In the previous article, I looked at the structure and arrangement of four Lukan “Woes” (Luke 6:24-26), both as collection, and in relation to the four Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-23). Today, I will discuss some basic difficulties of interpretation involved in these verses—their meaning and significance in the context of Jesus’ teaching in the “Sermon on the Plain” (and elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke). In such matters, one must be careful not to rush to “explain away” the difficulties—such as facile attempts to harmonize the Matthean-Lukan Beatitudes, or to “soften” the rich-vs-poor dualism in Luke. As always, careful and sensitive exegesis (often requiring great patience) will yield more fruitful results and will end up being far more faithful to text in the long run.
At first, it should be noted that the Lukan “Woes” are far from unique: many collections of Beatitudes in the ancient world included corresponding warnings or “woes”. From the standpoint of the Old Testament and subsequent Jewish tradition, one finds series of Woes at places within Apocalyptic and Wisdom literature (e.g., Isa 5:8-22; Eccl 10:16-17; Tob 13:12ff; 1 Enoch 94-100; 2 Baruch 10:6-7); note especially the alternation of blessing and woe (curse) in 2 Enoch 52. The person who receives the woe reflects the opposite characteristics of the person declared happy/blessed. Highly influential in this regard for Judaism and early Christianity was the macarism and “Two Ways” structure of Psalm 1 (on this subject, see my earlier article). By the time of the New Testament, this dualism between righteous and wicked was well-established and familiar; as was the specific association of the righteous with the poor and oppressed. (cf. my earlier article on the first Beatitude).
Taking the text at face value would lead one effectively to identify the faithful followers of Jesus with the poor as a socio-economic class or type. But surely the poor will not all be happy and blessed in the life to come, simply for being poor, will they? Must one be destitute in this life in order to follow Jesus and receive heavenly reward? It will be helpful to examine briefly two areas: (1) Jesus’ other teaching on riches and poverty, in relation to following him; and (2) the specific emphasis on rich and poor in the Gospel of Luke.
(1) Jesus teaching on riches and poverty (in the Synoptic tradition)
- In the parable of the Sower, riches are among the “thorns” which choke the growth of the seed and prevent it from bearing fruit (Matt 13:22 / Mark 4:19 / Luke 8:14)
- Jesus warns against storing up treasure on earth, rather than focusing upon treasure in heaven (Matt 6:19-21; Luke 12:33-34); the version in Luke follows a command to sell one’s possessions and give to the poor (v. 33), and is illustrated by the parable of the “Rich Fool” (see below).
- In response to messengers from John the Baptist (“are you the one coming [that is, the Messiah and/or end-time Prophet]?”), Jesus draws upon the language of Isa 61:1ff (Matt 11:2-6 / Luke 7:18-23). Among the actions associated with the Anointed is the proclamation of “good news” to the poor (see also in Lk 4:16-19). Isaiah 61 proved to be a key Messianic passage, reflecting a growing concern in the Prophets about the fate of the poor and oppressed (what today we would call social justice). Especially harsh condemnation is leveled at those who mistreat or neglect the needy, and yet continue to participate in the religious ritual, as though nothing were wrong (e.g., Isa 1:10-17; Jer 7, etc). The eschatological restoration/redemption of Israel would be centered on the righteous and faithful “poor” (cf. Luke 2:25-28).
- In the encounter with the so-called Rich Young Ruler (“what should I do that I may have the life of the ages as [my] lot [i.e. inherit ‘eternal life’]?”), Jesus commands him to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor before becoming a disciple (Mark 10:17ff / Matt 19:16ff / Luke 18:18ff). There is a tendency to limit Jesus’ injunction to the case at hand; however, the discussion which follows points to a wider application: (a) the statement that it is difficult (almost impossible) for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:23ff par), (b) the indication that his followers have left their possessions (Mark 10:28 par), and (c) Jesus’ declaration of future reward for those leave their family and possessions to follow him (Mark 10:29f par). For more on leaving all to follow Jesus, see Mark 8:34-37 par; Matt 8:19-22 / Luke 9:57-62.
- The episode of the poor widow’s offering in the Temple (Mark 12:41-44 par). There are two aspects to Jesus’ response: (1) he contrasts the widow’s offering (positively) with the gifts of the wealthy; (2) the episode follows directly upon his (negative) condemnation of the unscrupulous behavior of the (wealthy) religious authorities (which includes the “devouring” of widow’s houses), Mark 12:38-40 par—this echoes a familiar prophetic theme (see above), and makes the plight of the widow (in the Temple precincts) all the more poignant.
