The Sermon on the Plain

The Sermon on the Plain can be broken down into three sections: the blessings and woes (20–26), Ethics (27–38), and the Parables (39–49); each section can be further broken down. Starting with the blessings and woes we see four blessings along with four concomitant woes. However, the last blessing and the last woe seems not to fit well with the first three blessings and woes. First we have the rhythm of the text. The first three blessings read:

Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοί, ὅτι ὑμετέρα ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ.

Blessed are the poor, because yours is the Kingdom of God

μακάριοι οἱ πεινῶντες νῦν, ὅτι χορτασθήσεσθε.

Blessed are the ones hungering now, because you will be filled

μακάριοι οἱ κλαίοντες νῦν, ὅτι γελάσετε.

Blessed are the ones weeping now, because you will laugh.

And the first three woes read:

οὐαὶ ὑμῖν τοῖς πλουσίοις, ὅτι ἀπέχετε τὴν παράκλησιν ὑμῶν.

Woe to you the rich, because you are receiving your comfort.

οὐαὶ ὑμῖν, οἱ ἐμπεπλησμένοι νῦν, ὅτι πεινάσετε.

Woe to you who are being filled now, because you will hunger.

οὐαί, οἱ γελῶντες νῦν, ὅτι πενθήσετε καὶ κλαύσετε.

Woe to the ones laughing now, because you will mourn and weep.

All three blessings roughly match up rhythmically with their three concomitant woes (give or take one or two syllables), and they all match each other in form: μακάριοι οἱ + plural substantive, followed by a single-part ὅτι-clause. All three blessings “and woes also focus on socio-economic standings: The poor verses the rich, the hungry verses the full, and those who weep and mourn verses those who laugh—which is not strictly speaking a socio-economic category but rather the out words sign of loss or calamity.[1] What we have in these three blessings and woes is a reversal based on opposite classes: the underclass is blessed while the privileged class receives “woe”. Both the blessings and woes are presented in the third person plural, meaning that the both the privileged and the underclass are an abstract third person group; however the ὅτι-clauses are all in the second person plural, meaning once the third person group is established the speaker then addresses that group personally.

The first blessing and woe deal with the current state of affairs that exist in the present age (the poor and the rich); contrasting that with the state of affairs in the coming age—using the present tense, as though the coming age is already assured: the poor already have the kingdom of God, and the rich have their comfort (implying that it will end). The second and third blessing and woe are slightly different in that they contrast the state of hungering and weeping “now” (emphasizing the present state of affairs) with that of being filled and laughing in the future (using the future tense); and the state of being filled and laughing now with that of hungering, mourning, and weeping in the future. The poor (πτωχοί) refer to the economically destitute, and are treated by Luke as a specific class favored by God and the group to which the gospel is addressed.[2] The first blessing and woe sets up the two opposing classes: the poor and the rich, and assigs their different roles in the Kingdom: the Kingdom is for the poor, whereas the rich get their comfort in the present age. The second and third blessing and woe describes the position of these two groups both in the present and future when the Kingdom takes over: the poor hunger and weep now, but will not in the future; whereas the rich are filled and laugh now, but will not in the future—because we know that the Kingdom already belongs to the poor.

The last blessing reads:

μακάριοί ἐστε ὅταν μισήσωσιν ὑμᾶς οἱ ἄνθρωποι καὶ ὅταν ἀφορίσωσιν ὑμᾶς καὶ ὀνειδίσωσιν καὶ ἐκβάλωσιν τὸ ὄνομα ὑμῶν ὡς πονηρὸν ἕνεκα τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου·

Blessed are you whenever men hate you and, whenever they exclude you and insult you and throw out your name as evil on account of the son of man.

χάρητε ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ καὶ σκιρτήσατε, ἰδοὺ γὰρ ὁ μισθὸς ὑμῶν πολὺς ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ· κατὰ τὰ αὐτὰ γὰρ ἐποίουν τοῖς προφήταις οἱ πατέρες αὐτῶν.

Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because look, your reward is great in the heaven. Because their fathers likewise did those things to the prophets.

And its concomitant woe reads:

οὐαὶ ὅταν ὑμᾶς καλῶς εἴπωσιν πάντες οἱ ἄνθρωποι·

Woe whenever everybody speaks well of you

κατὰ τὰ αὐτὰ γὰρ ἐποίουν τοῖς ψευδοπροφήταις οἱ πατέρες αὐτῶν.

Because their fathers likewise did those things to the false prophets.

The fourth blessing does not match up at all with the woe rhythmically and the structure of the fourth blessing and woe does not match up with the structure of the first three. In the fourth blessing and woe we do not see the same two abstract classes being addressed; rather, we see “you” the second person plural, the audience, constituting a group attached to the “son of man”[3] (likely referring to the followers of Jesus) and “men” or “everybody”. The blessing and woe is not distributed to the two different groups, but rather distributed to the group attached to the son of man according to how they are treated by the “men/everybody” group.

