Does Jesus condemn the comforts of the middle-class American life? Some biblical texts seem to suggest so, particularly Luke 6. This is one of those really important questions we get all the time. Today it comes to us from a listener named Lee, from North Carolina.
“Dear Pastor John (and Tony!), I’m a longtime listener of the podcast and want to thank you for giving me ten minutes of spiritual food during hundreds of morning commutes. It has literally changed the course of my days as I drive to work.
“This morning, I was reading through the beatitudes in Luke 6:24–26. They struck me like never before. Verse 24 reads, ‘Woe to you who are rich.’ I am rich by world standards. My wife and I do not live beyond our means, nor do we spend money frivolously; however, we do have good incomes and savings. Verse 25 then says, ‘Woe to you who are full now.’ I have never been truly hungry in my life apart from voluntary hunger. Verse 26 continues, ‘Woe to you who laugh now.’ I have a joyful life and try to laugh frequently.
“Can you put into perspective Jesus’s woes that are seemingly directed right at my life? Could you maybe contrast Luke’s account against Matthews, who says, ‘poor in spirit,’ ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness,’ etc.? I desire the blessings of Luke 6:20–22, but I am not sure how to reconcile all of this with my physical life. Matthew seems more directed to my spiritual life.” Pastor John, what would you say to Lee?
Let the Author Speak
In just a second, I’m going to read the text. Then, in case it’s just not obvious, I’m going to point out what the problem is as we compare Luke’s so-called beatitudes and woes with Matthew’s beatitudes.
“If we are utterly devoted to Christ, no poverty, no hunger, and no weeping can steal our blessedness.”
Let me preface it with a method. I don’t think it’s a good method to try to force similar sayings in two different Gospels to mean exactly the same thing. Jesus spoke similar truths in many different settings, and he meant different things by them. He did not mean contradictory things, but different things.
My approach, and I think it’s wise and honoring to the inspired writers, is that we let each Gospel writer report what he knows in a way that makes clear a particular meaning about those truths rather than saying, “Well, Luke has to mean what Matthew meant,” or, “Matthew has to mean what Luke meant.” No, that’s not the case. They don’t contradict each other, but they might be different — significantly different. In this case, they are significantly different.
Everybody knows Matthew’s beatitudes. They are really familiar.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (Matthew 5:3–4)
Here’s Luke’s version:
He lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:20–26)
This is one of the classic places where Jesus speaks in a sweeping and extreme way and leaves you gasping, wondering if he could possibly mean what he seems to say in such a sweeping and seemingly unqualified way.
For example, he said, “Blessed are the poor” — no qualifications. “Blessed are the hungry now” — no qualifications. “Blessed are the weeping now” — no qualifications. “Woe to you rich,” which is the opposite of poor — no qualifications. “Woe to those who are full,” which is the opposite of hungry — no qualifications. “Woe to those who laugh” (just laugh!) — no qualifications. What in the world do we make of this?
Looking for Clues
We can really wonder, saying, “Well, if there are no qualifications, then the wicked poor and the wicked hungry and the wicked laughing will all be blessed by God. If there really are no qualifications, then there are no godly rich, and everyone with a full stomach or who laughs at a baby’s giggle is cursed.”
“We need to look very carefully for clues in the context. We need to stare until we see them.”
Now, I think our approach should not be first to say, “Well, he just can’t mean that,” and call it exaggeration or a literary device or something like that. Rather, I think we should look for clues in the context. Look very carefully. We need to stare until we see them. He expects us to find these so that we can know there are qualifications.
Not all the poor are blessed. Not all the weeping are blessed. Not all those with a full stomach are cursed. Not everyone who laughs is under judgment. How do we know that? How can we avoid the accusation that says, “There you go, laying your predisposition, Piper, on top of the text, and won’t let it say what it wants to say.” Well, I hope not.
Unlocking the Clue
Here’s the clue. Jesus says in Luke 6:22–23 that when people hate you on account of the Son of Man, you should rejoice on that day and leap for joy. Picture yourself leaping for joy. What does it sound like out of your mouth? There’s laughter and shouting.
Jesus is saying loud and clear that in this age, there is a time and a place and a circumstance for great rejoicing and leaping for joy. It’s not the place that the world expects. But there is a real time and real place for much joyful leaping and laughing — namely, when you are persecuted for the Son of Man.
When we get to Luke 6:25 and see that it says, “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep,” we know he must mean a kind of laughing that isn’t the same kind as the joy and the leaping that he commanded in Luke 6:22. Jesus doesn’t speak out of both sides of his mouth. He’s not confused. He’s not schizophrenic. When he says, “Leap for joy” and then condemns laughter, we know one of them is different than the other. There’s a distinction being made. That’s the clue — at least one — that he wants us to pick up. There are others.
Applying the Clue
We should apply the same thing to the poor and the rich. Is it all poor just like is it all laughter? No, it’s not all poor, just like it was not all laughter. All the rich are not condemned just like all laughter is not wrong.
“If we are not devoted to the Son of Man, no riches, no fullness, and no laughter can keep us from condemnation.”
Each one we pick up on and apply the same clue that we saw with regard to laughter. What’s the key that makes some laughter blessed and some woeful? The contextual answer is, Are you laughing or leaping on account of the Son of Man? That’s the criterion for the first command for joy. Joy is right when it is done in response to living according to the Son of Man.
Is your poverty an expression of your devotion to the Son of Man? Is your hunger an expression of your love for and devotion to and following of the Son of Man? Are your riches owing to indifference to the teachings of the Son of Man? If so, you’re under a woe. Is the fullness of your stomach evidence that you are for or against the Son of Man?
Devoted to Christ
My answer to Lee’s question is this. Jesus has given us clues in Luke’s text to keep us from treating these beatitudes and curses in an unqualified way. Poverty and riches, hunger and fullness, weeping and laughter may be signs of blessedness, or they may be signs of condemnation, depending on how they relate to our devotion to Jesus.
If we are utterly devoted to him, no poverty, no hunger, and no weeping can steal our blessedness. I think that’s what he means by the blessings. If you’re my disciple, and you are acting in accord with your love for the Son of Man, you may be poor, you may be hungry, you may be weeping, but you are blessed. If we are not devoted to him, not following the Son of Man, no riches, no fullness, and no laughter can keep us from condemnation.