Sunday, June 28, 2015

On New Martyrdom


From the beginning, our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to a radical way of life – to a life rooted in the Gospel and striking – as with an axe – at the roots of evil in our hearts. Not always to ease and to comfort – but first to the cross. Our resurrection to eternal life where there is no pain, sorrow, nor mourning is attained only through suffering, and death, and the cross. “Take up your cross and follow me” Jesus teaches. And for most of us this possible only as a metaphor. But for many of those to whom he first spoke these words they were terribly, literally true. Andrew was crucified, and Peter, and Philip. They were literally crucified – bound or nailed to crosses and left to die in agony and ignominy.

Amazingly, this did not end at the close of the apostolic age. It is a kind of martyrdom suffered even in recent times. Tomorrow we commemorate the apostle Peter, who died this way, and the day after that we commemorate Fr. Zenon Kovalyk who, in 1941, was tortured and murdered in a mock crucifixion against a wall in a prison in Lviv. Fr. Zenon preached according to his conscience. Even when he had been warned that his sermons were likely to provoke the Bolsheviks, he preached on. And for that they arrested him and locked him in a prison that, poignantly, had formerly been a monastery. And not long after, they crucified him. So, the events of the apostolic age are not so remote from our age as we might imagine. Fr. Zenon of the twentieth century, like Peter of the first, knows fully what Jesus means when he says to take up the cross.

For centuries the early Church endured terrible, periodic persecutions. For their faith, the martyrs suffered unspeakable tortures and deaths. And their blood was the wellspring of the Church. From their blood sprouted new life all the time – conversions to Christ left and right. Those who witnessed the martyrs’ courage – how easily, how blithely, they gave up this passing life in exchange for the life that lasts in Christ Jesus – how – almost nonchalantly – they turned themselves over to wild beasts, to the torturers, to fire, to freezing, to drowning, to crucifixion in order to gain the one thing that matters then as now – union with God in Christ Jesus – even in his death. Those who witnessed this were so moved that in more than one instance, they too gave themselves over to Christ and joined the martyrs in death. That is a great purpose of martyrdom – to give witness. The word “martyr” means “witness.” There is no greater evangelism – no better way to testify the good news that Christ is risen and by death has trampled death  than the small account the martyrs give death. For what is it to suffer death if there is in Christ a resurrection to eternal life? The martyrs are like the merchant who sells all he has in order to go and buy the pearl of great price. They know that he who does not take up his cross and follow Christ is not worthy of Christ (Matt 10:38).

Eventually, through the witness of the early martyrs, so many came into the Church that the persecutions became less frequent and Christianity became the religion of the empire. And so it was no longer quite so courageous to claim faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, in many cases, it became socially or politically advantageous to profess Christianity, and there were many insincere conversions. The toleration of Christianity came as a mixed blessing, therefore. And still, Christ was calling his people to a radical way of life – to a renunciation of the things of this world – but this could no longer be commonly expressed by the red martyrdom of blood.

And so there was the rise of monasticism. Beginning, in many ways, with St. Anthony the Great, men and women in significant numbers began to go to the desert and to live ascetical lives devoted to the Lord. Though yet alive on earth, they lived as though they had already died. And so there is a connection between martyrdom and monasticism. Both are radical, both a kind of death, both are eschatological – they give witness to the life of the coming kingdom of God.  

The Church was so long allied with state power that many, at least in the West, which was somewhat more insulated from Islamic persecutions, must have thought that the age of Christian martyrs was gone. But in the twentieth century, the enemies of Christ would spill more Christian blood than had been spilled in all the centuries before. And just as martyrdom had centuries before led to monasticism, so would monasticism for many now lead to martyrdom.

A case in point is to be found in the Byantine Catholic Church. Today we commemorate two holy and venerable new martyrs, Fr Severian Baranyk and Fr Yakym Senkivskyi. These holy men both embraced a monastic life in the Basilian monastery in Drohobych. And for both, their monasticism would lead to their martyrdom in 1941.

For a long time before this, the Church was relatively comfortable and free from persecution in Ukraine and in that part of the world. But the radical commitment to Christ lived on, among other places, in the monasteries, where it is still always possible to give up your whole life to Christ as a witness to his gospel.

Here in the monastery the courage of the martyrs was lying in wait for the enemy to come and to crucify. The people of Christ had not abandoned Christ’s message. Still they clung to his cross and to their own. And so when the enemy came, they were ready.

Frs. Severian and Yakym would exchange their cells in Drohobych monastery for cells in Drohobych prison. They, together with the many other martyrs of our Church  commemorated this week, such as Fr. Zenon, about whom I’ve spoken, serve as models for us of the greatest love, of radical commitment to Christ and to His Church in the face of adversity from the worldly powers that be.

Before they died for Christ, they lived for him. Fr. Severian, Hegumen of the monastery in Drohobych, was known for his habitual joy and for his work with the young people and orphans. Fr. Yakym, Proto-Hegumen of the same monastery, had devoted himself first to theology and then to many years of pastoral work. He was gifted and he ministered both to scholars and to laborers, both to young and to old, with warmth and humility.  These two really ordinary and holy men of God were arrested on the same day in June of 1941 and taken to the prison in Drohobych. Fr. Severian was tortured to death. His body was broken and on his chest the cross was cut . Fr. Yakym was boiled to death in a cauldron.

One might expect that, in the face of such atrocities, the Christians would learn not to stick out their necks. Not so. As soon as Frs. Severian and Yakym were arrested, a Fr. Vitaliy Bairak was appointed Hegumen of Drohobych Monastery. And he bravely stepped up to the post only to face the same consequence four years later. He was arrested and beaten to death in prison. Just as in the age of the early martyrs, the courage of the martyrs inspired others to join them.

There are lessons for us in all of this. It is essential that we establish, support, and maintain monastic life in our Churches. It provides for us a model and preparation for martyrdom even when we are not enduring persecutions of such magnitude. I hope and pray that we do not face tortures and slaughters as did the many new martyrs we celebrate this week, but we must always be prepared even for that. To this end, the ascetic practices of monastic life can and must be incorporated in our own lives to a certain extent, such as by our participation in th fasts - including the Apostles' Fast, which we are not concluding. We must maintain the spirit of willingness even to die for Christ, because unless we take up our cross and follow him, we will not be worthy of him. Unless we go even to death in Christ, we cannot ultimately live in Christ.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Relative Worth of Flowers to Gold

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Matt 6:28-29)

Jesus’ immediate message with these words is clear enough, I think. Stop worrying! Rest in the Lord. Who of you by worrying can add to your life? (6:27) Food, clothing, shelter – to say nothing of comfort, television, and fast cars – all these are in the Lord’s gift. Really, it is the Lord who provides for us in any case. We are all, each of us, everywhere, and at all times in the hands of the Lord – no matter how much control we feign to have over our lives. So, let go. Trust. Be at peace. This is simple. And it is difficult.

But if we are not familiar with Scripture, I think we miss some of Jesus’ meaning.

The glory with which Solomon was clothed was nothing to sneeze at. According to the first book of Kings, “The weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was six hundred and sixty-six talents of gold” (1 Kings 10:14). That is almost fifty thousand pounds of gold. In today’s terms, he brought in almost four hundred forty million dollars a year – just in gold. He had so much gold, that with the excess, he had hundreds of shields made of beaten gold. Besides the gold, he was wealthy in silver, precious stones, ivory, garments, myrrh, spices, horses, mules, apes, and peacocks (1 Kings 10: 10, 22, 25).


Solomon upon this Throne
from  frontispiece to the Song of Songs 
in the Tripartite Mahzor manuscript, 1320
He sat upon “a great ivory throne… overlaid with the finest gold.... At the back of the throne was a calf’s head."  There were twelve lions arrayed on each end of six steps leading up to the throne. "The like of it was never made in any kingdom. All king Solomon’s drinking vessels were of gold… none were of silver, [because silver] was not considered as anything in the days of Solomon. King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom” (1 Kings 10:18-21, 23).

I think it is important to bear all this in mind when we hear Jesus say that Solomon in all his glory was not clothed so gloriously as is… a lily.  Clearly, not as the world judges glory does Jesus judge glory. Now a lily is wonderful. It’s my favorite flower, and flowers are indeed glorious creatures of God. Regarding these, Jerome waxes poetic:
“For, in sooth, what regal purple, what silk, what web of divers colours from the loom, may vie with flowers? What work of man has the red blush of the rose? the pure white of the lily? How the Tyrian dye yields to the violet, sight alone and not words can express.” 
Such poetry may do little, however, to convince worldly men of the relative worth of flowers to gold. After all, they reason, a small bit of gold buys many flowers. Yet the Lord Jesus – by calling flowers more gloriously clothed than Solomon – has disparaged gold, and silver, and precious stones. He accounts material wealth of little worth, which hearkens back to an earlier point in his sermon: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt 6:24).

