Luke 6:12-26, The Blessedness of Being in Jubilee

[April 21, 2013] The sermon notes that I prepared for this text four years ago can be read here: Under the Savior’s Wing. We are in the midst of Eastertide, it being the fourth Sunday of Easter, and I have chosen to backtrack into the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. After His announcement in Nazareth of the nature of His apostolate—that the Spirit of the Lord is upon Him to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord, the Year of Jubilee, and to begin to enact its promised liberation—He went to Capernaum and liberated it from its demons in order to set it up as the base for His apostolic circuits in Galilee.

Jesus’ first apostolic circuit of Galilee is described in 4:44—7:1. (Neither Matthew nor Luke follow a chronological order. We already noticed from what Jesus said in 4:23 that the Nazareth story is out of sequence. Nevertheless, Luke places the material of chapters 5 and 6 within the framework of this circuit. The travel motif structures Luke’s work. Jesus’ apostolic travels in the narrated in the gospel set the pattern for the latter half of Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, in which he focuses on the travels of the apostle Paul. Paul, like Jesus, went from town to town teaching and announcing the Gospel.) According to Josephus there were over two hundred villages; they ranged in size from a few inhabitants to several thousand. Nazareth probably had only four hundred people, and as we noted, Capernaum probably had about fifteen hundred. Jesus focused on the smaller villages; we are told nothing of His visits to the larger towns. His focus was on the poor and ordinary, people out of the cosmopolitan mainstream.

Luke gives us several “cases” of what happened on this first circuit, and each case is given to represent the unfolding of the Jubilee. He frees Peter from his preoccupation with fishing; He frees a leper from the stigma of his uncleanness and the horror of his disease; He frees a paralytic from his sins and the paralysis of his life; he frees Levi from his life as a tax collector and sinner. Jesus eats and drinks with sinners, and the disciples of John the Baptist give Him an occasion to explain Himself: He is the Bridegroom and His disciples are the “sons of the bridal chamber” (or wedding hall). He is “new wine” and “new wine must be put into fresh wineskins” (5:33-39). Then, in two more stories, as the “Lord of the Sabbath,” He liberates the Sabbath (the Jubilee is the sabbatical of sabbatical years) from those who would bind it: Jesus and His disciples eat the food of the poor, picking the heads of grain and rubbing them in their hands to eat them; and He heals a man with a withered hand.

As in Nazareth (see 4:28-29), the people became enraged with Him. In Nazareth they were pleased with Him until He said that He was going to outsiders (the way Elijah went to a Sidonian woman and a Syrian man came to Elisha). In 6:11 it was His actions on the Sabbath (His opponents would use the Sabbath to keep the poor from eating and the crippled from relief), though this was probably also the accumulative affect of His seeking out sinners and outcasts and the “left out,” His sympathy for the sick, and His identification with the poor (and His implied disidentification with others; cf. His “hometown” in 4:22-27; we will realize the significance of this when we consider the blessings and woes of 6:20-26).

Jesus Chooses the Twelve and Ministers to a Great Multitude (Luke 6:12-19)

Now we come to the conclusion of this initial “Jubilee” circuit. Verses 12-19 are a unit even though some Bibles divide verses 12-16 from 17-19. Grammatically (in Greek) verses 13-18 is one long sentence: “having picked-out [this verb is a participle] from them twelve, whom also He named apostles … and having descended [another participle] with them, He stood [this is the indicative (aorist) verb] on a level place, also a large crowd of His disciples, and a great throng of people … who came to hear Him and to be healed of their diseases”—pause—“and those who were being troubled [a participle] with unclean spirits were being cured [an imperfect indicative].” Darby’s 1890 translation has it correctly.

After the synagogue incident, Jesus went off to a mountain to spend the night in prayer. In the morning, He called His disciples to Him (He is still on the mountain; we are not told how He did this; perhaps He sent someone to gather them up or a bunch of them were up on the mountain with Him overnight) and picked out twelve of them to be His apostles (His sent ones, or envoys). Then, when He descends from the mountain to the plain, there is gathered on the plain a large crowd of His disciples and a great throng of other people from all over Judea and from Jerusalem and from the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon in the north. They had heard about Him—His teaching and miracles of healing—and had come to hear Him and to be healed of their diseases. Now they were all trying to touch Him, for the power of His anointing was coming from Him (dunamis par’ autou exērcheto). Jesus healed all of them, and cured those who were troubled with unclean spirits.

There is a difference between healing (iaomai) and being cured (therapeuō). People were healed of their sicknesses but those who had demons (unclean spirits) were being cured. A doctor can give you liposuction and heal you of obesity, but she has not cured you of your overeating (or addiction to the wrong kinds of food). You still need to be cured of your addiction. Jesus healed people of their sicknesses but their lives were still as they were. Their interior (their soul) still had to be dealt with. When Jesus cast out a demon, however, He cured the problem with their life. He made them whole inwardly. The “house” was swept clean (11:24-25). That is not the end for them, however, for unless they put on the yoke of discipleship their particular problem may recur (11:26).

Procedurally, Luke had been using the manuscript of Matthew’s gospel and following it up to Matthew 12:15 (which is the beginning of a “summary passage”). Now he moves back to a similar summary passage in Matthew 4:23—5:1 to create a healing summary and to depict Jesus’ choice of the Twelve by incorporating the material of Matthew 9:35—10:4, which Luke here moves forward. So when Matthew says, after Jesus heals the man with the withered hand, that Jesus “withdrew from there,” Luke interprets this as meaning that Jesus goes off to the mountains to pray. To prepare for his version of the “Sermon on the Mount” he has Jesus choose the twelve apostles first instead of how Matthew only has the calling of the four (Peter, Andrew, James and John). Rather than the “Sermon on the Mount” introducing Jesus’ ministry, he had Jesus message in the synagogue of Nazareth fulfill this role. The sermon on the plain (Luke 6:20b-49) becomes the second sermon and concludes Jesus’ first circuit of Galilee (but see Matthew 4:23 where Matthew says Jesus “was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.”) In other words, the sermon is much more elaborately prepared for than Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. He also makes sure that all twelve apostles are there to hear it. [See Beyond the Q Impasse—Luke’s Use of Matthew by the research team of the International Institute for Gospel Studies, edited by McNicol, Dungan and Peabody (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International,  1996), pages 99-103.]

The image of Jesus meeting with God (praying) on the mountain and then coming down to the people on the plain and delivering the sermon of 6:20b-49 associates Jesus with Moses who similarly met with God on the mountain (on Sinai) and came down to the people on the plain and delivered to them (on different occasions) both the commandments and the plan for the tabernacle. The twelve apostles (chosen to be Jesus’ witnesses) likewise remind us of the twelve tribes of Israel, Moses’ witnesses.

Luke draws attention to Jesus’ dependence on prayer (3:21; 5:16; 9:18, 28-29; 11:1; 22:41; 22:42). This highlights how all apostolic work (indeed all Christian work) ought to be dependent on prayer. No matter how much Jesus may have been prepared prior to this to choose the Twelve, no matter how qualified He may have been, He did not do anything without this constant dependence on the Father’s will and the Holy Spirit’s guidance. As the Son of the Father, He sought only to give Himself to the Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit (for within the relations of the Trinity there is perfect self-giving—and receiving—without self-seeking). His humanity also was dependent upon the anointing of the Holy Spirit that came upon Him at His baptism. This dependence of His human nature on God accorded with the perfect receiving and giving of His Person within the Trinity in relation to the Father and Spirit.

Matthew’s gospel uses the term “disciple” in a more restricted sense than Luke. In Matthew they are a narrow group of apprentices but in Luke there are many disciples. In Luke, however, Jesus picks out twelve of His disciples to be His constant companions, to be His eyewitnesses, and He names them “apostles” (not so in Matthew; see Matthew 10:1) to carry their testimony of Him to others. This is the role they play in the Acts of the Apostles. They are not casual but chosen eye-witnesses, the basis for the testimony of Matthew’s gospel, and are named in Luke 6:14-16 so that they may be consulted as such. They are twelve in number to correspond to the twelve tribes of Israel, for they are witnesses to all of Israel and will one day sit as its judges (22:30) on the basis of their testimony (their testimony will judge Israel). They are not the only apostles; in the Acts Luke names a number of other apostles besides the Twelve, chosen later by the Holy Spirit in distinction from the Twelve who were chosen by Jesus. It is important that the Twelve witnessed the teaching that Jesus gives in the following sermon, which is probably the reason for the grammatical unity of 6:12-19.

So there are now several concentric circles. Jesus is in the center, then there are the Twelve, then the disciples are mentioned in verse 13, then there is a large crowd of disciples in verse 17, and then a great throng of people (laos) from all over. Beginning in chapter 8 there will also be a small group whom Luke designates as “the women.” They patronize His ministry as a support network and in important respects are closer to Jesus than the Twelve, attending on Him and understanding Him better than they.

The disciples that come to Jesus at this point are those who have been moved by His kerygma, His putting out notice that the Messiah has come and the messianic Jubilee has arrived in His own Person. They are those who have committed in some way to follow Him (as opposed to the crowds who seek Him for what they can get out of Him).

The Blessedness of the Jubilee (6:20-23)

Jesus turns His gaze to them (literally, He “lifts His eyes to them”), to His disciples, and says, “Blessed are you.” The beatitudes in Matthew 5 are in the third person (“Blessed are they”) until verse 11, for the eight beatitudes are things that He has for them but that they have not yet themselves attained; the ninth beatitude—“when people insult you and persecute you and say falsely all kinds of evil against you because of Me”—that they will have, without having to attain it, simply by virtue of being His. In Luke, however, the fact that they are poor, hungry, weeping, and hated, are not things that they have to attain. It is what they already are. For in Luke, being poor, hungry and weeping are not at first descriptions of spiritual attainments but descriptions of their condition in life, in this world that is under God’s judgment. What makes them “blessed” is that they are there, that they have come to Him, and that they are His disciples.

Matthew has “poor in spirit” but Luke simply has “poor.” Matthew has “hunger and thirst for righteousness”; Luke simply has “hunger now.” Matthew has “mourn” (pentheō, to grieve or lament); Luke has “weep now” (kleiō, to weep aloud, to wail and shed tears). Matthew also has the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers, all moral descriptors, for which Luke does not have any parallels. It seems that in Matthew Jesus is describing Himself and the “sphere” into which His disciples have come by His calling them to Him as His believers (by His calling them they not only become His apprentices but render Him their allegiance). Within His sphere He will shape them to become what He is. In Luke He is describing the practical condition in which His disciples already find themselves—in which they were in before they came to Him—and He is declaring them blessed by virtue of their coming to Him. “You are poor and hungry and weeping, but because you have come to Me, blessed are you—for now you shall have the kingdom of God, you shall be satisfied, you shall be laughing.

And now, because you have come to Me, the Son of Man, men shall hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil (see 4:28; 6:11). But even still, you are blessed. Be glad when this happens and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in the heaven (in the unseen realm of the spirit, where angels dwell). For in the same way their ancestors used to treat the prophets.

Matthew has “those who have been persecuted [perfect tense] for the sake of righteousness” for which Luke does not have a parallel, and then, in the second person, “when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.” Luke has “when men [anthrōpoi] hate you and ostracize you and insult you and scorn your name as evil for the sake of the Son of Man.” Luke adds one to Matthew’s three, giving their hatred a fourfold character.

Luke also has four beatitudes compared to Matthew’s nine. Luke’s four is a three plus one (for only the last condition results from being a disciple); Matthew’s nine is an eight plus one (only the last is given in the second person). This underscores the difference between the two sets. For four is the number for the creation or the world, and nine is three times three and can speak of spiritual attainment (for example, the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23).

Many scholars would argue that Luke’s beatitudes, being more “primitive,” are the original on which Matthew’s beatitudes, being more “spiritual,” are dependent. This presumption of a certain direction of development is a bias of interpreters. It also assumes that Jesus Himself could not have been responsible for the more “spiritual” version. The two accounts, though, function differently within their contexts, and one is not more spiritual or more primitive than the other. Luke’s text is dependent on Matthew’s insomuch as Luke had Matthew’s text in front of him when he was composing, but Luke also had his own sources, notes that he kept from his interview of eyewitnesses, and the fact is that both versions may go back to Jesus.

What would be Luke’s point in this difference from Matthew? In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is really describing the blessedness of being “in Christ,” of being in the sphere of His Person by virtue of being in the relation of disciple or believer to Him. For Matthew a “believer” is not someone who believes or has faith in certain things about someone or something, but rather someone who is faithful and loyal and committed to another, who has fidelity and allegiance and fealty to that one. It is entirely personal. Having that kind of relationship to Jesus (brought on by the initiative of His calling you) puts one within His sphere where He is blessed by the Father. This is the meaning of beatitude in Matthew 5.

In Luke Jesus is likewise describing the same blessedness, but He is not describing Himself, as He is in Matthew, but rather the disciples. In Matthew He is the One who is poor in spirit, who mourns, who is meek, who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, who is merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker, and persecuted for the sake of righteousness—and the disciples are associated with these things by their attachment to Him; they are not yet these things but in time they will become them—they will become like Him—by being His disciples. In Luke the point is different: Those whom Jesus has been liberating since He left Nazareth have been the demonized, the sick and crippled, the economically poor and the outcast and sinner. In other words, they are the common people of Galilee. There have been some real social changes as a result of the demonized being cured, the sick being healed, Peter leaving his fishing, and Levi leaving his tax office, but Jesus has not improved anyone’s lot economically (at least not directly; He did however give back to sick people the ability to work). In fact, He and his disciples have been acting like poor people (6:1) and associating with social and religious outcasts. Though at least some of them, including Jesus, came out of the Galilean “middleclass” (businessmen and artisans), they were identifying with the poor and living like them. And not unhappily either (6:5:33-35).

This reminds us of what the apostle Paul told the Corinthian believers: “Consider your calling, siblings, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

Woe to the Deaf (6:24-26)

When Jesus turns to the woes—“Woe to you who are rich … you who are well-fed now, you when all men speak well of you”—He is speaking rhetorically, for they are not listening. Verses 20-23 are spoken specifically to the disciples, who are listening. Verses 24-26 are spoken to those who are not disciples. In verse 27 Jesus continues, “But I say to you who hear …” The rich, well-fed and well spoken of are not those who hear. They are not disciples because they cannot hear. In Luke 10:13-16 the dichotomy is between those who listen and those who reject. In Matthew 11:25 Jesus praises the Father that He has hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to infants.

The contrast between the ones who are now blessed (because they have become disciples) and the ones upon whom Jesus pronounces woe is between social classes (this is hard to deny). In the last woe, people speak well of those have prestige, that is, social standing. The corresponding blessing on those who are hated for the sake of the Son of Man have lost any possibility of social standing because they are now disciples (this is what Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were afraid of).

The point seems to be that neediness enables us to hear Jesus’ proffered jubilee whereas satiety makes us deaf. Let us qualify this, for many needy people are as spiritually deaf as many rich people. At a certain point, perhaps the personal Presence of Jesus makes this happen, a person recognizes that the world is under the judgment of God and that what they are suffering, their poverty, their hunger, their anguish, is the result of sin (both collectively and individually). It is this kind of poverty that humbles a person in the sight of God and that makes one open to the mercy of God and able to receive it. The weeping and crying and shedding of tears in verse 21 is in the sight of God. In other words, it is not self-pity that makes one open to the call of the Gospel, the call of Jesus. It is an awareness of one’s spiritual poverty. One’s physical poverty does not get in the way but apparently helps one accept it.

The poor and oppressed cry out to God for justice on account of what they suffer. This does not contradict what has just been said. The oppression that the poor suffers is the result of sin, the sin of the oppressor. James 5:4 says to the rich that “the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields which has been withheld by you cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth [Hosts].” It is, however, not until I see that oppression in the sight of God—and so can cry out to God—that I also see my own place before God, in need of God’s mercy, and also under the wrath of God. Jesus comes to the poor with compassion, as their Intercessor, becoming voluntarily poor (obviously not the same thing as being poor by force of circumstances) and identifying with them rather than with their oppressors. Jesus’ announcement of the messianic Jubilee offers hope to the poor, the pardon of sin and freedom from the inner power of the world.

Even for the poor, however, it is only the grace of God that can open their eyes.

The rich and well-fed and those with social standing have to not imagine that their social privilege is the result of God’s good pleasure. It is really the result of theft, even if that theft was unintentional. The difficulty for the rich is to overcome their pride and come to terms with their guilt. When God calls them to account (even if it must wait until the great day of judgment), they will lose their comfort, they will go hungry, and they will mourn and weep. It is very difficult for the rich to humble themselves in the sight of God, to see that they too are sinners, indeed, great sinners, for if they see it, they will be obligated to repent. Levi was a tax collector, and as such he oppressed his neighbors. Even though he was a social outcast, he was a rich man. His being a social outcast, however, helped him come to Jesus when He called Him to follow Him and to repent of his sins (5:27, 32).

Even in the case of the rich, the grace of God is able to open their eyes.

Near the end of the book of Deuteronomy, in chapters 27-29, Moses lays out before the people blessings and the curses. The people will be blessed if they are faithful to God, and cursed if they turn their backs on God. People who come to Jesus will be blessed. This is the Jubilee. If people reject Jesus because they are satisfied and already have enough, they will be cursed (the woes).

In chapter 30 of Deuteronomy Moses says that when you realize that you are under God’s judgment, that in fact you are under His curse, “and you return to YHWH your God and obey Him with all your heart and soul … then YHWH your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you … YHWH your God will circumcise your heart … to love YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live” (verses 2-6). This is the messianic Jubilee promised in Isaiah 61:2 and announced by Jesus. The time has come. Jesus restores us from captivity, He has compassion on us, and He gathers us into His church. When we come to Him He circumcises our heart that we may love Him and live. He, in Himself with all that He is, is the Promised Land to which He brings us (also promised in the passage from Deuteronomy).

“For this command which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven … nor is it beyond the sea … but the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). Paul says that this righteousness is based on faith; the word of which Moses speaks is “the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth “Lord Jesus!” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:6-9).

Moses goes on to say, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Jesus comes to us in the Gospel and sets before us the blessing and the curse, the way of life and death. He is the crossroads at which we must choose. One way is life. The other way leads us deeper into captivity within our delusion; it is the way of death.

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