May 30, 2016

The Beatitudes are among the most popular and best remembered sections of the New Testament. Many Christians commit them to memory, and they pop up frequently in the liturgy.

Yet, when we say "Beatitudes," we almost invariably mean the nine included in St. Matthew's account of the Sermon on the Mount (5.3-11) - "Blessed are the poor in spirit . . .". The four Beatitudes and four woes in St. Luke's Sermon on the Plain (6.20-26) are rarely considered.

However, if Luke's Gospel was written later and in response to Matthew's account, we have to ask, why did Luke wreck one of Jesus' most beautiful set of teachings? Why would he take something so inspirational and make it so pedestrian?

My response would be that Luke did not wreck them at all. First, his intentions were far different than those of Matthew. Second, Luke's different intentions might well have been closer to those of Jesus than were those of Matthew.

Especially in Luke's Gospel, Jesus did much more than proclaim the Good News; he also walked his talk with acts of prayer and healing.

Especially in Luke's Gospel, Jesus did much more than proclaim the Good News; he also walked his talk with acts of prayer and healing.

Luke's Beatitudes begin, "Blessed are you who are poor . . . , Blessed are you who are hungry now . . . , Blessed are you who weep now . . . , Blessed are you when people hate you . . .".

His woes are exact reversals of the Beatitudes: "Woe to you who are rich, . . . Woe to you who are full now . . . , Woe to you who are laughing now . . . , Woe to you when all speak well of you . . .".

One thing to notice is that Luke writes in the second person - Jesus' sermon is directed to "you" - while Matthew's Beatitudes are in the third person - a description of Christian virtues.

Luke, as I have noted in previous articles, presents Jesus as talking to the community as it is, not as it ideally should be. Jesus, on the plain, speaks face-to-face to the people, not while sitting on top of a mountain. Despite the "woes," there is a lack of judgment in Luke's account; Jesus is making a promise to the community, and he accepts people as they are.

It is worth noting that while Jesus here pronounces woes upon the rich, later in Luke's Gospel he does bring salvation to some who are wealthy - Levi and Zacchaeus, for starters.

Commentator John Drury explains Luke's intentions this way: "The Gospel means joy to some and misery to others. The good news is for the poor . . . not just because they are poor, but because their poverty cries out for something to fill it. The bad news is for the rich, not just because they are rich, but because their lives are satisfactory and they do not want anything else."

The different sets of Beatitudes need to be interpreted in light of the different emphases of the Gospels: Matthew emphasizes moral perfection and judgment while Luke puts the priority on mercy.


Both Gospels, for example, describe Jesus' call to love your enemies. But for Matthew, this is an ethical norm, one which could easily be followed in an insincere and patronizing manner. For Luke, loving one's enemies springs not from obeying an ethical norm but out of gratitude for God's mercy to me, a sinner.

In Matthew's lengthy account of the sermon, Jesus says, "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (7.13-14).

Luke tones down that passage and places it in a different context: "Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able" (13.24).

Context is indeed important. Matthew's Sermon on the Mount runs 111 verses; Luke's Sermon on the Plain is a mere 29. Luke does use some material similar to Matthew's sermon elsewhere in his Gospel, while omitting much, but he intersperses it amidst accounts of Jesus' healings and exorcisms.


If Matthew gives the impression that Jesus issues many instructions, Luke portrays Jesus as integrating preaching, prayer and healing.

Luke writes: "Now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray" (5.15-16).


Luke's Jesus is not a big talker; he is an instrument of the Father's mercy. As such, he has to walk the talk. Performing acts of healing and mercy are inseparable from giving homilies about the poor and the weak.

Luke's account of the Beatitudes is not deficient; it grows out of a much different purpose than that of Matthew, one that Luke is convinced is truer to Jesus' own purposes.