Now what is mammon? Some of the Fathers suggest that mammon is a name of a demon of greed or even of “the Devil, who is the lord of money.” But the word mammon simply means riches, treasure, wealth, or possessions. It is money – sometimes in a personified sense: the almighty dollar, the golden calf. We cannot serve God and money. This doesn’t mean that it’s bad in and of itself to have wealth – but it means that we must not live our lives with money as our master. The acquisition of more and more money as an end in itself must never become the purpose of our daily labors. “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10).

Notice that Jesus does not say that we can serve mammon, provided that we serve God first. He says that we can’t serve God and mammon – we can’t serve mammon at all if we are to serve God. On the contrary, our mammon is to be put into the service of God – and not just some of it – but all of it. Not just ten percent of it. As a friend of mine says, ten percent is a bad tip. One hundred percent of our money belongs to God.

The discipline of tithing is good and important, but we misunderstand if we think that it means that a tenth of our money belongs to God and we get to keep the rest to do with as we please. All of our money is for God. All of it. None of our goods are ours alone. We are the stewards and not the masters of what God has given us – and it is all to be used for the glory of his name.

I don’t believe this means that it is wrong to spend money moderately on entertainments, for example. I think it’s okay to go to the movies or to eat out or to buy art, because I believe that God wants us to enjoy the life he has given us and that this too can give glory to God, if by this means we take delight in God’s creation and if we also remember to give him thanks for every good thing. But I do believe that we need to be conscious of how we use what God has given us and always prayerfully seek God’s intentions for whatever wealth we have.

We must ask, Is God calling me to embrace poverty or to give all that I have to the poor and needy? He does that, you know. Or, how is he calling me to use my wealth? Whatever we have, he is to thank for it and he has his purpose for it. Serve God and not mammon and then you shall have nothing to fear.

The Lord’s point about anxiety – that we ought not to worry about food or clothing or the like – and his point about money – that we cannot be devoted both to money and to God – are intimately bound up together. When we worry, what do we most often worry about? Well, speaking for myself, I worry about money – and I don’t think I’m alone. The way out is to give it all to God – to remember that it is all his anyway and to seek to use all that we’ve been given for the glory of God and not our own glory apart from God – for the glory of God’s creatures who utterly depend on him is greater by far than the glory of any amassed human wealth.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Power of the Word

from the Bedford Hours, Paris, 1414-1423

At one time, the whole earth had one language and few words. And at this time on a plain in the land of Shinar men made bricks and mortar, with which they made to build themselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, so as to make a name for themselves.

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have one language; and nothing will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another." So the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel (Gen 11:1-9).

Now some believe this story is just an etiology – an explanation of why there are so many languages – plain and simple – and that there is nothing else to it. But I believe it means something more for us – and that it has much to do with today’s feast of Pentecost. Today’s Kontakion refers to Babel when we sing, “When the high most descended and confused tongues, he scattered nations.”

The people of Babel were greatly powerful. Nothing would have been impossible for them  the Lord himself says so. They were so powerful because they had the power of the word – they all spoke one language. Remember that it was by the power of the word that God created the heavens and the earth. And now what did humans propose to do with the power of the word that God had given them? (Remember that they could have done anything – nothing would be impossible for them.) They sought not to give glory to God but to make a name for themselves. They sought to build a vain thing. By the word, God created the heavens and the earth, and by the word, the people in Shinar tried to reach the heavens from the earth with their tower to give glory to themselves and to equate themselves with God. 

This tower of Babel brings to my mind the secular humanism growing ever more prevalent in our time, which glorifies humans and regards humanity apart from God as the highest good. This tower is not the way for man to enter heaven – by an act of vanity and hubris – by a work bent on self-glorification rather than the glory of God. And so the Lord removed from among the people the power of the word he had given them.

But not forever. The word comes back to earth from heaven in a new and better way when the word becomes flesh and dwells among us. And this time the power of the word would bring human nature from earth to heaven in the proper way – not by seeking to make a name for himself, but by the supreme act of self-sacrificial love and for the glory of God his Father.  The Word of God who is God does not lift humanity up to heaven by building a tower to human glory apart from God, but becomes human and unites the earthly with the heavenly in himself by laying down his life for us, rising from the dead, and ascending up in glory. 

The Word is first lifted up from the earth not in a tower but on a cross. Then, not content to unite only the living with God, the word descends into the place of the dead, and then, (forty days ago) rises from dead, and then (ten days ago) ascends in glory - finally bringing our human nature to the right hand of the Father in heaven. But even this does not complete his salvific work for us. 

Speaking of his coming ascension, the Lord Jesus says to his disciples, “It is to your advantage that I go away. If I do not go away, the Paraklete – the Comforter – will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you…. [and] When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16: 7, 13)

The Lord says it is better for him to go away, but it doesn’t feel that way, does it? Don’t many of us long to live in the time of Jesus, to see him face to face, and to hear his voice?

We feel a sense of loss – a kind of sadness on Ascension Thursday. Our Lord has left us staring at the sky. But he says that it is better for him to go so that the Spirit can come. This is hard for us to believe: that this age in which we live – which is the age of the Church  the Pentecostal age – the enspirited age – is somehow better than the time of Christ. How often we long to be with Jesus in the flesh. But this is because we have so little faith that we are with him in the flesh  that the Spirit makes him present to us in the flesh in the Eucharist and in our neighbor. We don’t always believe what Jesus said: that whatever we do to the least of his brethren, that we do unto him. If we did, we would see how it can be that this – even this vale of tears – is the better time: the time of the Lord. We would see that the Lord is with us. He has not abandoned us. He has sent us his Holy Spirit. 


12th century cloisonne enamel on gold
The State Museum of Fine Arts of Georgia
This is what happened on Pentecost: We were given again the power of the word. The Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles like tongues of fire, which represent the gift of the ability to speak and preach in many tongues so that all the people from all the nations, who had been scattered at Babel, could hear in their own tongues the Gospel that the Word has become flesh, was crucified, died and was buried, rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father. In this way, the Lord lifted the curse of Babel. He restored to his people the power of the word – and with that, nothing shall be impossible for us. "When the Most High descended and confused tongues, he scattered nations. When He distributed the tongues of fire, He called all to unity." 

The Lord lifts curses in unexpected ways – not in the way we would. He doesn’t simply reverse the bad things in our lives. He brings us through them to a still greater good. He doesn’t restore to us the immortal life of the Garden of Eden. No, he gives a better way to live forever through death and resurrection in union with him.  

And he doesn’t restore to the world a single language so that we could all understand each other. No, this was not a restoration to one language, but an inspiration of many. This was a calling not merely to civic unity, but to spiritual unity. The Most High doesn’t just restore us – he brings us to a new and better life. The diverse tongues given at Pentecost are still better than the universal language enjoyed before Babel. In their manifold variety, they more fully express the majesty of God. With many voices it is possible to make harmony. 

This reminds me of the many rites and traditions through which the Holy Spirit has revealed the Gospel to the many cultures of the world. The Holy Spirit does not inspire a monolithic church, but a church rich and full of various complementary gifts. Not to all are all gifts given, but to each his or her own gift, for the glory of God.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015

On the Man Born Blind

Healing of the man born blind
from Codex Egberti, Fol 50, between  980 and 993 A.D.
Jesus spit upon the ground, made mud, and spread the mud on the eyes of a man born blind (John 9). How peculiar! – even, by today’s customs, vaguely disgusting. And also in Jesus’ time and place, spitting was not considered a complementary act. In the Torah, spitting on someone is a mark of shame (Num 12:14; Deut 25:9) and in Job spitting signifies derision and disdain (17:6, 30:10). But Jesus is not bound by our etiquette. He who will heal on the Sabbath will surely go against the grain in a lesser matter.

Still, why would Jesus do this? It’s not the expected reaction to seeing a blind man. Jesus doesn’t even speak to the man first, He just sees the blind man, speaks with his disciples about him then immediately spits on the ground and spreads the mud on the man’s eyes. If one of us were to try this, we would likely be accosted or arrested for abusing the disabled – (unless and until, I suppose, we had thus restored sight to blind). Seemingly, this is not the only way that Jesus could heal this man. Often, he heals by his word alone. For example, according to Luke, a blind man near Jericho calls out to Jesus, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" And they speak. And Jesus says to him, "Receive your sight; your faith has made you well." And immediately he receives his sight and follows him, glorifying God” (Luke 18:38, 42-43a). In this account, Jesus does not touch the man at all. Rather, He heals by the creative power of his word. Jesus says “be healed” and we are healed.

This calls to my mind the creation of the world, because God creates by the power of his word. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1). God says, “Let there be light” and there is light. And everything of which he says “let it be” has being – by the power of his word. He says, “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness.” And, by the power of his word, God thus creates humanity, male and female, in his image, which the blind cannot see.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God… and the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus Christ is the word present at creation. And through him the Father creates. As we say in the creed, “I believe… in one Lord Jesus Christ… through whom all things are made.”

So, God creates by his word, and he recreates by his word.

Giving sight to a man born blind is not simply an act of healing, it is an act of creation! – because it is the giving of a new gift – not the restoration of a lost gift. We might say that Jesus creates sight for the man born blind rather than that he “heals” him. Jesus is our creator and our re-creator. He makes all things and he makes all things new – as he does today for the man born blind, so he does for us.  

