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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.