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“How Happy You Who Are Poor”

  • International
  • September 12, 2012
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This passage, which is also found in Matthew and popularly called ‘The Beatitudes’, is placed by Luke at the head of Jesus’s ministry in Galilee. Luke has just four beatitudes to Matthew’s eight; and whereas Matthew places Jesus ‘on the mountain’ like a new Moses, Luke has him ‘descend from the mountain and stand on level ground’, among a large group of disciples, the poor and the disabled.

Both Matthew and Luke begin with the expression, “Blessed are you…” or “How happy are…”, a form of congratulations or joyful outburst, such as we might say today, “Lucky you!” or, “How fortunate !” But whereas Matthew words are couched in the third person, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…who hunger for justice…”, Luke is more direct: “How blest are you who are poor…who now go hungry…” Luke has recast the beatitudes to emphasize that every follower of Jesus must share in the poverty, the desire for justice, the rejection and insults heaped upon the Son of Man. The expression ‘Son of Man’ is used by Jesus in speaking of himself in the passion prophecies, and Luke interprets this as meaning that every disciple must similarly undergo suffering, rejection and death. “On that day, be glad and dance for joy, for assuredly you have a rich reward in heaven.”

Luke now gives us an addition of his own: the woes. Like the blessings, they are four in number and are the exact opposite of the beatitudes. Whereas a disciple is “fortunate” in being called to imitate his master Jesus in suffering and rejection, “woe betide you!” when “all speak well of you” – when one is flattered, and enjoys a rich and comfortable life. For this is precisely the way of the world, with its falsehoods and deceits. Such followers of Jesus are bogus, and will have no place with him in his kingdom.

In Matthew’s account of the beatitudes, we have a catechism of the early Church, which builds in some measure upon the Jewish Law and goes beyond it. Luke’s presentation of the beatitudes is different: he has rewritten Jesus’s words and widened their scope to include even non-Jews and pagans, underlining the social point of view, and emphasizing that all love demands sacrifice.
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