But for the man born blind, he doesn’t create simply by the power of the word, does he? No, first he spits upon the ground, makes mud, spreads it on the man’s eyes and sends him to wash in the pool named Siloam, which means “sent,” or, “one who is sent”.

This also recalls the creation of man, which is at least one reason why Jesus uses mud. Remember that our father Adam is made of the earth. His name means “dust man.” In Genesis 2, “The Lord God formed a man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” We are earth with God breathed in. Which quickly becomes clear when we die – because when that breath leaves us, a bit of earth is all that remains. As the Lord says, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). Our bodies are earth mixed with water. So the mud that Jesus makes reflects his process of creation. It is earth mixed with the living water from the mouth of God, used to create sight for the man born blind.

Ambrose writes of this miracle, “The only reason for his mixing clay with the spittle and smearing it on the eyes of the blind man was to remind you that he who restored the man to health by anointing his eyes with clay is the very one who fashioned the first man out of clay” (Letter 80. 1-5: PL 16, 1326-1327). So, by this action, he shows himself to be our creator as well as our healer.

We owe our lives to Jesus. He creates us! And he sustains us in being. When we are broken, he restores us. When we sin and by his grace we repent, he forgives us. When we fall, he lifts us up. When we are sick, he heals us. When we die, he raises us from the dead.

His means of creation and recreation and healing are manifold. He is the source of our lives and he is in our lives at every step – notably punctuated by the holy mysteries.

There is something strongly sacramental about Jesus’ healing of the man born blind. In the sacraments, God works through his creatures – through men and women, through oil and water, through bread and wine – through these his simple creations, God unites us to himself. We are healed. We partake of the divine nature. Though the sacraments do not limit God and he can reach out to us at any time, through anyone, by any means. As, for example, he reached out to the man born blind through spit, through mud, and through the water of Siloam. Ambrose says that this action symbolizes baptism.

The water of the pool, the cleansing and the healing that it brings, especially evokes baptism. Have you noticed all the water in the gospels of the Paschal Sundays? This is no accident. The Paralytic Man was healed by the water of the sheep pool. The Samaritan woman receives the living water by the well of Jacob. And today, Jesus gives sight to the Man born blind through water of Siloam. All of these images evoke Baptism.

Ambrose writes of today’s Gospel, “this clay that is our flesh can receive the light of eternal life through the sacrament of baptism. You, too, should come to Siloam, that is, to him who was sent by the Father (as he says in the gospel, My teaching is not my own, it comes from him who sent me). Let Christ wash you and you will then see” (ibid.). 

We are recreated and united to Christ – through whom we are created – by baptism. We must not forget that even the unbaptized are his creatures. He is the creator of the cosmos. He creates every person. He creates our families and our friends, he also creates our enemies. I think we sometimes forget this - and that his creation is very good. But then, by baptism, he recreates us. That which sin damaged in us is restored – that is we no more shall die – though we die, we shall live, for Christ is risen!  


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Mount and Plain


Luke and Matthew each present a different setting for Jesus’ preaching of the beatitudes. In Luke, Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Plain, while in Matthew, he preaches the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 16:17; Matt 5:1). Both evangelists are careful to describe the terrain upon which Jesus delivers this sermon:

Luke 6:17, 20a

And he came down with them
and stood on a level place,
with a great crowd of his disciples
and a great multitude of people….
And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples,
and said….
Matt 5:1-2

Seeing the crowds, he went up
on the mountain,
and when he sat down his disciples came to him.

And he opened his mouth and taught them,
saying….

Each evangelist presents the sermon beginning with a listing of beatitudes in a different setting and according to his distinct perspective. These two scenes present contrasts that are worth examining. In Matthew, Jesus goes away from the crowds; in Luke, he remains among them. In Matthew, Jesus teaches from a high place; in Luke, he teaches from below. Matthew’s setting atop a mountain echoes the giving of the Mosaic law – does Luke see Jesus as a lawgiver? Luke’s setting places Jesus among the people, which effectively emphasizes Jesus' humanity – does Matthew make Jesus seem more remote or emphasize his divinity?
These two pericopes may retell the same sermon or there is the possibility that these are two separate but similar sermons.  This post considers differences of theme and emphasis between them. The differences between these accounts invite the question: What distinct understanding of the gospel does each evangelist convey with his distinct setting? Each setting effectively symbolizes the perspective more explicitly expressed in the subsequent beatitudes. The “level place” of Luke fittingly represents his more egalitarian and immanent, earthly vision, while “the mountain” of Matthew fittingly represents his more spiritual and transcendent, heavenly emphasis. Each evangelist’s presentation of the beatitudes reinforces what his setting symbolically implies. Are Matthew and Luke contradictory or complementary in their understanding of Jesus’ message as they present it in these passages? Does the tension between these two visions of Jesus’ message offer a problem or an opportunity for those who would follow Jesus? 
The Markan Spine
The setting for the sermon has its foundation in Mark (3:13).

