In last Sunday’s installment of Christian Essentials, i.e. those core understandings that underpin our identity and experience as Christians living in this present age, we engaged with the second question – Who is Jesus?
Who is Jesus? The answer first finds it’s echo in the book of Isaiah’s longed-for expectation of one arising in whom God’s promises to Israel will be fulfilled. For the early Christians Jesus is the embodiment of this Hebrew longing. In Jesus the first Christians experienced the inauguration of God’s plan of setting not only Israel, but the whole world to rights.
The writers of the New Testament present different portraits of Jesus, and I write about this in more detail in the Christian Essential series on the website. It’s enough to say here that the gospel writers are like portrait painters. Even when the subject of the portrait is the same, the interpretation of what the painter sees is always particular to the painter. The subject of the portrait emerges through the filter of the artist’s world view.
Jesus’ sermon known as the beatitudes is one of his most loved, yet also one of the most misunderstood and argued over of his teachings. That Matthew and Luke depict this incident in which Jesus teaches through the beatitudes differently only adds to the confusion.
In 2019, Epiphany 6 gives us Luke’s portrait of this event in Jesus’ teaching ministry.
The difference between the Matthean and Lucan versions of this story reminds me that in the later traditions of Western religious painting, holy scenes are set in the foreground against a deeper background that is full of highly symbolic detail. It’s the background detail that differs greatly from painter to painter. It is so with Matthew and Luke. The difference in the way each situates Jesus’ teaching against a particular topographical background alerts us to a tension that goes to the very heart of our experience as Christians in today’s world.
In your mind’s eye create the following scene: Matt 5:1: When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said: …. .
Now picture this: Luke 6:17: Coming down off the mountain with them, he stood on a plain surrounded by disciples, and was soon joined by a huge congregation from all over Judea and Jerusalem, even from the seaside towns of Tyre and Sidon. They had come both to hear him and to be cured of their ailments. Those disturbed by evil spirits were healed. Everyone was trying to touch him—so much energy surging from him; so many people healed! Then he spoke: …. .
The scene painted by Matthew is known as the Sermon on the Mount. Here we see Jesus emerging as the new improved Moses, delivering his new model Torah from the mountaintop only to those who constitute the new and improved community of Israel.
Luke’s depiction of this scene is known as the Sermon on the Plain. Jesus emerges clothed in the hues of Isaiah’s universalistic figure ushering in the messianic age: Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. This is an age characterized by an expansion of God’s promises beyond Israel to include the whole world.
As well as being an embodiment of Isaiah’s messianic vision, Luke depicts Jesus as a cosmopolitan healer, an image that conveyed wide appeal to Luke’s Gentile audience.
Between mountain and plain lies the tension between different approaches to what living the Christian life involves; a tension that continues into our own time. There is a Matthean approach that from a lofty height emphasizes the distinction between who’s included and who is not, who’s committed, and who isn’t, where the question always is: how high do you have to jump to get into the kingdom? Then there’s the Lukan approach that assumes that none of us can be included in the kingdom while any one of us remains outside – that is, intentionally excluded from the invitation of the kingdom God.
Matthew’s portrait of Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount emphasizes the importance of holding firmly to spiritual values sustained by the promise of future reward. Here Jesus proclaims: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – a phrase that suggests some future state.
Luke’s portrait of Jesus delivering the sermon on the Plain emphasizes human experience in real time. Jesus says: Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God –a phrase that suggest something right now in real time.
To Matthew’s: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled, Luke says: Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Matthew addresses his hearers in the third person – they, theirs leaving the hearer with a more impersonal and generalized experience. Luke uses the more direct second person address– you and yours, as in: hey you, yes you, I talking to you!
In truth, a balanced Christian life must acknowledge the Matthean emphasis on an expectation of a future fulfillment of kingdom promises through perseverance and courageous faithfulness in the face of very real present time challenge.
We need to do more than hold firm in the face of the evils of the world in the hope that all will come right in the end. We are required by Jesus to continue his work of agitating for the arrival of the kingdom of a God who is already present and active in the world, and who requires our assistance through the action we take in real time.
Although I value Matthew’s very Jewish depiction of Jesus’ message as the promise or expectation of future rewards for present fidelity, it’s those who feel comfortable with the status quo of worldly business as usual, ignoring or explaining away the systemic inequalities and injustices that characterize our present social order who will choose Matthew for support. Looking to Matthew’s spiritual emphasis for justification, they avoid the uncomfortable truth of Luke’s Jesus who counters blessing with threat as well as blessing.
Luke’s is a political message about confronting economic injustice, the self-satisfied pride of the rich, by living the kingdom’s expectation for greater social and racial inclusion as a present imperative for the Christian life.
This is a call to action, which if heard,are your ears burning yet?