- The Judgment illustration of the “Sheep and Goats” in Matt 25:31-46 emphasizes the importance of caring for the poor and needy (note the eschatological two-way/two-group formulation [blessing vs. woe]). This is probably the main thrust of the prior parable of the “Talents” as well (Matt 25:14-30 [cf. also Lk 19:12-27]).
- The curious episode of the woman who anoints Jesus with costly perfume, along with the disciples’ rebuke that the perfume could have rather been sold and money given to the poor. This is recorded, with some variation, in Mark 14:3-9 / Matt 26:6-13, and Jn 12:1-8; cf. also Lk 7:37-39. John adds the detail that Judas Iscariot made the rebuke, with the aside that he was a thief and really did not care about the poor (Jn 12:4-6). The point is that, however necessary care for the poor may be, focus on the person of Jesus (that is, following him) is ultimately more important (cf. Lk 10:38-42 for a similar message).
(2) Rich and Poor in the Gospel of Luke
The juxtaposition between rich and poor that we see in the Lukan version of the Beatitudes serves as a special point of emphasis throughout the Gospel of Luke. There are a number of important passages (in addition to the Beatitudes & Woes) which are occur only in this Gospel:
- The parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37) emphasizes the importance of caring for the poor and needy (esp. vv. 33-35).
- The parable of the Rich Fool (Lk 12:13-21), which serves as a dire warning against the pursuit of wealth and worldly possessions: “…thus is the one storing treasure for himself and (who) is not rich unto God!” (v. 21)
- Prior to Jesus’ parable of the (eschatological) Great Banquet (Lk 14:16-24), he offers instruction that such expense and hospitality should be extended especially to the poor and sick, rather than well-to-do friends and relatives (Lk 14:12-14, also v. 21ff). This, in turn, is preceded by a teaching (also using a Feast illustration) on the importance of humility and self-effacement (Lk 14:7-11). One finds throughout this chapter numerous echoes of the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (cf. also vv. 34-35 [Matt 5:13]).
- The parable of the “Dishonest Manager” (Lk 16:1-9) remains somewhat obscure, but the exemplary behavior of the manager may consist in reducing the bill of the debtors by eliminating his own commission (that is, giving up money which would have come to him, for the sake of future [job] security). If so, then the parable would be illustrative of the same theme (as in the Beatitudes, etc) of temporary deprivation which results in future reward. There is here, too, a connection to the Sermon on the Mount/Plain in the discussion which follows (Lk 16:10-13, cf. verse 13 [= Matt 6:24]).
- Zaccheus is the rare example of a positive rich character in the Gospels (Lk 19:1-10), but it is important to note that emphasis is given to the specific point that he gives away half of his goods to the poor (v. 8). It is not clear whether this means he only now (upon encountering Jesus) begins to do this, or whether this reflects his regular (just/righteous) behavior. His description as a (rich) toll-collector (v. 2) would itself seem to imply the former—such a designation, from the traditional Jewish religious viewpoint, would be enough to mark him as a lost “sinner” (v. 10). Interestingly, the parable of the Minas follows directly (Lk 19:11-27), creating an implicit interpretive connection between that parable and giving away one’s possessions to care for the poor (there is a similar association of themes in Matt 25:14-46).
Two passages are deserving of special note:
- The Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55)—this canticle, attributed to Mary (though a few witnesses read “Elizabeth”), draws upon the language and imagery of the Old Testament and related Jewish literature (see my earlier Advent season note). Verses 51-53, in particular, contrast God’s action toward the rich and mighty with that toward the poor and humble, in a manner very similar to that of Jesus’ teaching in the Lukan Beatitudes & Woes. Note especially verse 53, which is connected syntactically with the clause in v. 52—
52He has taken down the powerful (ones) from their seats and lifted high the lowly (ones);
53the (ones) hungering he has filled up with good (things) and the rich (ones) he has set out (away) from (him) empty.
—this is close in wording and thought with the second Beatitude and Woe (Lk 6:21a, 25a).
- The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). Here we find the nearest approximation to the teaching and conceptual formulation in the Lukan Beatitudes & Woes. The parable contrasts Lazarus (poor, sick and destitute) with the Rich Man (wealthy and well-fed), along with a reversal of their situations in the afterlife (vv. 22-23ff). Lazarus ends up in “Abraham’s bosom” (a paradisial ‘intermediate state’), for no other reason (apparently) than that he was poor and had suffered; similarly, the Rich Man is in Hades for just the opposite reason (see v. 25). There is no indication that Lazarus had lived a particularly righteous life, other than the misery which he had endured. It is just this unqualified identification of poverty and righteousness (with the related association of wealth and wickedness) which, as in the case of the Beatitudes, proves so difficult for interpreters today.
I will continue on with several interpretative guidepoints in the next article.