. We all remember that St. Matthew in his gospel recalls Jesus contrasting this return of good for evil with a passage from the Torah: “You have heard it said: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’ [Exod. 21:24; Lev. 24:19-20]. But I say to you …” This passage of the Torah was never intended to require retribution, only to limit compensation. In fact, already in very early times—perhaps in Moses’ day itself—this passage was understood in a figurative, non-literal way, indicating only that compensation not exceed that equivalent to the bodily damage, not that an identical wound be inflicted. But, as our Lord indicates, this passage from the Torah was paraphrased and wrongly applied in the popular mind by many in his time, and it was this improper use—actually, distortion—of Scripture that Jesus wished to negate with the Law of Love.

As we read this passage, we should keep in mind, not only its applicability to Jesus’ immediate hearers—to Jewish Galilean peasants who suffered brutal behavior from wealthy landowners and Roman occupation troops, and to ourselves, but also—as with the beatitudes we have just considered—to the sufferings that awaited the earliest Christian missionaries. The Twelve, who stood in this audience, would themselves often suffer just such treatment as they spread the good news of Jesus’ death for the world’s sins and his triumphant resurrection.

As for you and me, do we consider it wrong to allow others to berate us, insult us, or mistreat us, because we fear that this gives others the impression that we don’t care about honesty and justice? Do we fear that not retaliating makes us complicit in the injustice? Consider our Lord Jesus’ own behavior when he was tried by the Sanhedrin and the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. He did not strike back or insult in return. But he did quietly and firmly remind both judiciaries that what they were doing was unjust.

The erroneous interpretation and application of “an eye for an eye” allowed a person to consider himself just, if he only harmed those who harmed him. But Jesus pointed out that even “sinners” (Hebr. ḥaṭṭa'im)—i.e., Gentiles who did not have the Torah—behaved according to this rule. Disciples of Jesus must make God, the Father (v. 36), the Most High (v. 35), their model to follow. As Jesus elsewhere reminded them, God gives his rain and agricultural abundance to both just and unjust. This was a contradiction of the widespread belief from the most ancient times, that God (or the gods) denied crops and rain to nations and communities that were disobedient or did not give the proper offerings.

In verses 39 to the end of chapter 6, Luke records a number of images (metaphors, parabolic language) used by Jesus to reinforce his point. As you read them, you will see how vivid and memorable—even funny!—they are. Who can keep from laughing at the man with a log in his eye squinting to see well enough to remove a tiny speck from his neighbor’s eye? Yet, when we pause from laughing, do we see how we ourselves so often do the equivalent?

The final story or parable is particularly valuable for those of us who wish to be disciples of Jesus. It is the brief story of the two men building houses. Whenever I read this parable, I remember the story my mother read to me as a small child about the Three Little Pigs. Do you know that one? One pig builds his house of straw, and the wolf comes and blows it down and eats the pig. Another used sticks, and the wolf blows it down and eats him too. The third pig built with bricks and was safe. (I may have the details of the second pig wrong: the story book is long gone and my memory a bit poor!)

Lives lived according to Jesus’ recipe of loving others and being willing to forgo one’s own “rights” are like building a house with a foundation on a firm rock. It will withstand any storm and give its resident security in this and the next Life.

There is an ancient Hittite text earlier than the time of Moses that praises the king. And in the course of praising him, it says that his house is built upon a rock, whereas the house of the man who seeks to overthrow the king and frustrate his rule is built in the path of the rushing stream, which washes its foundation away and carries it out to sea. This text applies roughly the same metaphor of two houses to a political end. The one whose house is doomed is the man who plots against the king.

In Jesus’ version, the man who builds his house on sand is not explicitly said to be plotting against a king, but harms himself and his family by his own “foolishness” —Luke doesn’t explicitly call the first man “wise” and the second a “fool”, as Matthew’s version has it, because Luke’s Gentile readers would miss the force of the Hebrew word naval “fool” = “godless person” (remember the Old Testament saying: “The fool has said in his heart ‘There is no God’” [Psa 14:1; 53:1]?) — Yet, in a way, any professed disciple of Jesus who fails to live by this standard, by his behavior is in fact opposing the rule of the King of Kings. So maybe there is a remote—even if unintentional—tie-in of the ancient Hittite metaphor to the one used by Jesus.

Think about it. Our behavior as disciples reflects upon our King, does it not? Do you want that to be a good reflection, or a poor one?

Have a good day!

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