The Gospel reading for the last Sunday in January was Matthew 5:1-12, the passage which is generally referred to as The Beatitudes. The title comes from the Latin word “beatus/-a” which means “blessed” and reflects the first word of nine of the twelve verses, sayings of Jesus which begin “Blessed are …” It’s a beautiful and familiar section of scripture, and our worship leaders built the whole service on it. The minister preached on it. The choir sang a setting of it from the Russian Orthodox tradition. The hymns echoed the thought. It was a good reminder that in the midst of the chaos of the present time, we are all blessed children of God.
In the days following the service, I continued to ponder the Gospel lesson, and in doing so, recalled that there is another version of The Beatitudes recorded in the Gospel of Luke. Unlike the very familiar reading from Matthew, we rarely, if ever, encounter the Lukan version in worship. Comparing the two is an interesting exercise.
One of the first things I noticed is that Matthew has Jesus speaking of third parties, while Jesus in Luke speaks directly to his audience. It is the difference between “Blessed are those who …” and “Blessed are you who …” Of the nine “blesseds” in Matthew, Luke parallels four, but with some striking variations. For example, in Matthew we read “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The corresponding passage in Luke is, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” And a second example: from Matthew, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled;” and from Luke, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”
What is most noticeable here is that Matthew spiritualizes what Luke makes concrete. Jesus as depicted in Luke declares the poor and the hungry to be blessed, and promises them that their needs will be fulfilled. Matthew modifies these to “poor in spirit” and “hung[ry] and thirst[y] for righteousness” – still worthwhile thoughts, but muted to downplay the justice emphasis in Luke. Christians who are well fed and materially comfortable can still hear themselves into Matthew’s version. The danger in this is that we who are in possession of adequate resources may think of ourselves as “let off the hook” of responsibility for the well-being of those who are not.
The biggest difference between Matthew and Luke, however, is that the latter adds four “woes” to his four “blesseds.” “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24-26) To paraphrase a common saying, Luke’s Jesus is just as ready to “afflict the comfortable” as he is to “comfort the afflicted.” It is passages like these which prompted the Latin American bishops meeting in Medellin, Columbia, in 1968 to declare that the Gospel requires a “preferential option for the poor.”
The non-canonical text known as The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of sayings of Jesus. Its introductory verse declares, “These are the hidden words that the living Jesus spoke, and that Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.” Though it was at first thought to be a second or third century Gnostic text, most scholars now believe that it represents one of the earliest written collections of Jesus’ teachings.
Curious to see if this early collection of sayings contains any parallels to the Beatitudes as found in either of the canonical Gospels, I searched the text for “blesseds” and “woes.” There are three of the former which echo both Matthew and Luke, along with several others which are quite cryptic in expression and have no equivalent in the Gospels with which we are most familiar. Two of these three bless the poor and the hungry, using Luke’s concrete brevity rather than the more expansive and spiritualized language of Matthew.
The third blesses those who are hated and persecuted. Matthew reads, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” It is interesting to note that this is the only one of the Beatitudes in which Matthew uses the direct address of “you” rather than the less personal “those.” In Luke we find, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.” And in Thomas, “Blessed are you when you are hated and persecuted.” Thomas omits any mention of motive for the hatred and persecution, perhaps taking for granted his readers’ understanding of why they were likely to be reviled by others.
What can we learn from comparing these texts? One thing might be a fuller appreciation of the variety of ways in which Jesus’ preaching was remembered by those who recorded his sayings. We know that he went around the Galilee and surrounding countryside for several years, preaching and healing, announcing the good news of God’s reign. Undoubtedly, what has been preserved are some of the messages that he repeated most often. He might well have said things a little differently to different audiences. And his listeners surely remembered what impacted each of them the most.
We also learn that Jesus wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power, calling out the wealthy of his day who ate their fill and lived a life of luxury while the poor suffered and went hungry. From these and many other chapters in the Gospels with similar messages, we learn who God blesses as the beloved community, and who God chastises for their greed and indifference to need. We who would be followers of Christ should take this to heart and act accordingly.