Mark 3:13-14

And he went up
on the mountain,


and called to him those whom he desired; and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach
Luke 6:12-13

In these days he went out
to the mountain to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when it was day,
he called his disciples,

and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles;
Matt 5:1-2

Seeing the crowds, he went up
on the mountain, and when he sat down

his disciples came to him.




Mark contains neither beatitudes nor sermon of any kind at this point, but he does provide the stage upon which both Luke and Matthew have Jesus preach this sermon. Luke remains closer to the Markan spine, keeping the appointing of the twelve on the mountain and having Jesus come down from the mountain in order to preach his sermon “on a level place.” Matthew moves the appointing of the twelve to later in his gospel (10:1-5), which enables him to use the mountain as the setting for Jesus’ sermon. Their mutual dependence on the Markan spine further associates the two versions of this sermon and justifies a close comparison between them. “The [Sermons] are located at about the same place in both Gospels, and in both they are surrounded by a similar narrative framework” – part of which is the setting provided by Mark (Betz 43).[1]
The Mount
Scripturally, there is a symbolic meaning of the mountain as a high place from which to preach with authority, which comes from God. “For Matthew, mountains (especially in 5:1) represent places of revelation, akin to Sinai or Zion” (Baxter 29). The Old Testament frequently refers to God himself as “Most High” or “God on High” (Ēl ʿElyōn, e.g. Gen 14:20; Ps 9:2) and depicts high places and mountains as places of encountering God (e.g. Ps. 121:1). Preeminent among such images is Mount Sinai, upon which God revealed the Torah to Moses (Ex 19-24). The parallels of Jesus with Moses are evident in Matthew, which contains five great discourses, which “may be intended to recall the five books of the Torah” (Duling 1858). Just as Moses received the law on the mountain, so does Jesus fulfill the law on the mountain with his Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matt 5:17). In Matthew, Jesus sits atop a mountain preaching and directing those who listen beneath him.
 To whom does Jesus preach in Matthew? “Great crowds followed [Jesus]…. Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain” (Matt 4:25 – 5:1). The simple meaning of these words alone would seem to indicate that Jesus went up the mountain to get away from the people.[2] At first, he did get away from the great crowds because, apparently, only “his disciples,” and not the whole crowd, came to him (Matt 5:1). For this reason, Raymond Brown suggests, “Matt’s Sermon on the Mount… was directed to the Twelve” (239) and Edmund K. Neufeld observes that these “opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount have much clearer connection to the disciples than to the crowds” (272). However, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew reveals that, in fact, the “crowds” – and not just the Twelve – heard Jesus’ sayings and “were astonished at his teaching” (7:28). This is an apparent incongruity. Perhaps the idea is that, as Jesus preached his sermon to the Twelve, the crowds he had withdrawn from formed again to overhear what they could.
Neufeld suggests an interesting interpretation: “It is probably best to understand the setting to imply concentric circles, disciples on the inside and crowds behind them but also listening” (272-273). Clearly, Jesus removes himself from among the crowds to deliver this sermon in Matthew (5:1). This may indicate a more hierarchical sensibility in Matthew. Not all the message is for all the people. The inner circle of disciples has greater access to his teachings than do the outer throngs. For Matthew, the mountain may signify a hierarchy of revelation: Jesus “went up the mountain,” so he is the very source of revelation; “his disciples came to him,” so they are closest to him, and Jesus “went up” from “the crowds,” yet they too are listening to the things that Jesus says (5:1; 7:28).


The Plain
In Luke, Jesus goes up the mountain not to preach, but to pray and to appoint the twelve (6:12-13).[3] “Mountains in Luke seem to function (though not exclusively) as places of prayer (cf. 6:12; 9:28; 22:39-45)” (Baxter 29). After Jesus prays atop the mountain and appoints the twelve, he then comes down to “a level place” to be among the crowds to preach this sermon (Luke 6:17).
The symbolic significance of plains in scripture is less well established than that of mountains, but Luke is aware of an interesting idea about level places in scripture:

As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth (Luke 3:4-5; cf. Is 40:3-4; Matt 3:3; Mark 1:3; John 1:23).

