The Sunday lectionary reading for the Third Sunday before Lent in Year C is Luke 6.17–26, this gospel’s version of the Beatitudes. One of the most obvious questions arising from the reading is how they relate to the Beatitudes as recorded in Matt 5.1–12. This might seem like a distraction to preaching on the passage itself, but I think there are three reasons why we need to take this seriously.
First, people in our congregations notice these things! Whenever I offer a session on ‘Bible questions’, inviting people to ask any question that they like and which perhaps they have not had the chance to ask before, I am always amazed by the range of great questions that are asked—which are clearly not answered even in churches which prioritise ‘Bible teaching’. People notice the differences when they read the gospels!
Secondly, engaging with the question of the relationship between the two does affect our reading of each. We do need to take seriously each text in its own right—otherwise, why bother with reading four gospels rather than just consolidating them into one harmonised version? But the reaction against a harmonised gospel can be an unhealthy separation into reading the four accounts as if they had nothing to do with each other. In this case, I have come across readings of Luke’s version of the Beatitudes as if they were all about social transformation, and had nothing to do with the question of discipleship which are prominent in Matthew’s version.
This leads into the third issue—that some readings of the gospels treat them as if there were four different Jesuses (from which we choose our favourite), rather than four different accounts of the one Jesus, with his teaching drawn out and applied with different emphases and in different contexts. This is, of course, where we touch on some foundational questions of NT scholarship, and whether or not the gospels reliably connect with the teaching of the historical Jesus or not—questions which emerge as we consider the Beatitudes themselves.
Before going any further, let’s look at the differences between the two texts.
|Blessings in Matthew||Blessings in Luke||Woes in Luke|
|Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said:||He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, … power was coming from him and healing them all. Looking at his disciples, he said:|
|Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.||Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.||But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.|
|Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.||Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.*||Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.*|
|Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.|
|Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.||Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.||Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.|
|Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown 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 because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.|
|Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.||Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.||Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.|
There are several things in the introductory section worth noting. The most obvious is that in Matthew, this begins the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, whereas in Luke many Bible subheadings (which are addition of the translator, note, and not authoritative parts of the text!) describe this as the ‘Sermon on the Plain’. In fact, neither is strictly accurate. In Matthew, though the phrase εἰς τὸ ὄρος (eis to oros) is singular, Dick France argues that it natural meaning should be taken as ‘into the hill country’, that is, the hills of Galilee to the north of the lake. But of course the singular phrase suits Matthew because it suggests a parallel with Moses who went ‘up on the mountainside’. In Luke, the ‘level place’ is still in the hills of Galilee—and in fact the traditional site of the sermon, marked by the Church of the Beatitudes, is on a level place in amongst the hills affording a panoramic view over Lake Galilee.
Within the Beatitudes themselves, there are at least four notable differences. The most obvious is the number: whilst Matthew gives us eight, the first four appearing to focus on the subject’s situation and the second four focussed on the subject’s character, Luke gives us only four. They only partly correspond to Matthew’s, in that the fourth actually follows the pattern of Jesus’ concluding comment in Matthew, which then flows into the next section of the ‘sermon’, and the order is changed so that ‘hunger’ comes earlier, and ‘weeping’ later (hence I have marked it with an asterisk*).
The second thing to note is that, whilst Matthew’s are couched in the third person (‘Blessed are those…’), which gives them a sense of sayings with a wider relevance, Luke’s are in the second person (‘Blessed are you…’) which suggests a more direct focus on the disciples to whom Jesus is speaking.
But the third key difference, Luke’s inclusion of the ‘woes’, has a compensating effect, in that it is most natural to read the blessings as directed towards Jesus’ followers and the woes directed to those who do not take up the costly call of discipleship. This draws our attention to something that both have in common: the introduction in both cases makes it clear that Jesus’ teaching here is, in the first instance, directed towards his disciples, who are distinguished from the crowds in both narratives, and only (as it were) hear the teaching as eavesdroppers.
In previous discussion of this passage, Alastair Roberts draw my attention to the proposal that the woes in Matthew 23 correlate with the Beatitudes in Matt 5:
The first woe of Matthew 23 (v. 13) condemns the Pharisees because they “shut off the kingdom of heaven from men.” This agrees with the first beatitude, which blesses the poor in spirit, “for their is the kingdom of heaven.”
