Luke paints a picture of a great multitude – city-slickers from Jerusalem and country bumpkins from the Judean countryside and even non-Jews from places on the coast like Tyre and Sidon.
November 6, 2022
Dr. Todd R. Wright The Beatitudes are pretty famous, whether you are talking about Matthew’s version or this one in Luke. Both agree that Jesus has just called the twelve and that there were lots of people following him because of his teachings and his power to heal. Both agree that Jesus pronounced a series of blessings that were a little unusual. And both agree the crowd listening was diverse. Before we delve into what Luke is saying in his version, I want to focus on that crowd. How do you picture it? Take a moment and close your eyes. What does the crowd look like? Are they pressed in together, or spread evenly across the landscape, or divided into distinct groups? Can you tell where they are from based on how they dress or their accents? Are there clues to whether they are rich or poor; clues about what they do for a living; clues about whether they are desperate for healing or merely curious? Take a mental snapshot. We’ll come back to your picture of the crowd that day.
Károly Ferenczy was a painter in the late 19th century credited with being the founder of the Hungarian impressionism. He imagined this scene, as you just did. If you look at his depiction, you see that he made some decisions about how to show the crowd. Some look like well-off city dwellers. They wear suits and fashionable hats, and the little girl has bows in her hair that match her dress. Others look like they are taking a break from laboring in the fields. Their hats, if they have them, are designed to protect them from the blazing sun. And then there is a third group that seems to represent the variety of the crowd. There are women and men, young and old, a woman in a head covering and a soldier wearing old-fashioned armor! All of them seem to be riveted by what Jesus is saying. Ferenczy has composed this painting so that we might join this group and lean in with our own hunger for his words. How does his picture compare with yours?
Luke paints a picture of a great multitude – city-slickers from Jerusalem and country bumpkins from the Judean countryside and even non-Jews from places on the coast like Tyre and Sidon. He says some came to listen and some to be healed. All sat there in the grass – some, as I said earlier, merely curious; some desperate! A Presbyterian elder who teaches at Brite Divinity School at TCU writes, “The simplicity of this grouping must not be lost on us. Jesus is not speaking in one moment to a group of well-to-do people and in the next to the poor who would not be welcomed by the first group.” She goes on, “The message is not separate, because the people on the ground are not separate. They are all there; they are all together. They are one, privy to the same message, hearing what is applicable to them — and what they believe is not. They are made community under the sound of his voice; they are the communal pupil.”[ii] Did you take that into account when you imagined the crowd? Rich and poor together! Young and old together! Urban and rural together! Jew and Gentile together! Those hungry to learn and those needing healing together! Those who are included in Jesus’ blessings – the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated – and those singled out for woes, are all there, together. Any thought that the crowd can self-sort themselves into separate groups is shown to be foolishness. Try as we might, certain things in life scoff at division. Illness does not care about accents or zip codes, so the sick are all there together. Those who seek something to feed their souls cannot be categorized by nationality or age, so the teenager who is still figuring out what he believes is standing right next to the elderly widow who finds what she was taught long ago no longer holds water. Those who market stuff make a living dividing us into discrete groups and targeting advertisements accordingly. Politicians are happy to sow division if it drives their base to vote. Even churches seem to sort themselves such that congregants look pretty much the same. But Jesus has a message we all need to hear – a message about God’s love for the broken and hope for the despairing; a message that will fill the hole in people’s hearts like nothing else will; a message that is expansively universal and shockingly specific to each one of us! He will not tolerate any notion that we are better off keeping to our divisions. Perhaps that is why, in Luke, the next words out of his mouth after the Beatitudes are, “Love your enemies”!
Now, back to your picture of the crowd – the one you imagined at the start of the sermon. Did it look like Ferenczy’s – reflecting the time it was composed and simultaneously trying to capture the point of Luke’s story? Did it look like Luke’s – with both blessings and woes marking the faces of those present and harkening back to Jesus’ self-described mission from a couple chapters earlier – to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed, and God’s favor to all? Or did you capture something else that reflects the crowds you have been part of, or the way you have heard Jesus’ words, or the hope you have for what can be? I want to hear about how you pictured the crowd.
[i] “Sermon on the Mount” by Károly Ferenczy [ii] From Oluwatomisin Oredein’s comments on the text for the Christian Century, 10/28/19