The actual passage in Isaiah even more explicitly describes a level place: “the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (Is 40:4b). This passage in Isaiah describes the coming revelation of “the glory of the Lord” (Is 40:5), which brings “comfort” (40:1), pardon, and peace to Jerusalem (40:2). All four canonical gospels quote Isaiah 40:3, but only Luke continues the quote to include the filling of valleys and the lowering of mountains (Is 40:4), so he is certainly familiar with this significant meaning of a level place (Luke 4:5). It is uncertain whether Luke directly intends for the level place where Jesus preaches his beatitudes to refer directly to this idea in Isaiah, but it is an exciting possibility, and it is thematically plausible because Jesus, who reveals the kingdom of God, goes on to offer comfort to those who are afflicted by his preaching of the beatitudes. 
Even though Jesus preaches on a plain and not a mountain in Luke, and the parallels between Jesus and Moses are less evident in Luke than in Matthew, in at least one thing Luke presents Jesus as more similar to Moses than does Matthew. Moses went up the mountain alone to meet with God,[4] not with the people of Israel,[5] and he brought the Lord’s messages down with him and gave them to the people.[6] In Luke, Jesus goes up the mountain and prays – communicating with God, his Father. Then, he comes down and gives the people his teaching. It is possible, then, that Luke also sees Jesus here as a lawgiver in the tradition of Moses.
To whom does Jesus preach in Luke? He preaches to “a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon” (Luke 6:17). Here there is no clear distinction between the crowd and the disciples, as there is in Matthew. Jesus addresses the beatitudes to “his disciples” (Luke 6:20), just as he does in Matthew (5:1), but in Luke the great crowd is “of his disciples.” This presents a more egalitarian vision than Matthew’s more strongly implied hierarchy. 
The Sermon
Both the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain begin with beatitudes. Matthew and Luke present these beatitudes differently, and these differences more explicitly bear out the differences already symbolically implied by the difference in setting. The beatitudes themselves further illuminate the two evangelists’ reasons for the settings they chose.
Luke’s version of the beatitudes has fewer additions than Matthew’s does. Luke’s beatitudes are fewer – four instead of eight – and generally shorter. Because it is more likely that one would add to a text than take away, especially if altering the text to give it a certain emphasis, Luke’s beatitudes are likely closer to the original source (Q).[7]

Matthew 5:3 – 5:12

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger
and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when men

revile you
and persecute you and utter all kinds of
evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for
your reward is great in heaven,
for so men persecuted the prophets
who were before you.
Luke 6:20b-23

"Blessed are you poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.




"Blessed are you that hunger now,

for you shall be satisfied.
"Blessed are you that weep now,
for you shall laugh.







"Blessed are you when men
hate you, and when they exclude you and
revile you,
and cast out 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.




There is, however, in the case of the Sermon on the Plain, a significant Lucan addition: the woes. These four woes are the converse of the four beatitudes that he lists.

Luke 6:20b-23

"Blessed are you poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
"Blessed are you that hunger now,
for you shall be satisfied.
"Blessed are you that weep now,
for you shall laugh.
"Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out 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.
Luke 6:24-26

"But woe to you that are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
"Woe to you that are full now,
for you shall hunger.
"Woe to you that laugh now,
for you shall mourn and weep.
"Woe to you, when all men speak well of you,




for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

For instance, he says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20), and then later, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24). This formula repeats for the remaining three beatitudes. It serves to reiterate Luke’s particular emphasis on certain concrete virtues. According to the Sermon on the Plain, the poor, hungry, mournful, and persecuted are blessed. Yet, those who are rich, full, jubilant, and praised are woeful. These are not so much attitudes Luke is pointing out, they are tangible circumstances, and he strengthens their physicality by providing the tension between the blessings and the woes.
Matthew takes emphasis away from poverty as a blessed state throughout his gospel.[8] In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew lists more beatitudes, all intangibles, and shifts the emphasis on tangibles in the others. Matthew’s Christ points out not that people are to be poor, but poor in spirit, not hungry, but hungry and thirsty for righteousness. “It is likely that Matt has added [these] spiritualizing phrases” (Brown 178). For Matthew, one should be poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungry for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking, and persecuted. He gives no woes of any kind, just a list of intangible virtues that merit blessing. For Matthew, it is irrelevant how much money one has, or how much food one has, and these things are gifts from God. What matters is the kind of spirit with which we regard our gifts.  
Matthew’s spiritualized beatitudes stand in contrast with Luke’s more radical, more difficult to accept, and more likely to be unaltered beatitudes. Each evangelist complemented his understanding of the beatitudes with the setting in which he placed them. In Luke, Jesus preaches more down to earth and concrete beatitudes and woes on the ground among the people. In Matthew, Jesus preaches more spiritualized beatitudes from the mountain, closer to the Spirit, closer to God.
Exegetical and Theological Insights
Despite their differences in emphasis, Matthew and Luke offer two visions of Jesus and his message that are both essential. The tension between these two visions allows a fuller contemplation of the mystery of Jesus Christ, who is both God and Man, who is divinely present among all humanity, in both hierarchical and egalitarian human structures. Both kinds of human organization have the tendency to make those who favor the other uncomfortable. Jesus discomforts all and comforts all. Whichever image of Jesus a given institution or person finds more challenging, that is the image they likely would do well to meditate upon primarily.
In Luke, Jesus descends the mountain and stands on a level place among the people. Commenting on this passage, St. Ambrose asks, “How would a crowd see Christ, except at a low level? It does not follow him to the heights; it does not climb to majestic places. So when he descends, he finds the weak, for the weak cannot be high up” (Ambrose 102). Jesus goes to the people where they are and preaches consolation to them who are poor and hungry, who are weeping and hated. Yet he reminds this great crowd of his disciples that God their Father is “the Most High” (Luke 6:35) – the very name that associates God with high places.
In Matthew, Jesus ascends the mountain and preaches there to his disciples who come to him.  He offers beatitudes that are more spiritual and eschatological that those in Luke. Yet, when he has finished his sermon, he comes down from the mountain among great crowds (Matt 8:1). “Thus also Matthew teaches that the weak were healed down below” (Ambrose 103; cf. Matt 8:1-3). There is not any diametrically opposed difference between the images of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus both “descends to heal our wounds”[9] and makes it possible for us to “ascend the mountain”[10] and become “partakers in his heavenly nature”[11] (Ambrose 103).



Works Cited

Ambrose. “Exposition of the Gospel of Luke.” Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Luke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003. 102-103.
Baxter, Wayne S. "The Narrative Setting of the Sermon on the Mount." Trinity Journal 25.1 (2004): 27-37.
Betz, Hans Dieter. The Sermon on the Mount: A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, including the Sermon on the Plain. Minneapolis: Fortress Press: 1995
Brown, Raymond. An Introduction to the New Testament. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1997
Carter, Warren. What are they saying about Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount? New York: Paulist Press, 1994.
Duling, Dennis C. “Matthew: Introduction.” The HarperCollins Study Bible. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993. 
Neufeld, Edmund K. “The Gospel in the Gospels: Answering the Question ‘What Must I Do to be Saved?’ from the Synoptics.” JETS 51/2 (2008). 267-296.



[1] Wayne Baxter however, claims that Matthew put more “careful thought in his placement of the Sermon within his narrative” when “compared to Luke’s presentation of the Sermon material” (30). Hans Betz attributes the similarity of placement within the narrative to Q rather than to the Markan spine (43).
[2] Jesus does have a habit of this kind of retreat. For example, later in Matt, after feeding the five thousand, “he… dismissed the crowds [and] he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone” (Matt 14:23). Luke 5:16, which parallels Matt 14:23, also attests to Jesus’ habit of withdrawing from the crowds to pray. Yet, is that what is taking place before the Sermon on the Mount? It is not prayer, but preaching, that Jesus intends to do atop the mountain this time. Furthermore, Jesus does not dismiss the crowds, as he does later when he wishes to be alone (14:23). Rather, he allows them to follow him up the mountain so that they may hear what he is about to preach (5:1).
[3] In this, Luke follows Mark more closely than Matthew does. In Mark, also, Jesus appoints the twelve while “up the mountain” (Mark 3:13-16).
 [4] “The LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up” (Ex 19:20).
[5] “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai” (Ex 19:23).
[6] “Moses went down to the people and told them” (Ex 19:25).
[7] “By comparing the order and content of Luke and Matthew, [most argue] that Luke’s Sermon on the Plain is closer to the ‘Q’ Sermon than Matthew’s” (Carter 13).
[8] For example, in Mark and Luke, Jesus said to the rich man, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor” (Luke 18:22). Matthew places a qualifier on this: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor” (Matt 19:21).
[9]“When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean." And he stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, "I will; be clean." And immediately his leprosy was cleansed” (Matt 8:1-3)
And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples… who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases” (Luke 6:17).
[10]Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him” (Matt 5:1).
[11]But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:35).

Most Popular Posts this Month

Most Popular Posts since 2007