The second (and textually disputed) woe of Matthew 23 (v. 14) condemns the Pharisees because they “devour widows’ houses.” This agrees with the second beatitude, which blesses “those who mourn.”
The third woe of Matthew 23 (v. 15) condemns the Pharisees because they “travel about on sea and land to make one convert,” but then “make him twice as much a son of Gehenna as yourselves.” This agrees with the third beatitude, which blesses the meek, “for they shall inherit the earth.”
The fourth woe of Matthew 23 (vv. 16-22) condemns the Pharisees for their unrighteousness. They make the Temple and the Altar of less importance than the gold of the Temple and the sacrifice on the Altar. This seems to go with the fourth beatitude, which blesses “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
The fifth woe of Matthew 23 (vv. 23-24) condemns the Pharisees for ignoring “justice and mercy and faithfulness.” This agrees with the fifth beatitude, which blesses “those who are merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
The sixth woe of Matthew 23 (vv. 25-26) condemns the Pharisees for being concerned with externals more than with the heart. They “clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence.” This agrees with the sixth beatitude, which blesses “the pure in heart.”
The seventh woe of Matthew 23 (vv. 27-28) condemns the Pharisees because, though they look honorable to men, inside they are dead, and “full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” This seems to agree with the seventh beatitude, which blesses peacemakers as “sons of God.”
Finally, the eighth and climactic woe of Matthew 23 (vv. 29-36) condemns the Pharisees because they persecuted and killed the prophets. This agrees with the eighth beatitude, which blesses “those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness,” and which goes on to bless those who are reviled, persecuted, and lied about for the sake of the Kingdom.
Alastair then comments:
My suspicion is that the correspondence serves as a framing device for Jesus’ public teaching ministry in Matthew. The ministry begins with the Beatitudes and ends with the Woes. Following the Woes, Jesus gives the Olivet Discourse to his disciples, which seals their result. It also presents Jesus’ ministry as a window of blessing that is opened up, before finally being closed in the woes as that window is rejected.
It also has the effect of concretizing the woes. Rather than referring to a generic judgment, it refers to the very particular judgment that is falling upon Jerusalem on account of its corrupt leaders.
I believe you are correct to suggest that Jesus delivered similar material on various occasions with variations. I think that Matthew arranged the material very intentionally for the purposes of the message of his gospel.
I think this observation reminds us that the gospel writers did organise the teaching of Jesus for their particular purposes—but if read the Beatitudes and Woes in Matthew together, then this makes the text in Luke much less far away from Matthew than we might otherwise have thought.
(We ought also to note a couple of distinctively Lukan emphases—that Jesus was ministering with ‘power’ that was coming from him, and the developed emphasis on joy in the fourth blessing, in which we should not just ‘rejoice and be glad’ but also ‘leap for joy’ when we are hated for our faithfulness.)
Noticing these differences, how might we account for them? The most common view in NT scholarship is that the two accounts stem from a common source, known as Q (from the German Quelle meaning ‘source’) which was a written document, composed largely of sayings of Jesus, and is hypothetically reconstructed from the material and Matthew and Luke have in common which is not found in Mark. Within this view, it is thought that Luke is more faithful to the Q version, which goes back reliably to the teaching of Jesus, since its form is simpler, and the elaborations (poor in spirit…and so on) are Matthew’s revisions and additions. Mark Goodacre tackles this ‘consensus’ view head on in chapter 7 of his book The Case Against Q and points out that:
- Luke has a clear sense of concern for the poor, and uses this language frequently in his gospel
- The inclusion of the woes along with the blessings fits well with the theme of reversal which we have already encountered in the Magnificat, and which is expressed most clearly in the story unique to Luke of the rich man and Lazarus (in Luke 16.19–31)
- Luke is clear that discipleship has economic consequences; the ‘poor’ here are not the poor in general, but the poor disciples, who have (we read last week) ‘left everything’ to follow him.
- The language in Matthew, when read in context, is not really ‘spiritualising’ language, in that Matthew’s focus on ‘righteousness’ is very practical.
- There is evidence from the parallel saying in the Gospel of Thomas against ‘the poor’ being the most primitive version.
In other words, the differences here offer no evidence of one version being closer to Jesus’ teaching, whilst the other is an elaboration that takes us away from the original. This leaves us with two important things to consider—the context of Jesus, and the context of the gospel writer.
