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3rd Sunday before Lent

03 February 2022

13 February, Jeremiah 17.5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15.12-20; Luke 6.17-26


THIS Gospel is a counterpart to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount; for Luke gives us instead a Sermon on the Plain. Both Evangelists have drawn on similar material, but they use it in ways that highlight their own theological priorities.

For Luke, the coming of Christ is good news for the poor (4.18). Unlike Matthew, he does not spiritualise this poverty (“blessed are the poor in spirit”, Matthew 5.3). The poverty that Luke’s Jesus refers to is straightforwardly material. In the same way, he proclaims a blessing on those who endure actual hunger and thirst rather than a hunger for righteousness (6.21; Matthew 5.6).

Comparison of these two sermons of Jesus is fascinating, but there are plenty of commentaries to help us to explore the details. One element that sometimes gets neglected is worth picking out here. Matthew, the supposedly Jewish Gospel-writer, gives us only beatitudes. But Luke, the Evangelist to the Gentiles, chooses a more traditional prophetic form, by balancing his blessings with “woes”. Matthew mostly saves his “woes” for the scribes and Pharisees in the later part of his Gospel.

Woes are a special category of prophecy. They are found on the lips of prophets, crying out at impending evil or suffering, and they begin with an exclamation of distress: the Hebrew word “’oy”. Even modern versions translate it as “woe”, though no one nowadays uses the word in that way — but then translators have little choice (“Alas”? “Oh dear”?). So “woe” remains in our Bibles, despite sounding archaic. The linguistic jury is out on whether the Yiddish expression “oy veh” (also used for lamenting evils) comes from Hebrew “woe”, or from German (“o weh”).

It is unwise to accept prophetic blessings while ignoring prophetic woes. Both are declarations of the divine mind. Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Plain shows Jesus preaching that the blessings and woes had to be received together. But, when we look closer, we have to modify that picture somewhat.

At first glance, the four blessings are reworked to show their opposite: four woes. But the second and third woes lack the power of the first, being little more than statements that the associated blessings will one day be undone. The fourth strives for a parallel where no true parallel exists: being spoken of in positive terms is not really a woe unless one engineers the (tenuous) connection with false prophets of old.

The first one, in verse 24, does have the full force of a true prophetic woe. In this case, Luke gives voice to powerful conviction, also heard in the extended parable of the rich man and Lazarus (16.19-31). This is where Luke’s theological priorities lie: this is what his Jesus really cares about. We ought to be thinking back to the Gospel of Epiphany 3, especially 4.18: “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.’”

In 1 Corinthians, Paul does not balance weal and woe. Instead, he sets truth against untruth. We could almost say that here is the purest distillation of the gospel; for our whole faith depends upon this one fact. If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is lies. We have even misrepresented God, and our hope is void — and not only our hope, but the hope of loved ones who have already died. If Christ has been raised, however, his resurrection is a “first fruits”. This means the first and freshest of the new harvest, which gives an indicator of the quality of what has not yet been gathered. Christ’s quality should be the guarantee of our own.

If the resurrection were a lie, or a fantasy, we would be trapped in sin, unable to escape. Then, we would deserve pity. The contrast for Paul is between a vigorous, plentiful crop full of goodness, and a failed harvest that yields nothing. Jeremiah and the psalmist both think along the same lines as Paul, although without Paul’s understanding of the resurrection. They see water and strong growth going hand in hand: those who trust in God are fruitful.

That Old Testament view of goodness as a simple reciprocity of goodness between God and mortals provides encouragement. But it is in Paul and Luke that we find the higher mystery, of woe and blessing bound together, which is the life of faith as we experience it every day.

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