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Epiphany 6 | Ordinary Time 6, Cycle C

With Psalm 1, Jeremiah 17:5-10, and Luke 6:17-26 selected as three of the four biblical bases for the service and message next Sunday, we also can hardly use any other mode of expression than the beatitude ourselves as we lead in worship. Perhaps we should even express the 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 text in part, at least, in beatitude form for coherence in the service, as will be attempted below.

As would be expected, although many people are said to be blessed in these texts, they are said to be blessed for different reasons within different life situations. It is our task to determine with as much precision as possible the specifics of each life situation in these texts so that we shall be able to apply the texts to specific situations within our own life settings.

Psalm 1

There are two ways contrasted sharply in this lead-off psalm of the Israelite Psalter: the way of the wicked and the way of the righteous. The way of the righteous is the way characterized by delight in the Torah. A person who is walking in this way meditates on the Torah night and day, without ceasing. Such a person is known to the Lord. Such a person shall prosper. Such a person is blessed. The person who is wise will follow the way of the righteous and be blessed by the Lord. A person would be absolutely foolish to do otherwise.

Jeremiah 17:5-10

Because of the similarities between this text and Psalm 1, and because this text uses the more primitive form of curses contrasted with blessings, while Psalm 1 focuses on the Torah, which gained status as an authoritative, canonical body of literature after many centuries of development, it is likely that this Jeremiah 17 text was used as a primary source in the composition of Psalm 1. The contrast here in Jeremiah 17:5-8 is between the person who trusts in people and the person who trusts in the Lord. The person who trusts in the Lord will be fruitful season after season, like a tree that is planted near a stream that never runs dry. Such a person is indeed blessed. It is added in verses 9-10 that the Lord judges every person on the basis of that person’s ways and fruitfulness.

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

In beatitude form, this text might include the saying, “Blessed is the person who believes that Jesus has been raised from the dead to be the Christ! Such a person does not live in vain.” Paul was writing to people who had various opinions about the resurrection of the dead. Some believed that God actually physically raises people who have died back to a much better form of life, a life that is no longer limited by time and space; some people did not believe this. Paul tried to use logical argumentation to convince those who did not believe that God raises people from the dead, or more specifically that God had raised Jesus from the dead. After using this type of argumentation in verses 13-19, Paul simply states what he believes in verse 20, that Christ has been raised by God from the dead, just as Paul had expressed this faith earlier in this chapter. Within verse 20, Paul could well have concluded in the form of a beatitude, “Blessed is the person who believes this!”

For us also, while we may think that we shall be able to persuade someone by argumentation that God has raised Jesus from the dead, it is far more effective when we simply say, “I believe this. I choose to believe this even though I cannot prove it or any other statement about God. I invite you to believe this also, even though you cannot prove it either. Blessed are you when you believe!”

Luke 6:17-26

The beatitudes in this portion of what we call the “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke probably stem from several different life situations. It is likely that both what we call the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7 and the “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke 6 are collections by followers of Jesus of beatitudes and other sayings of Jesus remembered and repeated by his followers, supplemented by somewhat similar sayings adapted from things Jesus had said or that were added to what Jesus had said by his followers in new and somewhat different life settings.

As we become increasingly aware of the political situation of the Jews in Galilee and Judea during the time of Jesus’ public activity, we realize more fully that Jesus was speaking and working among people who were heavily oppressed economically, politically, and socially by the Roman military forces that eventually crucified Jesus because Jesus was providing hope and encouragement to significant numbers of his fellow oppressed Jews. There were a few, of course, among Jesus’ own people who cooperated fully with the Roman occupation forces and contracted to do business with them, managing the Temple, collecting various taxes, doing construction work ordered by the Romans, and providing other personal and private services.

If we wish to express the beatitudes of Luke 6:20-21 in the form in which they may have been verbalized by the Jesus of history, we might express Luke 6:20b in English as “Blessed are you who are oppressed, for yours is the kingdom of God!” The Greek word ?????? means “begging, dependent, poor, miserable, impotent, and oppressed politically and economically.” Within the context of the overwhelming majority of the Jews in Galilee and Judea with whom Jesus interacted, the Aramaic word anawim that Jesus would have used to speak to them and that was expressed in the Gospel accounts by use of the Greek word ?????? should be translated as “oppressed” rather than the more general word “poor” that has been used in the KJV, the RSV, the NRSV, and in most other translations of the Newer Testament into English. Jesus and the people with whom he worked were poor because they were severely oppressed economically and politically by the Romans, not because they were lazy.

The kingdom of God for Jesus and for his fellow oppressed Jews in Galilee and Judea was sharply contrasted with the kingdom of this world that was oppressing them, specifically the kingdom of Caesar. We are aware that the writers of the documents that later would be identified as the Newer Testament could not write anything directly against the oppressive Roman Empire, against Caesar, and against the zealous advocates of the Roman Civil Religion who demanded political and increasingly religious allegiance to the Roman State, without great risk of severe retaliation by the same Roman State that had crucified Jesus and had killed Peter, Paul, and other leading followers of Jesus. If Jesus had said, “Blessed are you who are oppressed, for yours is the kingdom of God!” to his fellow oppressed Jews, the Matthean redactors of Mark softened this to “Blessed are those who are oppressed in spirit (spiritually oppressed), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” They did this in order to reduce the political risk of this statement by spiritualizing it and by depersonalizing it.

We in the twenty-first century who are no longer threatened by the oppressive Roman State of the Caesars have no need to soften or to tone down the beatitudes expressed by Jesus. We who are no longer threatened by that particular oppressor should be fully aware of the great courage of Jesus when he spoke out publicly to bless and to encourage his oppressed fellow Jews, even though his doing this resulted in his being seized, tortured, and crucified by the Roman oppressors. We should also realize that the Jesus of history could have stopped speaking publicly his message of hope for the oppressed among his people and returned to a private life in Nazareth when his mother and some of his brothers implored him to do so to save his life, as indicated in Mark 3:20-21, 31-35. It is probable that they wanted him to stop and said that it was “crazy” for him to continue not because they did not agree with what he was saying, but because they feared for his life if he would continue. Jesus, of course, continued and was seized, tortured, and crucified by the Romans when he shared his message in Jerusalem.

The references in Luke 6:17-26 to the Son of Man and to what the fathers of those addressed had done to the prophets and the references to the false prophets of the past most likely reflect the life situations of some of the early followers of Jesus several decades after Jesus had been crucified. In our own ministries we can best proclaim the message and the life of Jesus by focusing on the life setting of the Jesus of history rather than on that of some of his followers decades after Jesus had been crucified.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen