Luke Week 4
By Mark Abbott
Seattle Pacific University Adjunct Instructor
Read this week’s Scripture: Luke 6:12–49
“I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news!” You’ve heard public speakers or friends or family members use that line. Sometimes these news-bringers add, “Which do you want to hear first?” Maybe it felt a little like that as Jesus began teaching apostles and people. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes has both “blesseds” (good news) and “woes” (bad news). But first we need to explore Luke’s segue from the previous section regarding the launching of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.
Luke 6:12–19: Jesus Picks His Team and Shows His Power
Do you remember elementary school playground scenes in which teams are picked for a recess or after-school game? Sometimes those were painful if you were picked last. Or maybe you’ve been part of a corporate or institutional transition of leadership in which everyone knows that the new CEO or president will be picking his or her team of leaders. If you’ve been on the incumbent’s team, you might have wondered if you would make the new leader’s team. Picking a team is crucial. It was so with Jesus: Before he chose his inner circle of disciples, he spent a night in prayer.
After this dedicated time with God, from among his larger circle of followers Jesus selects an inner circle of 12. The 12 Jesus “also named apostles,” or “sent-out ones” (6:13). In Luke, the term “apostle” appears six times in comparison to only once in each of the other gospels. Mark’s gospel specifically tells us of Jesus’ intention for this group of 12, “to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message” (Mark 3:14). To be with Jesus, to be transformed by that ongoing encounter, and then to be sent out to tell the good news are still marks of Christ’s followers/leaders.
It wasn’t just that Jesus liked the idea of 12 close followers. Those who saw what Jesus was doing would have had an instant flashback to the 12 tribes of Israel. Jesus was picking what N.T. Wright calls an “Israel team.” [Author’s Note 1] They would be the core of what God was doing in Jesus to bring about a “New Israel,” which we know as the church.
William Barclay says the 12 were “very ordinary men,” not famous or influential people. And, says Barclay, “they were a strange mixture.” [Author’s Note 2] One of them, Matthew, was a tax collector, and thus a collaborator with the hated Roman overlords and a traitor to his country. Another was “Simon, who was called the Zealot” (6:15), meaning he was part of a group of assassins who were fanatically anti-Roman nationalists. Imagine political discussions between these two polar opposites! Beginning with this group of unlikely followers, Jesus put together a close team that would reach the world with the gospel. Do we ever wonder if God can use us? Think of what God and Jesus did beginning with these 12 men.
Jesus’ encounter with those closest followers is followed by his encounter with huge crowds of needy people from everywhere (6:17). From Mark’s gospel is the comment “People came to him from every quarter” (Mark 1:45). Why? Because “power came out from him and healed all of them” (Luke 6:19). Jesus comes to what Luke describes as “a level place” (6:17), where he gives an extended set of teachings mostly parallel to what we find in Matthew’s longer and more-detailed “Sermon on the Mount.” Luke appears to be collecting and condensing several different instances of Jesus’ teaching on what it means to be his disciples. In “The Sermon on the Plain,” Jesus begins with “the good news and the bad news.”
Luke 6:20–26: Blessing and Woe
Matthew’s Beatitudes are eight statements, each balancing blessings with outcomes (Matthew 5:3–12). Luke’s Beatitudes balance four blessings with four declarations of woe. Blessings and woes were a common literary form in Judaism. For example, Deuteronomy 27–28 lists the blessings and curses of covenant-keeping or the lack thereof.
Makarios, the Greek word behind “blessed,” does not imply that if we live a certain way God will bless us, as in “follow Jesus and you will become prosperous.” Nor is it part of a wish or desire for blessing, as in “Lord, bless the sick.” Rather, this word affirms the happy or joyful condition of persons even though their life situation is not one desired or admired by any society. To be poor, hungry, grieving, and reviled are not human conditions we admire or desire. Almost like bombshells, Jesus is exploding this world’s values by blessing people in conditions we never think of as blessed, whether in the first or 21st century.
Walk with me through this gallery of countercultural blessing.
“Blessed are you who are poor”! (6:20) Behind Luke’s “poor” and Matthew’s “poor in spirit” is a word that refers to both material and spiritual poverty. In the Old Testament, “poor” is often almost equivalent to “pious.” Like most in that time and place, Jewish people were usually poor. But the Jewish poor longed for the kingdom of God. Their vision went beyond economic circumstances to the God who, they trusted, would take care of them in the midst of poverty.
Jesus looks up at his disciples (6:20) and observes people who have left much to follow him. They are people seeking salvation with Jesus. They know they do not have material resources and thus must trust solely in God. This is a blessed condition, indicating that they possess or live in the kingdom of God. “Yours is the kingdom of God” (6:20), declares Jesus. Contrasting “bad news” is expressed in the first “woe”: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (6:24). Or, as The Message paraphrases it, “What you have is all you’ll ever get.”
“Blessed are you who are hungry now”! (6:21) To be poor in that time and place meant you were probably hungry also. But in the Jewish tradition hunger had spiritual as well as physical connotations. Isaiah calls those who are thirsty and have no money to “come, buy and eat” (Isaiah 55:1). But what they hunger for isn’t just what money can buy. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good …” (Isaiah 55:2). Matthew’s Beatitude speaks blessing on “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). “[F]or they will be filled” is Jesus’ word of blessing. Contrast that with Luke’s “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (Luke 6:25).
“Blessed are you who weep now”! (6:21) Typically these first three beatitudes go together. To be poor is to be hungry, and to be poor and hungry leads to weeping. The poor and the hungry weep because there is little or no expectation of anything better than this. But on those who weep now, Jesus pronounces the blessing “For you will laugh” (6:21). On those who laugh now, Jesus pronounces a third “woe,” “for you will mourn and weep” (6:25). Luke will later tell Jesus’ parable about Lazarus and the rich man, regarding what it means to be rich and to be poor, and then experience a total reversal of fortunes (16:19–31).
