If I Had a Pulpit:
Eavesdropping On The Early Church
He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
If I had a pulpit the week where the church read Luke 6:17-26, I would have a few objectives that I hoped to accomplish in preaching to the unlucky group of people who had to endure sitting quietly in front of me for what would, hopefully, take about 15-20 minutes.
Objective Number 1: Invite people into my weird, little world.
The Bible, like anything else, is heard by your ears and seen by your eyes. It is filtered through your experience, your biases, and your life. You cannot hear the Biblical stories as anyone other than yourself. There’s a tendency, I fear, for modern readers to try to receive the bible “without bias” as if we could remove ourselves from the experience and become impartial observers to some type of “biblical truth”. If you pay attention to the stories, however, you will notice that the biblical writers aren’t impartial, and perhaps more importantly, neither is God. Do we even want an impartial God? Or do we want a God who is for us? How exactly do you become an impartial observer to a story about your own salvation? Or your own condemnation?
Our weird, little worlds are the only place, within the individual, in which salvation has any meaning. God is not interested in saving your public face. But, salvation is not an individual work. God redeems the world. God’s plan for salvation is the collective church. We experience it as individuals. The only way for the Bible to make known God’s divine salvation is to discover its individual humanity. We need to know the humanity of Jesus. We need to know the humanity of its authors and its audience. And we need to know yours. Every sermon, every bible study, every interaction at the church should be a window into our weird, little worlds that are seen, and redeemed, and made far weirder by the peculiar behavior of our god.
Objective Number 2: Discover Something About the Text
For some people, the reading actual text is a discovery, particularly if you go off the lectionary or choose less common biblical stories and themes. For others, discovery in Luke 6 might be diving deep into form criticism or oral performance and Luke’s literary relationship with Q. When you engage with the Bible with groups, you’re likely going to be engaging both of these people simultaneously. And if you’re really honest, regardless of your biblical expertise, you’re likely both these people at different times. If you were preaching on the Book of Obadiah, or some passage in Numbers, I probably wouldn’t know the text at all.
This causes some Christians who engage with others on the Bible to be afraid of getting “too complicated”. I think this fear is unfounded. Just because people aren’t familiar with the text, at a church or bible study anyway, somebody just read the text to them, and as long as they have a phone or a bible in their hands, they can access the text and the footnotes and endless commentaries for themselves. Neither the preacher nor the super special educated Christian is a guardian of secret knowledge, and the people around you are plenty capable of understanding. It’s almost certain that none of us understand it as well or as poorly as we think we do. Instead, the Christian should be engaged in a process of discovering the text, sharing with others what we’ve discovered, and what that means in our weird, little worlds. We should be excited to hear how others are doing that too.
Objective Number 3: Discover Something About the Author and the Audience (the context)
Remember what we said about hearing the Bible as an individual, and particularly a certain individual? You know, you? The writer of Luke (who also wrote Acts – see something that might be new!) is also a real, individual person.*** Luke’s intended audience is also a real group of people who Luke likely knows well.
But there are problems with this. First off, the author of The Gospel According to Luke is anonymous. Like the other Gospels, the author isn’t named anywhere in the text. The name “Luke” is added to the title later in the 2nd Century. We also don’t really know where the author, who we’re just going to call “Luke” for convenience sake, lives and works. That means that we don’t know with a lot of precision who Luke’s audience is or what their context would be. But due to what we know about the history of Israel in the 1st and 2nd centuries, due to the how that history is presented in the text, and due to the Gospel of Luke’s literary relationship with the other Gospels and the ministry of Paul, the general academic consensus is that Luke is a Gentile writing around 90 BCE to a Gentile audience and that his audience is familiar with and sympathetic towards Judaism.
Here’s where it gets weird. Because we don’t know a lot of the details about who Luke is or who his audience is, it’s difficult to figure out exactly what Luke is saying. We are not the audience that Luke has in mind. Luke has an audience. He knows them. The Gospel of Luke is his story, likely presented as an oral speech, to them. We are separated by 1900 years. Luke is writing in Greek. We’re reading translations in English. The original manuscripts of The Gospel of Luke have not been found. We’re reading Greek copies from much later. While a preacher can preach to a congregation with the congregation in mind, and while a person can have a conversation with another person in mind, when we read the Gospel of Luke separated by time, and space, and culture, and language, we’re experiencing a conversation or a speech between speaker and audience of which we aren’t a part.
That doesn’t make us the audience of The Gospel of Luke. That makes us eavesdroppers. We are overhearing a conversation. Better yet, we’re overhearing a conversation in another language that is being translated for us. That’s a feeling I know well living overseas. I usually have a good idea what’s going on around me, but I’m never quite sure.
It gets weirder. Because Luke isn’t an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus and is likely a Gentile in another country who speaks Greek, Luke and his audience aren’t the intended audience of Jesus’s speech described in Luke 6. In this speech, Jesus has an audience: the Disciples and the crowds who have come to see Jesus. Luke discovers the speech through a second independent source (see footnotes), and works it into his Gospel. That makes Luke and his audience eavesdroppers on the conversation/speech between Jesus and the Disciples and crowds.
Better yet, because Jesus is speaking in the Galilean common language of Aramaic and Luke is writing in Greek, Luke and the early church are overhearing a conversation in another language that is being translated for them. Our relationship with The Gospel of Luke, separated by time and space and language and culture is, in many ways, analogous to Luke’s relationship with the ministry of Jesus separated by time and space and language and culture. Like Luke is to Jesus, we are eavesdropping on the early church and thus should approach these texts with humility. But because we’re doing something similar that Luke and the other Gospel writers are doing, who approached their tasks with an absurd level of prophetic boldness, we should remain humble but never timid.
Objective Number 4: Engage the text (objective #2), the context (#3), with you (#1), and if you can manage it, your audience (call it #1B)
Side note: If you’re a preacher, you don’t necessarily need to connect with your audience. This is a mistake they teach us in preaching class. Your audience knows you better than you know them. It’s simple math. You’re one person and your congregation are many, unless you’re Methodist and there’s like 4 people in the pews. Plus, they listen to you talk for at least an hour every week and you don’t do the same – again, simple math. If you adequately connect the text and context to yourself, they can do the connecting between you and them on their own. Connecting the sermon to you is the top priority. Connecting to your audience is great, but it’s like the Gospel of John on top of Matthew, Mark, and Luke: nice but unnecessary.
When I read Luke chapter 6:17-26, I imagine the individual speaking it and the individuals hearing it. I imagine the context in which they are living. And I imagine what it might mean to them. At the same time, I think of my life and my context, my weird, little world of an idealistic failed preacher who moved to Jordan with the naive belief that my wife and I could follow God’s calling in a place filled with the dispossessed. We’re not always doing that very well.
When I hear Jesus saying “blessed are the poor”, I hear an actual poor man speaking to other actually poor people. It’s important to remember that neither Jesus nor his Disciples, nor the vast majority of the crowd listening to him, are the absolute poorest people in society. Instead, they’re on the edge. They’ve been pushed there by the rich – the landowners, the state, religious bureaucrats, and Roman clients in Jerusalem and Galilee. They can see over the edge of the cliff. Their way of life is being destroyed by the unstoppable march of Empire.
Because of the way the Scriptures are written by the prophets, who regularly spoke to kings and rulers – you know, the people who could read, and because of the way the Scriptures are interpreted, again by interpreters who live in the centers of power, regular people believe that tragedy has struck them because they have been sinful. They believe they deserve it. This is particularly true of those who are desperately poor – those who are orphans or widows or crippled or sick. Covenant language in the Hebrew Bible generally follows a pattern. Scripture sets forth the law. If you follow the law, you will be blessed. If not, wrath of God.
This pattern mostly makes sense in the following circumstances: 1) When a prophet is speaking at the temple court to a King or to some powerful royal client, and 2) When the Scriptures are read and proclaimed in a village community operating inside a well-functioning and independent Judah or Israel. These are the situations in which the text was created and developed that I think of as “normative political economy”. But it doesn’t work in an imperial economy, when a king rules over you for the purpose of extracting wealth from your lands. When your land is being taken away by rich landowners empowered by kings and your land raided by armies stealing and burning, the cause of your poverty isn’t breaking normal political/moral/economic relations with your neighbors, the cause is the empire. Blame belongs with them, not you.
Jesus does something remarkable here in Luke 6. Instead of the normal pattern of 1) Set forth the law, 2) Declare blessings on those who follow and woes on those who don’t. Jesus does it the other way around. Jesus starts with the blessings.
