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Luke's "Sermon on the Plain" is the Gospel equivalent of Paul's chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13. Here Jesus sets forth his ethic for daily life in detail. The sermon begins with a recognition of the disciples' blessing as a result of God's grace. The rest of the sermon gives the ethical response to being such a beneficiary. Disciples are to live and relate to others in a way that stands out from how people relate to one another in the world. They are to love and pray for their enemies. Righteousness requires that they respond wisely to Jesus' words by building their lives around his teaching. In sum, disciples are to live and look different from the rest of the world, even as they reach out compassionately to that world.
Luke sets up the sermon by summarizing Jesus' ministry activity (4:14-15, 31-32, 40-41). Jesus ministers on a plain. The term topu pedinou refers to a level place, but can refer to a plateau area in mountainous terrain (Mt 14:23 compared to 15:29; Is 13:2 LXX; Jer 21:13 LXX). Beyond this no specific locale is given. Jesus' ministry reflects the compassion and love he claims God has for humanity. So he heals people of disease and exorcises demons. The text emphasizes the power that proceeds from him. Whether they are apostles, disciples or part of the crowd, all sorts of people receive Jesus' ministry. Jesus' teaching and ministry extends beyond insiders. He attempts to reach those outside his new community.
Jesus' authority was not limited to his healing activity. He also taught with authority. Nothing indicates that more than the blessing and woe section of the Sermon on the Plain. It recalls the Old Testament prophets. Jesus thunders the truth with promises of blessing and judgment. The four blessings are followed by four parallel woes. This balance reflects the theme of reversal that Luke has presented elsewhere (1:50-53; 16:19-31): God does not always see things as we do. He looks at the heart, not at externals. He gives promises for those who enter into grace humbly, while warning of judgment for those who remain callous.
The key to the section is found in the remarks about the Son of Man and the comparison to the faithful and unfaithful of old. When Jesus speaks of the poor or rich, he is not making carte blanche statements about people with a certain social or economic standing. His remarks assume both Old Testament and spiritual roots. Jesus is not advocating a political or social philosophy, he is calling people into a spiritual relationship that God imparts to those willing to enter his new community (see commentary on 1:50-53).
Thus the beatitudes and woes serve as a call to be responsive to God in light of his promise of faithfulness to those who are his. The call to love unconditionally in verses 27-36 is a hard one to follow if we cannot trust that God will one day exercise justice. The premise of the sacrificial spiritual life is the promise of God's faithful justice. The beatitudes indicate the kind of person God desires as his child. These blessings are not a works salvation but represent an invitation to let God mold his children into who they ought to be. So God assures those who are needy that he will care for them.
Jesus offers promises to the poor, the hungry, those who weep and those who suffer religious persecution. God sees their spiritual commitment, which has cost them in the pocketbook. To people such as these God promises the kingdom now and blessing later, including enough to eat, laughter and heavenly reward. Unlike Matthew, Luke includes woes, not just blessings. Jesus divides humankind into two camps (3:15-18--the purging Spirit of fire). In contrast to the blessed stand the rich, those who are well fed, those who laugh and those who receive praise. Their fate is sorrow, hunger, mourning and a life like those who followed the false prophets. The contrast is stark.
The term blessed refers to one who is the object of grace and is happy because of it. Those who are blessed do not face an easy life. The mention of poverty and deprivation reflects the reality that many early Christians were poor. In addition, their commitment to Jesus led to their being persecuted like the prophets of old. In Jewish circles the choice to be a disciple would have meant ostracism. The goal of such ostracism was to punish and shame the "defector," or perhaps to persuade the defector to return. Social isolation would bring economic consequences.
But despite such opposition, disciples are blessed, since God promises to care for them. They belong to his kingdom and are under his rule. The poor here are like the Old Testament ` nawm mentioned in the commentary on 1:51-54. They are the pious poor. These beatitudes serve to comfort and reassure those who belong to God. They stand in a long line of the faithful, including the prophets of old. It is often the case that standing up for Jesus and the truth brings ostracism, but God has promised blessing to his children.
The woes also reflect prophetic tradition. A woe warns of condemnation. Here Jesus addresses the judgment of God to the callous rich and others who are comfortable with their state in life while being unconcerned about the needs of others. The lack of a genuine spiritual dimension in their life is seen in the comparison Jesus makes between them and the false prophets. For those who do not engage God on the divinity's terms there looms nothing but the terrible expectation of a day of reckoning. One of the dangers of wealth is that it can lead one to believe a life of independence is possible--a view that Jesus teaches is arrogant and misguided (12:13-21). The world's values are not God's values. The reversal portrayed in the beatitudes and woes reflects the idea that "the one with the most toys" often loses. God's blessing can be found in surprising places. It rests on those who rest in him.
Love is many things in our culture. For many it can be likened to an electric charge: either the zap of the feeling is there or it is not. For others love is an arrangement, almost like a contract, sometimes voluntary, other times imposed by circumstances. Love for family members is not a given; instead, events have necessitated it. Marriages often proceed with this kind of arranged love. As long as the contract works and the zap is present, the arrangement is on. Often such love is managed by performance. Love is to be demonstrated by what is done for me: "If you really cared, you would do this for me."
This kind of arranged or easy love is the foil for Jesus' description of what love is for the child of God. The love Jesus calls for is none of the things described above. Jesus decries our culture's version of love. What is required to possess true love is an understanding of what it is to be loved by God and how God wishes one to love. At the center of Jesus' sermon is a unique concept of love. This love cannot be reduced merely to the "golden rule"; it is love that is golden even when everything around is not.
Jesus does not wait to make his point on the unusual character of such love. Although the righteous will be persecuted and rejected and God will judge the persecutors, Jesus issues a call to love the enemy. In fact, Jesus' call is specific: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whether in attitude, action, word or intercession, the enemy is to be loved. Too often many in the church have a "Jimmy Cagney theology" where the message is to those who do not know God: "You dirty rat, you should not have done that." Jesus wants more than condemnation of the outside world. Jesus' call to disciples focuses not on our words to others, though 11:37-54 does issue a stinging challenge regarding our words. Rather, Jesus zeroes in on our actions and attitudes toward others. He offers no platitudes about how outsiders should be viewed. There is no abstract call to divide one's thought by "hating the sin, but loving the sinner." True as this saying is, Jesus is concerned that we follow through on it and show our love in concrete service for the sinner. Our model is God himself: "God so loved the world that he gave . . ." (see also v. 36). So Jesus calls for the performance of love--in action, thought and petition.
How often do we pray for those who hate the church? The very question shows how radically different Jesus' love is from the culture's view of love. This is "tough love" because it is tough on the believer who loves. It is "radical love" because it calls for denying oneself and being continually exposed to abuse. It is a love not of power, manipulation or arrangement but of service and meekness.
The exhortation is underlined by three concrete examples. First, if someone strikes you on the cheek, then offer him the other. Probably, given the context of religious persecution, the slap refers to exclusion from the synagogue (1 Esdras 4:30; Didache 1:4; Stahlin 1972:263 nn. 23-24; for conceptual examples of such violent actions, Acts 18:17; 21:2728, 31-32; 23:2). Such a slap would be delivered by the back of the hand, though the context here suggests any action that communicates rejection. Jesus' point is that even in the midst of such rejection, we continue to minister to others and expose ourselves to the threat of rejection. The ministry of Paul among the Jews in Acts is a clear example of such love. Love is available and vulnerable, subject to repeated abuse.
Second, Jesus gives the example of someone stealing one's outer garment. He advises letting them have the undershirt too! The point is that one should not seek revenge but remain exposed and be willing to take even more risks. Luke may well be thinking of the danger of missionary travel in the first century or the risk of violence against those who professed Christ. The situation of Sosthenes in Acts 18:17 comes to mind, as does Paul's risk when he was left for dead in Acts 14:19. Despite such danger, he continued to preach to those who rejected him (1 Cor 4:9-13; 2 Cor 11:21--12:10). As the parable of the good Samaritan shows, travel in Jesus' and Luke's day could be dangerous. In the face of such hostility, the call is to keep loving the enemy.
Third, one is to be generous and not keep account. Disciples should be marked by a genuine readiness to meet needs. To the one who begs, give. From the one who takes, do not seek to get it back. Begging here probably refers to almsgiving (Mt 6:1-4; Guelich 1982:223). Resources are not to be hoarded, but generously dispensed. Paul reflects a similar attitude in 1 Timothy 6:8-18. In the case of theft, there is to be no pursuit of retribution. Such self-denial is the essence of love. The consummate example is the cross. Jesus gave to those who had taken.
The sheer difficulty of these commands has led to discussion of how literal they are. Marshall (1978:261) points out correctly that the illustrations are somewhat figurative, since to follow Luke 6:29 literally would lead to nudism! Yet Jesus' life makes it clear that he took these standards seriously. When his opponents took his life, he did not seek retribution but prayed for their forgiveness. He was more interested in giving something that would build than in retrieving what had been taken. The three illustrations picture the kind of action that manifests radical love. The world's standards of love should be surpassed (6:32-34). But we can only accept such a standard if we believe that God will see and reward the faithful. Without a theological view to build on, Jesus' ethics wilt into futility and foolishness.
So Jesus offers what became known in the sixteenth century as the "golden rule": Do to others as you would have them do to you. The verse has Old Testament roots (Lev 19:18). In addition, numerous such ethical statements existed in ancient Jewish and Greek culture. Jesus' formulation of the rule, however, is the least self-focused. Jesus is not saying, "Do good deeds for others so they will return the favor." Instead he is calling for actions of love regardless of how the other responds. Nor is he saying, "Think of what you like, then do that for others." Rather, we are to be sensitive to the needs, feelings and concerns of others and seek to meet them. Sensitivity in love means listening and serving. This does not mean ignoring moral limits, as Jesus' own ministry makes clear, but it does mean caring enough to be concerned about how others feel. The old adage "walk a mile in my shoes" may fit here: look at things from another's perspective and then act with concern.
In the modern world, this would mean not just protesting against abortion but being prepared to care for the child that is born to a mother who has chosen not to abort. More than this, we are called to continue to love those who go ahead with their intention to abort. It means not just talking about ethnic oneness in the church but acting out oneness in community, like Paul's crossing ethnic lines to raise funds for believers in need. Even more, this passage calls us to show tangible concern for unbelievers in need, so when someone tells them that God loves them, they will have seen evidence of such love.
Jesus repeats his examples in verses 32-34 but adds one more point: If we love only those who give us love, what is so great about that kind of love? It is like the love sinners give. If we do good only to those who do good to us, what is so special about that? It is like the love sinners give. If we lend money only to those who will respond in kind, what is so honorable about that? It is the ethics sinners have. The clear implication is that the disciples are not to live and love like sinners. The love of believers is to be different from the love displayed by the culture. As children of God, believers have been transformed to live in contrast to the way of sinners, modeling the sacrifice of radical love.
So Jesus summarizes: love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. When we give, it should not be with strings attached. When we serve, it should be to meet needs, not to give tit for tat. True service involves a giving that does not demand a giving back. The essence of relationship for the child of God is to love and serve.
But Jesus also attaches a theological dimension of promise to the exhortation: your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. God does notice when we reflect who he is to the world. In such faithful, imitative service, promise and identity merge. He will honor us for reflecting our Father's values. God will reward our love, and our love will reflect our identity as God's children. Children of God, Jesus says, are called to imitate their heavenly Father. We are to be an audiovisual of him. For God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. The call of the disciple to radical love is "like father, like child." As Plummer (1922:189) notes, "Moral likeness proves parentage." Jesus' ethical call to love is nothing more than a call to imitate the Father. And to love is to have mercy.
Jesus develops his description of mercy by highlighting its relationship to forgiveness and judgment. Two ideas dominate Jesus' remarks on judgment. First, the measure we use to judge others is the standard that will be applied to us. Jesus suggests that God responds to us similarly to the way we treat others. The attitude expressed here is not unique to Jesus. In the Jewish Mishna, `Abot 1:6 reads, "When you judge, incline the balance in his favor." In the same Jewish work, Sota 1:7 reads, "With what measure a man metes, it shall be measured to him again." Negatively, Jesus says we should not judge or condemn. Positively, we are to forgive and give generously. Jesus illustrates the last point with the everyday example of measuring out grain for purchase. The seller would take a measuring container and pour the grain in it. After getting it about three-quarters full, he would shake it to level out the grain so more could be put in. The goal was to get as much in the measure as possible. In the same way God promises to give grace abundantly to those who are gracious.
Second, being merciful means being quick to encourage people toward restoration after they fall. Mercy does not gloat over sin or take pleasure in pointing it out; it roots for the sinner to find a way home to spiritual health. Often after someone falls we are anxious simply to cut him or her off to keep the church body from being leavened or to show that we will not associate with deeds of darkness. The church is to be concerned about moral purity. But we also should be quick to help set up opportunities for repentance and restoration. We should be discerning about the presence of sin but not judgmental in dealing with it. To be judgmental is to rejoice in pointing out sin and to refuse to reach out to the sinner to restore him or her to spiritual health. Rather than leaving the sinner to wallow in sin and the pain of moral failure, we should encourage the sinner to find the right path. Perhaps no picture of this commitment is clearer than the career of Hosea. He called sin by its name but always stood ready to receive the sinner back, even after gross sin.
It is no accident that Jesus' words against judgmentalism come right after the call to be merciful as God is. An unwillingness to be judgmental is almost a requirement for those who face persecution. Without it, lines of battle would become hardened and the ability to love the enemy would be destroyed. God is interested not in polemics but in offering the hope of restored relationship to the lost.
This exhortation needs to be set in the framework of Jesus' entire teaching. Jesus does not mean that we should close our eyes to sin and wrongdoing. Jesus' rebuke of his opponents in 11:37-54 shows that being merciful does not mean suspending moral judgment and responsibility. But we are not to hold judgment against the person in such a way that ministry and reconciliation become impossible. Disciples are to bear good news, not hold grudges.
The sermon closes with a series of pictures showing us that Jesus' teaching is to be taken seriously. The first image deals with the importance of choosing the right teacher and looking carefully to oneself before offering criticism (vv. 39-42). The second image has to do with producing the right kind of fruit (vv. 43-45), while the third shows the wisdom of holding fast to Jesus' teaching (vv. 46-49).
The question whether a blind man can lead others is rhetorical, and the point is not developed explicitly. Of course when Jesus asks if the blind are able to lead the blind, he expects a negative answer, as the Greek particle meti indicates. He expects the blind man and his followers to fall into a pit, as the particle ouchi indicates. In fact, a disciple will be like his teacher. Jesus does not explain the remark or develop the picture, but he is warning us to watch which teacher we follow. If we follow someone who takes in no light, we will stumble. So we are to consider carefully who our teacher is. Religious opposition is the setting for Jesus' remarks. Jesus' own offer of authoritative teaching in the sermon suggests that his disciples should not follow the religious leadership but him--a point he will make more explicitly in verses 46-49.
Given the plethora of options available today, we can sense the importance of Jesus' remarks: Choose your instructors wisely, since you will become like them. To build solidly on a firm foundation, follow the teaching of those who teach God's Word, not tradition or feeling (two alternatives often on offer today). Jesus' message commends itself as worthy of being heard and followed. Those who reflect his message also are worth listening to. In a time when reflection and thought are often given low priority, we ought to give high priority to reflecting on Jesus' teaching.
In fact, there is a reason we should be slow to judge and be careful whom we follow: we all have huge faults that we must deal with before we are in a position to help others. A judgmental spirit often reflects a self-righteous, unreflective, insensitive heart.
Jesus continues to work with the imagery of sight, only here he uses humor. Imagine, Jesus says, trying to see with a plank of wood sticking out of your eye. Just try seeing with a two-by-four as bifocals! A plank would prevent clear vision. How could you complain about dust in someone else's eye when a two-by-four was protruding from your own? Jesus' point is clear. It is important to clean up one's own act before offering advice to others. In fact, one way to examine ourselves for self-righteousness is to consider how often we are interested in correcting others rather than correcting our own attitudes and actions.
Jesus does not say we should not examine the lives of others. But we should do so only with a careful eye cast toward ourselves. Galatians 6:1 is similar in tone. Jesus wants disciples to be a moral encouragement to one another, but there is a proper way to go about it. There is a crying need for humility, an awareness that all of us are learning to walk more closely with God. To help another see clearly, we need to wash out our own eyes first.
In the end, disciples are to reflect good character. Our relationship with God is to produce good fruit. The fruit reveals the nature of the root, for each tree is recognized by its own fruit. Bad trees do not produce good fruit, nor do good trees produce bad fruit. To judge a tree's fruit, we don't look at one particular moment but at a period of production. The product of the life reflects the heart. The product of our discipleship reflects our inner character, what Jesus calls the treasure of the heart. The value of our speech and actions is determined by the quality of the soul that produces them. In other words, works are a snapshot of the heart.
Often the church avoids talking about "works" because people could begin focusing on externals or putting good deeds in the place of faith. But the tree image can help us steer clear of such problems. Jesus says that works are a product of something deeper. By linking the heart and the fruit, Jesus ties together motive and action. Works are ultimately a matter of the heart: the product can never be entirely divorced from the motive, and the presence of fruit does not mean the absence of faith!
In fact, the major issue in the life of a disciple is faithfulness. So Jesus issues a challenge in verse 46: "Why do you call me, `Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say?" The rhetorical question raises the issue of faithfulness. A good heart is faithful, while a hypocritical one is not. Obedience is not a matter of rule keeping but of faithfulness. How can one recognize Jesus' authority and call him Lord and then not follow through on the commitment to walk with him?
With this question Jesus turns to the issue of his authority. He is not formulating some ethic that we could follow independent of relationship to him. Having a relationship with him is at the base of faithfulness. This is why the parallel to this verse in Matthew 7:21 makes knowing him the key. Luke does not emphasize the end-time judgment as Matthew does, but for both consistency and faithfulness are central. Jesus says, If you wish to be wise, you will love as I have taught, follow me as Teacher and Lord, and walk in my way with faithfulness. The implication emerges more clearly in light of the parable that follows.
Jesus concludes his sermon with the parable of the two houses. In a subdivision there are two homes. One is built on rock, the other on sand. Luke's imagery is detailed. One builder dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. A secure foundation takes work. The hard work is worth it, because in the storm this house stands strong and secure. Nothing shakes it. Obeying Jesus will mean being able to stand up in the trials of life. In contrast is the man who quickly builds his house on the top of the earth. There is no depth to his building, only a surface structure. Without a strong foundation, the house cannot hold up when the river floods. The use of multiple terms to describe the house's collapse accentuates the note of tragedy in the image. Translated precisely, the end of verse 49 reads, "Immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house" (NRSV). Everything this man had is lost. Jesus offers no editorial comment, but lets his sermon end with the echo of the collapsing house.
The parable gives a sober warning: How tragic not to respond to Jesus' teaching. How foolish not to build on the rock that can weather the storms of life. What a tragic waste when we fail to heed Jesus.
So Jesus preaches promise-judgment in the beatitudes and woes. He calls on disciples to love in imitation of their Father in heaven. He warns them to follow him as teacher and watch their step when they criticize others. He calls on disciples to be faithful and obedient, because that is the path of wisdom, endurance and strength. The product of the life reflects the heart's true nature. Spiritual strength grows out of obeying the Lord Jesus. It is like fixing a foundation deep in the earth. Jesus' sermon reveals the ethics of the disciple, but behind the ethics stands the authority of the commissioned agent of God. Jesus preaches not as a philosopher-teacher but as the revealer of God's wisdom. As the voice from heaven will say later in this Gospel (9:35), we should "listen to him."
About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.