Luke understood Jesus to be a prophet. Matthew’s Jesus had come to teach, Mark’s was on a rescue mission, John’s was a priest uniting heaven and earth; but Luke’s Jesus came from God to teach humanity true discernment of the good.
‘Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!’ (Lk 6:23)
Do you carry around any false notions of righteousness?
How can you let the Gospel challenge those?
How can your voice be one that challenges others?
This understanding explains the literary motif of the “great reversal” to which Luke comes back again and again. In his illustrations of this trope, Luke confronts his readers with the passing character of human social hierarchies. Categories like rich and poor, powerful and weak are not essential to God’s plan and are often quite the opposite of what God has intended.
The Beatitudes and woes in this Sunday’s Gospel starkly illustrate this point. Beatitudes have a special meaning in biblical theology. In almost every case, when the Bible proclaims someone “blessed,” it is speaking of someone whose life is right in the eyes of God. Jeremiah makes that point quite explicitly in this Sunday’s first reading, proclaiming, in effect, “Right in the eyes of God is the one who trusts in the LORD.”
Every culture develops false notions of righteousness; in this the world of first-century Judaism is not different from that of 21st-century Christianity. In Jesus’ culture many assumed that wealth, prosperity, happiness and social inclusion were signs that a person’s life was right in the eyes of God. Luke made sure his readers knew that Jesus called this “trash theology.” Poverty, hunger, grief and exclusion are not signs of the absence of God’s love.
By contrast, Luke’s Jesus insists, you rich might have a problem: Where did your money come from? Likewise, you who are satiated and fat: Who grew your food? Who brought it to you and prepared it for you? Did they have enough to eat? You who laugh now, look around you! Do you think God is as entertained as you are by the world you have built? And you whom everyone loves, what has happened to others who have shared similar fame? God does not see with human eyes, so call happy only those who live according to divine instruction.
Hebrew prophets often reminded people that God uses very different standards to judge what is good and evil, happy and woebegone. In addition to this Sunday’s first reading, in which Jeremiah encourages Israel to trust in piety instead of military strength, such sermons can be found in passages like Am 4:1-5 and Ez 34:11-16. The sermon Luke records in Lk 6:20-26 reminds his listeners that Jesus is the inheritor of this prophetic tradition and that in him it reaches its fulfillment.
Christ’s disciples must continue this tradition. Twenty-first-century society has a nearly inexhaustible supply of false righteousness against which to inveigh. Woe to you well-educated, for you will find no work. And woe to you who lead sheltered lives, for you will not see Christ arrive among the outcasts. But happy you high-school dropouts; someday you will achieve your goals. Happy you drug addicts, someday you will be clean. Happy you migrants and refugees and you who have no place to call home. Rejoice and leap, for you will recognize the Son of Man, who when he came also found no place to lay his head.