The Beatitudes in Luke

Woe to you who are laughing now, because you will mourn and weep.
Luke 6:25

Luke 6:17-26

No laughing. Jesus said so. Laughing people are bound for hell. Filthy jokesters … don’t they know that there are sad people in the world? God loves the serious but hates the silly. God judges every giggle that comes from your smirking face. You should be ashamed.

Well, that’s one way to read Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. It’s sort of ridiculous, though, to condemn all laughter based on the Beatitudes, isn’t it? Still, I’ve heard some Christians make similar blanket judgments about other human conditions based on these words of Jesus. Perhaps there is a better way to approach this text.

It’s very easy to misread the Jesus’ Beatitudes – or blessings – by seeing them as pronouncements about the poverty or grief or alienation that are so common in life. It’s easy to misread them within the context of contemporary political arguments, even though the economic life of ancient Judah was so different than our own. In fact, it’s pretty easy to make them say whatever you want them to say if you take them in isolation.

The Beatitudes, however, are not abstract statements about life in general. They are not about humor or psychology or economics or politics detached from the sitz im leben Jesu. Jesus spoke blessings to his disciples in the context of his (and their) mission.

Jesus begins, according to Luke, to speak to his disciples – that traveling band of mendicant healers, exorcists and evangelists: “Blessed are you beggars” (ptochoi). As I attempted to show last week, Jesus’ traveling band of disciples depended solely on the generosity and hospitality of the people they encountered in their travels. They had no resources of their own. They did not earn their daily bread by their own labor. The beggars whom Jesus addresses in the Beatitudes are Jesus’ traveling disciples.

Are Jesus’ disciples also the hungry, the weeping and the hated? They are. Jesus’ disciples are not always welcomed with hospitality. Unwelcome disciples suffered hunger and rejection.

Jesus’ arrival in a town – and his invitation to some to follow him – divided families and communities. In Jesus’ honor and shame tribal culture, family ties reigned supreme. We moderns do not catch the power in Jesus’ call to leave everything – including the family business, the family table and the family village – to follow him. The family could be materially damaged by the loss of labor, and the consequent loss of income and prestige. Leaving home to become a wandering beggar did not contribute to family honor. One just did not do these things to one’s family.

We can imagine the reaction today if a child decided to quit working and follow some wild, charismatic religious leader with no visible means of support. We didn’t send our kids to college so that they could join a cult and beg from strangers. If we can imagine that reaction today, imagine the reaction in an age when family loyalty and family honor were everything.

Consequently, anyone who dishonored the family could be shunned. Again, modern western people do not understand the power of shunning or excommunication. A few years ago, a Jordanian military officer explained to me that the power of shunning was still very strong in Arab tribal cultures. Where family and tribal ties are still very strong, shunning is more powerful than the force of law in compelling obedience to the community’s will. When a tribe expels a person, the Jordanian officer explained, that person must leave the community never to return. In some places, the expelled person loses the protection of the tribe and can even be killed with impunity by outsiders. In the west, only tight-knit communities like the Amish know the power of shunning.

The shunned grieve; they are dead to their own family. It is as if every member of their family has died at once. They have also lost their inheritance and ability to work for a living. Not only are they no longer part of the family business, no one in their home town will ever hire them as a laborer. They are even expelled from the religious life of the community. They don’t belong to anyone or any place. They are truly alone in this world.

Villages consisted largely of extended families. When a village rejected Jesus or his disciples by withholding hospitality, it was enforcing community and family solidarity. The ancient near-eastern custom of providing hospitality was so strong that only something truly exceptional could overcome it. When the people of a village refused food and shelter to Jesus’ wandering band, that act signified a conscious rejection of Jesus and his message – and a warning that anyone who sided with Jesus over the family would be ostracized and expelled. Following Jesus meant risking poverty, loneliness and isolation.

Many modern (and so-called post-modern) commentators see the macro politics of kings and empires in Jesus’ life story. Jesus’ story itself, however, is sometimes more concerned with the micro politics of families and villages. Jesus’ micro politics are reflected in Luke in passages such as these:

To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But he said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:59-62)

Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Luke 12:51-53)

If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

The Beatitudes announces that there is true honor in following Jesus; the true shame will belong to those who reject and mock him now by refusing his followers hospitality. True shame belongs to those who refuse Jesus’ invitation to follow, preferring the safety and security of family loyalty to the risky road of faith.

The Beatitudes are obviously eschatological in nature. Jesus’ teaching – and Luke’s gospel – are built around the promise of the coming of the son of man at the end of the ages to gather the righteous and judge the wicked Yet, there is a sense in which the blessings and honor of the future kingdom are already present for those who believe enough to follow Jesus. Luke 18 captures this dynamic:

And Peter said, “Lo, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:28-30)

If Jesus’ disciples lose honor in the eyes of their neighbors and kin, they gain it in the sight of God. If they lose one earthly family, they gain another in the fellowship of believers – both itinerant and settled. If they lose their earthly inheritance, they gain an eternal one.