The Beatitudes: The Lukan Woes (6:24-26)

As discussed in prior notes on the Beatitudes, only the collection in Luke contains a corresponding set of “Woes” (Lk 6:25-26). Since, in many other respects, both the Matthean “Sermon on the Mount” and the Lukan “Sermon on the Plain” clearly draw from the same tradition (identified by many scholars as a source document “Q”), there have been a number of attempts to explain this difference, most commonly:

    • The Woes were originally part of the inherited tradition, but have been omitted (by the Gospel writer) in Matthew
    • The Woes were not part of the tradition, but were added (by the Gospel writer) in Luke, either from a separate source or by invention of the author
    • The Woes were in the version of the tradition inherited by Luke (QL) but not in the version inherited by Matthew (QM)

Strong arguments can be (and have been) made for each of these theories. A comparison of Matthew 7:21-24 and Luke 6:46-49 is perhaps instructive in this regard. Both passages deal with persons (followers or would-be followers) who hear Jesus’ words but do not obey them. However, whereas Lk 6:46 is couched as a simple lament for his followers (“and [for] what do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do the [things] that I say?”), in Matt 7:21-23 Jesus is describing a specific group of people (“not every one saying to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will come into the kingdom of the Heavens…”)—false or would-be followers who perform (or claim to perform) great works in Jesus’ name but fail (or refuse) to do the will of God. This last point is implied by way of verse 21b: the false disciples are the opposite of “the one doing the will/wish of my Father in the Heavens”. Verses 22-23 provide an eschatological setting of Judgment which corresponds to that of the Woes in Lk 6:24-26—there, too, the “wicked” for whom “woe” is declared, represent the opposite of the very things which characterize the “righteous” (Lk 6:20-23). In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, especially, those who fail to do the will of the Father, in fact, fail to keep the Law (as understood and interpreted in Jesus’ teaching)—they are “the ones working lawlessness” (Matt 7:23). In light of this special emphasis in Matt 7:21-24, it is certainly possible that (in Matthew) the Gospel writer has omitted any Woes associated with the Beatitudes inherited from the Tradition.

Luke 6:24-26

I touched upon each of the Lukan Woes briefly in my earlier notes on the first, second, fourth and ninth (Matthean) Beatitudes. It is worth recounting several fundamentally difficult points of interpretation. To begin with, here are the four Woes, each of which corresponds (almost precisely) with a Beatitude:

Plh\n ou)ai\ u(mi=n toi=$ plousi/oi$, o%ti a)pe/xete th\n para/klhsin u(mw=n.
“(All the) more, woe to you the rich (one)s!—that you have your help/comfort (from riches)!” (v. 24)
Beatitude: “Happy (you) the poor (one)s, (in) that yours is the kingdom of God” (v. 20b)

Ou)ai\ u(mi=n oi( e)mpeplhsme/noi, o%ti peina/sate
“Woe to you the (ones) having been filled up now, (in) that (later) you will hunger!” (v. 25a)
Beatitude: “Happy the (ones) hungering now, (in) that (later) you will be fed (full)” (v. 21a)

Ou)ai\ oi( gelw=nte$ nu=n, o%ti penqh/sete kai\ klau/sete
“Woe to (you) the (ones) laughing now, (in) that (later) you will mourn and weep (aloud)!” (v. 25b)
Beatitude: “Happy the (ones) weeping (aloud) now, (in) that (later) you will laugh” (v. 21b)

Ouai\ o%tan u(ma=$ kalw=$ ei&pwsin pa/nte$ oi( a&nqrwpoi:
kata\ ta\ au)ta\ ga\r e)poi/oun toi=$ yeudoprofh/tai$ oi( pate/re$ au)tw=n
“Woe (to you) when all men should say (things) beautifully [i.e. speak well] of you;
for accordingly their fathers did the self(same) things to the false-Foretellers [i.e. false prophets]!” (v. 26)
Beatitude: “Happy are you when men should hate you…on account of the Son of Man!
Be joyful and leap (with joy), for see—your payment (is) much in Heaven;
For accordingly their fathers did the self(same) things to the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets]” (vv. 22-23)

The first three Beatitudes/Woes can be grouped together as follows:

  • Principal dualism of Poor vs. Rich (v. 20b, 24) with ultimate inheritance of each (Kingdom of God vs. earthly riches)
    • Eschatological reversal (= reversal of values):
      • hunger vs. being well-fed (v. 21a, 25a)
      • weeping/mourning vs. laughing (v. 21b, 25b)

The fourth Beatitude/Woe concludes the Beatitudes (and the exordium) and transitions into the subsequent teaching—i.e., how the righteous (follower/believer) should live out the characteristics that (will) declare him/her “happy/blessed”. The ninth Beatitude in Matthew (Matt 5:11-12) serves the same rhetorical and instructional purpose, but in a slightly more complex arrangement. The Lukan Beatitude/Woe, however, is unique in the way it repeats and emphasizes the principal dualism of Lk 6:20b, 24:

  • Poor vs. Rich
    • Inheritance: Kingdom of God vs. earthly riches
  • People do/speak evil to you vs. speak well of you (example of Prophets vs. False Prophets)
    • Reward: Much in Heaven vs. worldly favor (implied)

It is this stark dualism (with its reversal of values) that has caused so much difficulty for thoughtful interpreters. The apparently harsh, almost simplistic, juxtaposition of poor vs. rich has led to the Lukan Beatitudes being thoroughly ignored (in comparison with the far more popular set of Beatitudes in Matthew). One is unlikely to hear them preached today, and the Woes hardly ever (especially in the reasonably well-off and well-to-do churches of the modern West)! Sadly, they suffer neglect even from many serious and distinguished commentators. The reasons are not hard to find; and yet, it is important to examine these difficult verses to see just what it is that Jesus (and the Gospel writer) wish to communicate, and why this particular form of instruction was used. This I will attempt to do in the next article.

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