Plain Speaking

This week’s blog draws on the Gospel, ‘the Sermon on the Plain’, Luke 6.17-26, as well as the set Old Testament reading Jeremiah 17.5-10 and Psalm 1. Tellingly it is not easy to find a picture of Jesus preaching ‘on the plain’. The equivalent sermon offered in Matthew, ‘the Sermon on the Mount’ is far more frequently illustrated! However this picture – one of the Jesus Mafa series, portraying the Gospels in the context of village life in West Africa, comes fairly close! Formally it is described as illustrating Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount – but Jesus does seem to be on the same level as his listeners.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship,

One way of looking at the ‘Sermon on the Plain’ which Luke offers us, which is both similar – and different – from Matthew’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is to see it as Mary’s Magnificat now being worded into life by her son Jesus.

The promised reversals of the Magnificat e.g. ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty,’ (Luke 1.52-53) are echoed in the Beatitudes and Woes that Jesus now proclaims in this ‘level place’ – the older translations referred to ‘a plain’, which has given this talk its traditional name.

The fact that Jesus speaks on ‘a plain’ rather than on the ‘mountain’ – the location of Matthew’s rather better known Beatitudes – is surely significant. Location is important (as we know from various TV programmes which try to seduce us into wanting a new home, insisting on location… location… location!).

The Magnificat itself speaks explicitly of ‘bringing down’ the powerful, and ‘lifting up’ the lowly. Given that precursor it is no accident that the Gospel of Luke sets this sermon of Jesus Christ on the plain – level ground – rather than on a mountain-top. Luke is well aware of the importance of mountains. Just before this sermon Jesus has gone up a mountain to pray, and while there has chosen ‘the twelve’. Mountains – and their symbolic meaning – appear frequently in all the Gospels. By contrast the Greek word translated as ‘plain’ or ‘level place’ only appears here in the entirety of the New Testament. I suspect that Luke used it to reinforce the sense that Jesus did not choose to place himself ‘above’ others – but deliberately brought himself down to their ‘level’. This  insight is reinforced by the way that Jesus, before speaking to the disciples, ‘looked up’ (Luke 6.20) at them. Looking up is the right posture for Jesus to adopt to present his vision of the inversion of the normal rules of reality.

In the Book of Acts, when Paul is in Thessalonica, the hostile mob that is provoked by his preaching drags Paul’s supporters before the city authorities complaining that that they have offered hospitality to people like Paul who ‘have been turning the world upside down’ (Acts 17.6). Such an ‘upside down’ world is exactly the challenge that Jesus himself has offered to the disciples and to the crowd as he speaks to them on the plain.

Luke’s pairing of ‘blessings’ with ‘woes’ gives a different ‘feel’ to Jesus’ words, when compared with the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.  This difference is perhaps reinforced by the choice of verses from Jeremiah 17.5-10 and Psalm 1 as complementary readings for this week.

Psalm 1 is not, I have to confess, my favourite psalm. Its ‘certainties’ about the respective fates of the righteous and the wicked rather stick in my gullet!  I am very willing to accept, what is often suggested, that it was added to the Book of Psalms at quite a late stage in the development of the book, in order to set in context, or even perhaps ‘tame’ the challenges thrown out by many of the other psalms in the book, especially the psalms of lament – which are all too willing to acknowledge that there is no automatic correlation between righteousness and prosperity.

It is interesting to see this argument also being carried on within the pages of the Book of Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 17.7 we have what seems to be almost a quote from Psalm 1. There is however a subtle difference. In Psalm 1 it is those whose ‘delight is in the law of the Lord’ who will be like ‘trees planted by water’. In Jeremiah 17 it is those ‘who trust in the Lord’. For Jeremiah that personal relationship with God would seem to be paramount.  But the fascination of the Book of Jeremiah is precisely that the prophet is elsewhere quite prepared to argue with any theology that simplistically links faith and success, based on his own personal experience. ‘Why does the way of the guilty prosper, why do all those who are treacherous thrive? You plant them, and they take root; they grow and bring forth fruit.’ (Jeremiah 12.1-2)

For me, one of the glories of the Old Testament, which is the part of the Bible in which I have the most professional expertise, is precisely this internal argument and debate that it conducts within its pages about the relationship between our faith in God, the righteousness of our behaviour and our ‘rewards’. It refuses to give us an easy answer, and that is a glory of this part of our Scripture. If God is, as Exodus 3.14-15 suggests, to be known as ‘the I am who I am’, then perhaps indeed we should not expect to be able to pin God down – though throughout history human beings have so often tried to do so.

To return to Luke’s blessings and woes. There are several ways in which we might read them, but perhaps one thought is to suggest that they are continuing that Old Testament debate about the relationship between righteousness and success, and in the process inviting significant questions as to what we mean by both.

Over the last two years, during the pandemic, many of us have found ourselves turning quite often to ‘wrestle’ with the ‘problem’ of evil and suffering, reward and punishment and what our biblical and Christian faith has to teach us in relation to this. It is hardly surprising, given the intensity of what we have been living through. In the Diocese in Europe a number of our chaplaincies have sought to help the people explore such questions. I am grateful to Revd Canon Medhat Sabry, chaplain in Madrid, for organising a theological ‘salon’ on this topic in which I was invited to participate. The number of people who tuned in for this Zoom event suggested that Canon Sabry had touched upon an important chord.

It is interesting to reflect, with Luke’s blessings and woes in mind, that one of the blessings that is offered will be to wipe away the tears from those who are weeping. I do think, and I am speaking to myself at least as much as anyone else, that sometimes our greatest need is to learn how to weep. Tears are not very British, and perhaps they are not a typical part of Anglican spirituality!  Indeed the need to carry on (as now) in difficult times, can mean that tears can seem a luxury we cannot allow ourselves. Yet St James of Saroug in the 6th century reflected in a way that resonates with Jesus’  ‘upside down’ words in Luke’s Gospel, ‘“You have no tears? Buy tears from the poor. You have no sadness? Call the poor man to moan with you. If your heart is hard and has neither sadness nor tears, with alms invite the needy to weep with you…provide yourself with the water of tears, and may the poor come to help you put out the fire in which you are perishing.”[i]  .

We are all invited to be on the same level! Perhaps this tells us just why Jesus preached this sermon on the plain.

[i] Quoted in Alan W. Jones, Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985),.104.

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