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled…
He moves onto the woes:
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Then after the blessings and after the woes, he gives the law. When he gives the law, it’s covenantal in nature, meaning, its straight from Exodus and Deuteronomy and Leviticus. He’s renewing the covenant that God makes with Moses and Israel, but only after Jesus blesses the poor and hungry and declares woe on the rich and the full. Jesus is forgiving them so that they can follow the covenant.
This isn’t a regular type of speech. It’s a performative speech. It’s like the efficacious signs present in the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. Like the sacraments, Jesus’s speech accomplishes the very thing that it represents or symbolizes. When Jesus says it, it actually is. When he says the poor are blessed, instead of cursed, they are blessed. They are free to follow the covenant when previously they were too poor to follow the laws and traditions of the Judeans. When Jesus says “blessed are the poor” and “woe to the rich” to those very people who are on the brink but not yet desperately poor, Jesus frees them live into the Mosaic covenant which demands they give of what they have, demands they forgive each other’s debts, and demands they liberally lend to those in need. These are the only protections against crushing, desperate poverty that they will ever have. When others act like this, they can afford to do so as well. Jesus speaks with authority.
Performative speech is like a umpire calling balls and strikes or a judge declaring someone guilty. When the umpire says “strike” or the judge says “guilty” it is a strike and they are guilty, according to the law. In his performative speech, Jesus is not just telling you what is moral, he is making what is moral a lived experience among the actual, living individuals that listen. (NIB Commentary, Matthew, 177)
What do we make of this? What do eavesdroppers on the early church make of Jesus’s message to a people on the edge? It’s little wonder that Jesus’s radical message to people who live under the Mosaic Covenant is dulled a bit when overheard by Luke who is a Gentile living over half a century later speaking to an audience of Gentiles. Even still, his message is radical and powerful.
It’s little wonder too that the modern church has taken this story and domesticated it further. We have spiritualized it – what Jesus means is the poor are blessed but really only in a symbolic way. We have normalized it – what Jesus means is those who are poor in fill in the blank, not just the obvious-meaning, actual-definition poor. We have broadened it – what Jesus means is that we are all poor sometimes therefore this is a universal, unbiased message from a universal unbiased god.
We live under two layers of domestication and the radical speech still shouts from the pages. I ask, do we live under a “normative political economy” or do we live under empire? Most people who read this probably live under the former. But what about the poor? What about the desperately poor, the 10% of the world who live on less than $2 a day? What about my Syrian or Palestinian neighbors? What about the stranger, the alien, and the migrant? With such people do we start off with a word of blessing or woe? With them do we start with law or grace? Do we start with what they need to do or what we need to do for them?
The bible outlines both patterns. When do we apply each one? My answer: the poor get the blessings first. The rest of us start with the law. Jesus declared it and made it so in the performative speech of Luke 6.
I’ve tried here to welcome you to my weird, little world, where I struggle with the text, the context, what it means for our society, and with myself. I’ve tried to introduce Luke and Jesus and their respective audiences as individual people with real concerns. In doing so, I’ve tried to lay out my thought process of a sermon and have it function as the sermon itself. The goal is to lay out the objectives of a sermon and have describing those objectives function in accomplishing them as if it were performative speech. I don’t know how well I did. I struggle to make my objectives accomplish its conclusions in an article. Jesus did it with one speech flipping the Torah and the Mosaic Covenant on its head with blessings for the poor as the starting point forever.
We aren’t Jesus, nor are we Luke, but we can rethink how blessings, woes, and covenant obligations function differently for those of us with power, and those of us without. In your community, are the poor blessed? Are the hungry full? Are the mourners comforted? Are you?
***Well kind of. Luke/Acts was written by one person, but Luke used at least three different sources in writing it. Luke and Matthew often copied from The Gospel of Mark (aka the best gospel) word for word and at other times reworked Mark’s stories for their own purposes. Luke and Matthew also used a second source, called “Q”, which is a series of sayings/speeches that form a cohesive narrative when read as part of Israelite covenantal language in the context of 1st century Roman Palestine. Luke 6 just so happens to be the longest and most important part of these speeches. We call this source, “Q” because German scholars hypothesized its existence and their word for “source” starts with a Q, thus the “Q Source”. Luke also includes some stories unique to Luke’s Gospel, so therefore, we assume, that Luke has a third source to which the other Gospel writers don’t have access. The Gospel of Luke has also been edited in a few places, and, obviously, what you read in English has had a number of different translators. So, while Luke was a real, individual person, the document that you have in your Bible was created by a number of different people.