In relation to the context of Jesus, I am always surprised when the possibility is not more often entertained that Jesus taught on a subject more than once, and that he might have adapted his teaching and varied it depending on the situation and the audience. This is a possibility worth considering simply based on the amount of material that we have in the gospels (which, after all, only takes a few hours to read) compared with the length of Jesus’ ministry. This view is expressed as far back as Plummer’s 1896 ICC commentary on Luke (p 177):
We know beyond all question that some of our Lord’s words were uttered several times, and there is nothing antecedently improbable in the hypothesis that the words in this discourse…were delivered in one or other of these forms more than once.
Howard Marshall makes a similar observation in passing, and Dick France, in his NIC on Matthew, notes (p 163):
The cumulative effect of these observations is to cast serious doubt on the common assumption that there was a single original set of Beatitudes which either Matthew has ‘spiritualised’ or Luke has ‘radicalised’. Jesus may well have used the familiar beatitude form on various locations in the course of his teaching…
France goes on to note that Matthew’s inclusion of ‘you’-form beatitudes immediately following ‘they’-form beatitudes (the very thing which allows Luke’s version naturally to include his fourth saying) is evidence of the commonness of this form of saying.
One intriguing article I came across recently even suggests that the detailed economic differences between neighbouring regions might account for the differences, and the economic situation of Jesus’ audience is in fact highlight by the gospel writers:
In Luke 6.17, we see that Jesus’ message was given in a context which centered on the capital region of Judea and its capital city, Jerusalem. There were people from Tyre and Sidon as well, which were major financial centers and which had some close financial ties with Jerusalem. For example, Tyre minted the Temple Shekel for the Herodians (which we will see was important tool of economic extraction from the people centering in its use in the temple system).
An interesting study by Gary Meadors in Grace Journal adds an important element of OT context as we think about the language of the ‘poor’:
The identification of the poor in Luke 6:20 has been disputed. Some have seen them as the economically impoverished. However, it must be noted that Jesus was specifically addressing his disciples when he uttered the beatitude of the poor. Furthermore, Luke (6:20-26) stands in the literary tradition of an eschatological reversal motif found in Psalm 37, Isaiah 61, and in certain Qumran materials. A comparison of Luke 6:20-26 with these materials indicates a connection between πτωχοί in Luke 6:20 and the Hebrew term עֲנָוִ֗ים which had become metaphorical for the pious. This connection is supported by the fact that Matthew records the same logion of Jesus as πτωχοί, thus the term “poor” in Luke 6:20 is used in reference to the pious.
Now, there is a real danger that we end up ‘spiritualising’ the language of ‘the poor’, thinking it is ‘merely’ a metaphor—where Jesus’ teaching in Luke (and Matthew) hold the two things together strongly. But we can see that Matthew and Luke are drawing out the complementary elements of a single OT idea that has shaped Jesus’ message here. Part of their concern is to relate Jesus’ message to the possible different audiences for the two gospels:
Whereas Matthew identifies with Jewish thought, the Lukan beatitudes identify humanity as the poor and the rich. Dieter Betz concludes that this division in Luke reflects the divisions typically made by Hellenistic moralists, Gentiles typically considered to be Luke’s audience. The law, rightousness and piety found in the Matthean text is all but absent from Luke and the Jewish background so distinctive of Matthew is less obvious. In fact, Luke neither links nor even mentions the Mosaic law within the text. The main theme running through the Gospel of Luke is the universality of Jesus. Although His mission is first to the Jews, Lukan theology includes Jesus’ concern for the Gentiles and social outcasts, such as immoral women, tax collectors, Samaritans and the poor. It is especially clear from the Gospel of Luke that the author has a special concern for the economic poor of his world and much of the content of the beatitudes and the Gospel at large reflects this.
Put together, what does this mean for our preaching? First, that we need to take each of the texts seriously, noting their distinctive emphases. Second, that this need not lead us into treating them in silos, as if they were unconnected with one another. But third, it is plausible that Jesus adapted his teaching (which he gave more than once) in different contexts—and that it is clear that gospel writers are drawing out the implications of Jesus’ teaching for the contexts they are concerned with.
The question then is, given that there is a clear connection between our following of Jesus as his disciples, and the realities of everyday life, including its economic consequences—how is that going to work out in our context?
Here is the weekly conversation between James Blandford-Baker and myself as we explore all these issues and their application for preaching and living: