Wednesday, 7 February 2007

sermon on the plain

Luke distinguishes this leadership team from the great crowd of disciples waiting for them in the plain. It is to that larger group that Jesus addresses the teaching that follows. It is not simply for leaders. It is for all who follow him. While it is clear that at this point for Matthew the mountain setting is important for Luke it is important to make clear that the disciples were not limited to a small coterie of specialists. For Luke mountain generally meant withdrawal, plain. involvement. The words "How blest are you who are poor" were said in the context of the plain where the hearers were surrounded by the consequences of poverty, malnutrition, and death. They are also spoken by one who had the power to change things. They are not some mystical theology delivered in a remote spot to a privileged elite, instead they are spoken by one who was touched on all sides by the seriousness of the desperate human condition of those to whom he ministered.

Unlike in Matthew's account, Jesus does not spiritualise poverty, hunger and grief. Nor does he speak about them obliquely. Here Jesus speaks to his disciples directly. And whereas in his Nazareth sermon the congregation fixes their eyes on him, now he fixes his eyes on them. He speaks not just as preacher but as judge. His piercing eyes see them as they are and with prophetic insight as they shall be. This is Mary's song expounded by her son. The logic of materialism is turned on its head: it is you rich, you powerful, you replete and you happy ones who are cursed and you poor, hungry and sad who are blessed. You who are flattered and well thought of are phoney and will be forgotten: the true prophets are you who are abused and denounced. It is you who will be remembered like the great persecuted prophets of old.

The teaching that in Matthew rambles over 109 verses is here condensed into 29. But even within this concentration of material there is room for some addition. The epithet "Judge not that you be not judged" is amplified: not only are followers of Jesus not to judge they are also to have the Father's compassion, and they are to practise his forgiveness. Moreover the command to be compassionate comes first: as Meister Eckhart memorably put it,"Whatever God does, the first outburst is always compassion." Giving is to be generous. Because it is going to be you who set the standards for God's grace, Jesus says. This emphasis on compassion, forgiveness and grace within the context of judgment is entirely consistent with Luke' s account of the life and death of Jesus. Although the large majority of sayings Luke quotes are also in Matthew, through his concentration on these themes, Luke moves the mood of the sermon away from obedience to the law and moral rectitude, to an ethic of love which springs unconditionally from the store of goodness in the disciple's heart. The love demanded goes far beyond that of the golden rule - treat others as you would wish them to treat you. Love is unreserved: enemies deserve it as much as friends: those incapable of paying back love are still to be loved: our love like God's is to be unilateral. Any other ethic will lead to moral collapse. For only unilateral love can unlock the falling spiral of tit for tat. Unlike in Matthew's account it is not a question of wisdom, the men in the parable are neither wise nor stupid: rather it is a question of conscientiousness, care and commitment. The one whose life stands is the one who comes to Jesus, listens and lives, digs deep and only builds when he discovers rock. That is true discipleship.

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