Centuries of Christians have comfort in the words of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are they who…”, and I would go so far as to suggest that none of us is left unaffected by these words when we hear them read. But, which version do we prefer, Matthew’s or Luke’s? We normally think of Matthew’s version because the hymn we know so well is based on his version, the “traditional” Beatitudes, if you will. But Luke has a slightly different emphasis when he relates this teaching of Jesus, and I think we would do well to consider them both.
What we’ll need to remember is that both Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels in an era before the invention of the printing press, so people did not have easy access to their words and stories. In addition, only 2 percent of the general population could read, so the only way to encounter these gospels would have been by attending Eucharist with the rest of the community of believers. Both Matthew and Luke are writing for their specific community; they never dreamed we would someday find their scrolls and publish them all together in one big book. So, having said all that, what were these two congregations like? How did they hear these Beatitudes?
Remember, Matthew is writing for Jewish Christians and he is focused on Jesus as the new Moses. This is why he tells us that the Beatitudes are delivered to the people after Jesus went up the mountain—just like Moses went up the mountain of God to get the Law. Just like Abraham went up the mountain to sacrifice his son, Isaac. But unlike the Law of Moses, with its negative focus (“Thou shalt not…”) this Jesus brings us a radically different message from God:
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed . . . who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the Reign of God.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit”, which means when we are running on empty, when we feel we have nothing more to go on, God is there. Matthew’s congregation apparently values spirituality and relationship with God as the most important element of their life. Matthew is telling them, “Attend to your spiritual life first, because it is then that you will experience the Reign of God!”
The second thing that stands out is, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice…” To hunger and thirst for something denotes deep hunger for God’s Reign. Matthew’s congregation would have known all too well the cruel realities of life under Roman rule. They already knew the Reign of Caesar very well, and in no way did that rule satisfy their longing for justice. The point is clear: following Jesus meant living and practicing a justice that was completely different from that which they already knew.
The third major point is tied closely to the second: “Blessed are you who are persecuted for the sake of justice.” When we are willing to suffer for doing the right thing, when we are willing to accept the consequences for living differently, we manifest the abundant grace of God.
In Matthew’s church we discover the importance of relationship with God, with making significant changes in our daily lives, with supporting each other in this journey to the mountaintop with Jesus. As parishioners in this community, we would be profoundly impacted and shaped by the quality of the spirituality of the larger group.
If Matthew’s congregation is located “up a mountain” somewhere in the remote wilderness, Luke’s congregation would be found in the Bronx. Luke writes, not for Jewish Christians, but for Greek-speaking, inner-city Christians. We would be impressed by the ethnic diversity of the congregation: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and Phrygians. If Matthew’s church was called, “Church of the Poor in Spirit”, Luke’s church is called simply, “Church of the Poor.” Sunday Eucharist would feel different in Luke’s community, due largely to the numbers of desperate people trying to make a living in an unrelentingly harsh environment.
You’re blessed when you’ve lost everything: God’s Reign is here for the finding.
You’re blessed when you’re starving and don’t know where the next meal is coming from: Thanksgiving dinner’s is on its way.
You’re blessed when the tears of your sorrow flow like rivers from your eyes: you’ll be dancing in the morning sunlight.
Think of yourself as blessed every time someone cuts you down, belittles you, throws you out of your apartment, every time someone tries to take you down and discredit you. Be joyful, have a party in your heart because all of Heaven is cheering for you.
There are some big differences between Matthew and Luke: starvation vs. spiritual hunger; destitution vs. spiritual poverty, etc…but Luke has even more to say:
You rich are going to be miserable: you’ve always had your comforts but those days are over!
Those of you who have all you want: you are going to know what it is to be hungry.
You who have laughed and partied your way through life: you are about to know sorrow and loss.
How sad for you when you take flattery seriously: this is exactly how your forebears treated the false prophets.
Many of Luke’s congregations must have been desperately poor, most had literally fallen through the cracks. There’s a poor woman just diagnosed with breast cancer in a world that provides treatment only to those with adequate insurance. And two pews in front is a young man with HIV who can’t afford to pay for his medication and is too fearful to tell his family. There’s a young woman with anorexia; she’s unwittingly bought into the lie that to be thin is the ultimate goal for every woman. Near her is a working mother who holds her last paycheck, sitting next to a student on academic probation who just flunked chemistry, across from an alcoholic wondering if he can maybe take a few dollars out of the basket when offertory time comes.
Luke’s Jesus is not only very near to these people; Luke’s Jesus identifies with them. His Jesus doesn’t stand alone on some mountaintop but comes out from behind the altar and walks among the people. “Blessed are you who are crying right now,” he says, “for you are going to laugh. You will laugh because God is already at work resurrecting your failures, transforming your sorrows.” In Luke’s church life is so uncertain that it’s hard not to cling to anything that looks like it might make things better.
Those of us who have grown a little too comfortable with Matthew’s Beatitudes need Luke’s church. Spiritually poverty is one thing; real poverty is quite another. Luke wraps the spirit and the body in the same package, so being “spiritual” will often mean feeding the stomach of those who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. It may mean standing with those in the unemployment lines, or sending our bodies and not just our checks to spend time with the poor.
The simple truth is that the poor don’t want our money; they most need our presence. It’s too easy to write a check and dismiss them from our minds. They need us and we need them. As we move into this next year, focused on our own abundance here at Holy Redeemer, we will attempt to create ministries that will bring Luke’s Beatitudes and Matthew’s Beatitudes together.
It’s not a question of either/or. Sometimes, depending on what our situation is, we need one version or the other to move us forward. Matthew confronts us with relationship-asks how our relationship with God is getting along. Are we studying and praying? Are we accepting the gift of our community to help us discern what it is God wants from us? Luke, on the other hand, wants to know if we’re honest about our pain. About injustice. About the poor. If we can find a way to listen to both Matthew and Luke and to live in the dialectic between the two, we will be able to really own our faith, a faith that is both relational and social—just as Jesus intended it to be, just as God expects of us.