The Real Thing

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany |  Luke 6:17-26

Reading Luke’s beatitudes, we want to make them about spiritual things. Is that so wrong, to read a Sermon on the Mount passage, and to want it to be about spiritual things? Maybe. It’s wrong, if we pretend Jesus was not addressing practical things, because that lets us ignore what he said.

Blessed are you who are poor, we find in Luke’s Gospel. We prefer the other wording — blessed are the poor in spirit — but that is Matthew’s version, not Luke’s.

Sermon on the Mount. Print by Sadao Watanabe, 1968.
Sermon on the Mount. Print by Sadao Watanabe, 1968.

It’s our version, too, if we’re honest. Over the centuries, the church tends to quote Matthew for this material, not Luke, just as we tend to use the Lord’s Prayer as found in Matthew, not the shorter, more terse, prayer from Luke. In Matthew, all of this sounds better, and all of this sounds less practical, more other-worldly, more to do with heaven than with earth.

Blessed are you who are hungry, we read in Luke, but we want it to be a spiritual thing — by which we mean not a physical, human thing. Not real hunger. Not like a child who hasn’t eaten, not like those people fleeing the beaches of Africa in leaking boats, not like homeless people sleeping under garbage bags on the sidewalks of the richest nation on earth. 

Blessed are those who weep, this gospel says, and we want the tears to be somewhere inside, unseen. Something spiritual that we can gloss over with words. Nothing that requires a tissue or a handkerchief, nothing that would let our tears wet our fingers. Nothing that would cause us to ask what was the matter and have to help make it right.

If you are truly poor, maybe reading this on a screen in a distant place, then I want to say thank you. Past that word of thanks, I am not sure I have anything else for you in my words. If there are blessings in hunger and in poverty and in being hated, you already know them. I am really addressing myself and people like me — we who have so much more than most of the world. Homes. Steady income. Plenty of food on hand. Clean clothes, air conditioning. Medical care.

In Matthew, when Jesus teaches the people to pray, he includes the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven.” Luke doesn’t.

Van Gogh's The Sower at Sunset. Kröller-Müller Museum. June, 1888.
Van Gogh’s The Sower at Sunset. Kröller-Müller Museum. June, 1888.

Maybe Matthew is thinking more of the spiritual life, or maybe the intent is to point out the gap between the here and now and the then and there. Maybe both gospels intend to point to the discrepancy between what we say and how we live, between the spiritual and the physical life, the widening chasm between heaven and earth. Maybe the idea is to close the gap that we ourselves have created. Luke knows that the reality of life is nothing like we imagine heaven to be. Not for the hungry, or the weeping, or the poor, the hated, the excluded.

We also like Matthew’s spiritual beatitudes because there are no woes listed, no negative pronouncements. We can fool ourselves into thinking that the woes of Luke do not apply to us.

Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are full. Woe to you when all speak well of you.

I have to admit that all three of those things apply to me. And I want to turn back to the kinder Matthean vision, a gospel where I can fool myself into believing that we are spiritually poor, spiritually hungry. Ironically, I am, but not in any sense that is going to let me escape those woes. I don’t get off cheaply — there is no cheap grace here. There is no cheap grace anywhere, not if it is real.

Of course, there is no line, no division between the physical and the spiritual, not really. Not if we are to be human. Many Christians complain that there is not enough attention paid to spiritual matters, spiritual truths. Usually, they mean rules of behavior and methods of controlling other people — one’s family, one’s friends, one’s society. Not surprisingly, if we followed the very practical advice of the New Testament letter of James — feed the hungry, find clothes for the poor, see to their very physical needs — we would be astonished to find that the spiritual lives of everyone involved were enriched. Healthier. More alive. And life on earth would be that much closer to the ideals of heaven.