Today’s gospel lesson is Luke’s version of what is called “the beatitudes” or set of blessings from Jesus. Most of us are more familiar with, or maybe even prefer, Matthew’s version of the beatitudes. Matthew’s version has eight blessings as opposed to Luke’s four. Matthew’s version happens on a mountain and is part of a larger section called the “Sermon on the Mount.” Matthew’s full sermon is 107 verses, whereas Luke’s is just 32. Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes within the Sermon on the Mount is more poetic and flowery – claiming the “poor in spirit” are blessed, making us all feel included, whereas Luke simply says “blessed are you who are poor.” Matthew’s version has been set to music by masters like Sweet Honey in the Rock. However, some scholars argue that Matthew’s Beatitudes “domesticate the radical pronouncement so that it comfortably fits ‘us’ who by no means meet its criteria,” and that over generations “the prophetic word became hollow and even more watered down than Matthew had rendered it.”[i]
Luke’s version we hear today is quite different, and often sits with us much more uncomfortably. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is not delivered from high on a mountain, but instead on the plain, or on “‘a level place’ with the disciples and the multitude, not on a mount above them.”[ii] Aesthetically, Luke’s version is more plain, more abrupt, and quite frankly, a little “judge-y.” Whereas Matthew has eight blessings, Luke pairs his four blessings with four woes. So, if the poor are blessed and to whom the kingdom of God belongs, woe to the rich, for they have received their consolation. Whereas the hungry are blessed and promised full bellies, those who are full now are promised hunger later. Even those laughing and honored in their communities are promised tears and shame. There is no sentimentalizing Luke’s beatitudes. Most of us read Luke’s gospel and know that we are in for a lot of woe!
Of course, there is a reason we get Luke’s beatitudes this Epiphany season. In this season of revelations about Jesus’ identity, the beatitudes follow a long run of epiphanies. We started with the Magi in early January; heard of Jesus’ baptism and the pronouncement of Jesus’ blessedness (and shared that same pronouncement with our beloved Reed and Zenora); we heard of the changing of water into wine in Cana; the pronouncement of Jesus as the coming of the Messiah – a message so strong he was almost pushed over a cliff; and last Sunday, of an instruction by Jesus that led to so much fish nets almost broke.
Today’s beatitudes from Luke are another epiphany – but not an epiphany of who Jesus is: more an epiphany about what life with Jesus is. As we look at Luke’s beatitudes this week, I do not think Jesus is being all that judge-y after all. We already see in this version that Jesus is not speaking down to us but speaking among us in the level plain. We also find that although Jesus opens his mouth in Matthew’s version, in Luke’s version, Jesus focuses his eyes.[iii] The text says, “Jesus looked up at his disciples…” There is an intimacy to Luke’s version of these blessings. But perhaps more telling is looking at the word “woe” itself. Karoline Lewis tells us that the word “woe” in the Greek lexicon is an interjection. “Jesus, is not about pitting blessings against curses or favor against judgment. Jesus is trying to get the disciples’ attention. He is trying to get our attention.” And so, as Lewis argues, perhaps instead of reading these “woes” as curses – or as the word W-O-E – we should read the woes as “whoas” – W-H-O-A.[iv]
“Whoa! Listen closely,” Jesus says as he gets down to our level and looks us in the eyes. Whoa, you who are comfortable. “The poor and the hungry know the reality of their situation. They are totally dependent on God and therefore are disposed to entrust themselves to God’s care and mercy, which is the foundation of grace and a right relationship with God.” Us, however, whoa! We are “disposed to take comfort in [ourselves] and [our] resources, thereby finding it more difficult to trust [ourselves] to the mercy and grace of God.”[v] Jesus is not telling us to glorify suffering and persecution with the hope of a future reward. Jesus is saying, “Whoa! It’s time to ‘reorient relationships and reverse social, economic, and political injustices so that [we] gain right standing in the eyes of God.’[vi]
Our invitation today is to hear what whoas God has for us today. Maybe we have gotten a little too comfortable with our creature comforts, maybe we have forgotten the hungry, maybe we have ignored those who are grieving and struggling – especially in this pandemic, or maybe we have begun to believe the hype about ourselves – resting in the respect people grant us instead of earning that respect. Jesus’ whoa today is not a curse. Jesus’ whoa today is an intimate pulling aside and an invitation to remember what following Jesus is all about: loving our neighbor, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of every human being. We made those promises just a few short weeks ago. Jesus is simply telling us, “Whoa! Remember who you are as a disciple – as a baptized child of God.” And I like to imagine, since we are on a level plain, Jesus gives us solid pat on the shoulder, and tells us to get back out there and share those blessings with others: because he knows we can. Amen.
[i] David L. Ostendorf, “Theological Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 356.
[ii] Ostendorf, 358.
[iii] Gay L. Byron, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 359.
[iv] Karoline Lewis, “Woes and Whoas,” February 6, 2022, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/woes-and-whoas on February 12, 2022.
[v] Howard K. Gregory, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 358.
[vi] Byron, 361.