“Blessed are you when people hate you … exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man”! (6:22) When God’s kingdom reverses human values, there will be people who like things the way they are and who oppose this new upside-down kingdom. Read Luke’s second book, The Acts of the Apostles, for descriptions of what it was like for early followers of Jesus to be in hot water with governmental and social authorities. When this happens, says Jesus, rejoice, even “leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven” (6:23).
The “bad news” completely turns things upside down: “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (6:26). Two millennia later, Christ followers still have our eyes on what may appear to be an upside-down kingdom, in which life situations that do not seem desirable or admirable are declared “blessed.” But instead of being upside down, that is the way things really ought to be.
Luke 6:27–36: Love Your Enemies
Luke links together several sayings of Jesus about how disciples of his should live. “Love your enemies” is the challenging, summary exhortation. N.T. Wright observes,
The kingdom that Jesus preached and lived was all about a glorious, uproarious, absurd generosity. Think of the best thing you can do for the worst person, and go ahead and do it …. Think of the people to whom you are tempted to be nasty, and lavish generosity on them instead. [Author’s Note 3]
Instead of returning evil for evil, “do good to those who hate you” (6:27). Instead of cursing and abusing and striking back, bless, pray for, and let the attacker strike you again. When someone takes your coat, give your shirt also. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (6:31). Love your enemies, and be actively involved in doing good to others regardless of how they behave toward you. This is love acting unconditionally. “If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same” (6:33).
Jesus is not establishing a list of rules we must keep whether we want to or not. Rather, Jesus is illustrating an attitude of spirit that motivates this unconditionally loving behavior. Such behavior was as counterintuitive and counter-instinctual in the first century as it is in the 21st. Where does such an attitude of spirit come from? It comes from observing and modeling our lives after our kind and merciful God. Be this kind of a person because this is what our God is like. Later, Luke will tell us of Jesus, who, as the embodiment of this kind of God, wept over a city that would reject him (19:41–42), and prayed for and forgave those who cruelly abused him (23:34).
Some people today complain that what Jesus taught is too soft, or that it won’t work, or maybe that it isn’t even possible. Maybe this complaint means that what Jesus taught is contrary to what is instinctive to us and, at least in the short run, may not get us what we want. Unconditionally loving actions don’t always reap immediate rewards on the scale or in the coin we would like. But such actions reflect the God revealed in Jesus.
Luke 6:37–49: Judging Others and Being Obedient Ourselves
The next section includes several sayings of Jesus only loosely held together. In fact, Matthew’s gospel scatters them in different contexts. We may assume that these were sayings of Jesus used more than once and in different settings, which Luke collects here.
Heeding Jesus’ command “Do not judge … do not condemn” (6:37) is part of what it means to love unconditionally, as is, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you” (6:37–38). Do we judge and condemn those whom God seems to be letting off the hook? Is it justice for a prodigal son or a crooked tax collector to be forgiven and reconciled to God? We may think that God’s mercy leaves fairness unattended, and so we must take care of it. But what we hear from Jesus is, “Stop that kind of judging and condemning!”
These exhortations about judging are set in the context of the first of vivid word pictures offered by Jesus. This first picture envisions a loose Middle Eastern garment with a belt. The garment could be folded over the belt in such a way that a pocket or pouch for carrying things is created. “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap [into this garment-pouch]; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (6:38). There’s a reciprocal tendency in life. What we give tends to come back to us. When we are generous rather than condemning, people tend to respond in kind.
The next word picture is of a blind person trying to lead another blind person. We assume Jesus is speaking of religious leaders of his day, who, out of their own spiritual blindness, are trying to lead others. The end product is followers who become like the leaders. Then, Jesus makes this application: “A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher” (6:40).
Move on in the picture gallery to the person trying to take a speck out of a neighbor’s eye when there‘s a log in the eye of one presuming to judge or condemn the neighbor. Jesus’ use of hyperbole probably brought chuckles from the crowd. Imagine an eye with a log in it! But then Jesus turns very serious. “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (6:42).
Next, there’s the tree that bears fruit depending on its character. “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit” (6:43). The way of life to which Jesus invites his followers is so radical as to require not just external adjustments, but a total change from the inside out. We don’t make an apple tree by tying apples to a telephone pole. Apples are produced by an apple tree living out its inner life.
Finally, there’s the word picture of a building without a foundation. If we hear Jesus’ words of wisdom but do nothing about them, we are like a person whose house is swept away by a flood because it has no foundation (6:49). Matthew’s version of this word picture, which also closes the Sermon on the Mount, talks about rain and winds (Matthew 7:27), in contrast to Luke’s flooding stream. But the outcome and message are the same.
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I tell you?” asks Jesus in Luke 6:46. In other words, “Don’t pretend to pay attention to my teachings. Live by them!” As The Message paraphrases Jesus, “These words I speak to you are not mere additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundation words, words to build a life on” (Luke 6:47).
Questions for Further Reflection
- Can you think of contemporary ways in which Jesus’ upside-down kingdom is counterintuitive and counter-instinctual?
- Can you think of someone who feels like an enemy to you? What would it mean to express active, unconditional love to that person?
- Regarding Jesus’ comment about the disciple becoming like the teacher (6:40), what are contemporary implications of leading and following?
- Consider ways in which you know how Jesus wants you to live, but you are not moving in that direction. Why not? What has been the outcome?
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