In the first three blessings and woes the blessings and woes are distributed according to class, and the outcome is more or less set in stone: the underclass is getting the blessing the privileged class is getting the woes, end of story. In the fourth blessing and woe we how the “son of man” group is being treated in the subjunctive form, implying contingency. So whether or not the “son of man” group receives woe or blessing depends on how the “men/everybody” group treats them. How the “men/everybody” group treats the “son of man” group also seems to depend on the actions and integrity of the “son of man” group, we see this clearly in the “κατὰ τὰ αὐτὰ γὰρ ἐποίουν” statements. The prophets were treated poorly by the fathers of the “men/everybody” group, whereas the false prophets were treated well—therefore if you are being treated, poorly that is a sign that you are like the prophets, and thus in line for the blessing; whereas if you are treated well, that is a sign that you are like the false prophets, and thus in line for a woe.

To explain this difference (along with other issues in the Q material) many Q scholars have proposed various stages of redaction in the Q material. For example, John Kloppenborg and Burton Mack divide the Q material into three stages of redaction, Q1, Q2, and Q3[4]. Q1 is thought of as being the earliest writings of the followers of Jesus, where Jesus is a moral teacher. Q2 is thought of as being a second stage of redaction where issues involving group dynamics and conflicts with the outside world are addressed, as well as the introduction of an apocalyptic vision, and Q3 as being the last redaction where Jesus is the son of God.

In this framework the first three blessings[5] are presented as being part of the Q1 material. Jesus here is simply presenting the worldview, this serves a programmatic function for what follows in Q1.[6] The last blessing however are presented as being part of the Q2 material in its assumption of an “in group”, and in its assumption of a conflict with outside groups as well as its introduction of the apocalyptic “son of man”.[7]

I do not think this is at all necessary, and I believe that more sense can be made of the blessings and woes if we take them as a single block. One problem with this framework is that the first three blessings and woes do not actually serve a programmatic function to what follows. According to Kloppenborg and Mack’s translation the rest of the Sermon on the plain belongs to the Q1 material—that being the case the first three blessings really in and of themselves don’t fit with the rest of the material. These first three blessings are basically an eschatological reversal, as we say in the first blessing the use of the present tense implies that it’s reality is already set, the second two blessing use of the future tense imply the results are forthcoming.[8] The rest of the sermon on the plain however, is almost entirely made up of ethical injunctions, ethical injunctions that are communal in nature and assume persecution, the entire point of it is communal ethics in light of a hostile world.[9]

The beatitudes work as an eschatological reversal, however there is nothing connecting that to the ethical framework that follows; the rest of the Sermon has no poor/rich class dichotomy, nor is there any eschatological reversal, in fact there is almost no eschatology at all. There is however an assumption that the plural “you” audience (Ἀλλ’ ὑμῖν λέγω) can expect to be cursed, slapped, and dispossessed, there is an assumption of economic embeddedness, there is admonition against judging, and even a sympathetic statement in favor of the unjust and evil (for me makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good; he sends rain on the just and on the unjust). None of this follows from an eschatological reversal neatly—of course one can think of many ways to make it follow, but if we can do that why not include the fourth blessing and see if the flow works better.

In my mind the best way to link the three blessings, which present an eschatological reversal, with the ethical injunctions of the rest of the sermon is to introduce a covenantal thought to the eschatology. This is not at all Ad Hoc, we see this in the Hebrew bible as well as Qumran documents, such as the Damascus Document, as well as in the theology of first and second Maccabees. The idea is that the eschatological reversal happens through a covenantal group, a community or a movement, but is ultimately realized by God. With that framework then the blessings and the ethics fit together perfectly. But then there is no reason to put the fourth blessing under a later redaction The fourth blessing simply shifts the blessings from the eschatological classes (the poor and the rich) to the covenantal community who are on the side of the eschatological reversal (the “son of man” figure is both almost always associated with an eschatological shift).

By themselves the first three blessings and woes work as a kind of limerick, a easily remembered and rhythmic pattern bringing to mind the eschatological reversal. The fourth blessing and woe shifts the focus from the abstract to the individual in community, breaking from the rhythmic pattern addresses the person who aligns himself with the message of the first three blessings and woes (personified in the apocalyptic “son of man” figure). It then reminds the listener that being on the side of the eschatological reversal will put one on the margins of society—but that ultimately this is a good thing, since the prophets were also marginalized. Then the sermon continues addressing the person aligning himself with the message providing the ethical instructions for how one being on the side of the message should live.

Many of the Q theorists seem to assume that the writers of Q and its redactors could only hold one picture of Jesus in their head at a time; either he is a moral sage, or a child of wisdom, or the son of man—there is no reason to assume this. Ancient writers were more than capable of walking and chewing gum at the same times, there is no reason they could not have thought of Jesus as both building a community of followers as well as teaching general ethical maxims; or being both an apocalyptic prophet and a wisdom sage at the same time.

Further evidence of the unity of the blessings (and woes) comes from parallel sources, the gospel of Matthew[10] includes the fourth blessing along with the first three and others. The gospel of Thomas[11] includes the first blessing and a form of the fourth blessing. The same is true in the earliest attestation we have of the blessings in Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians; the blessing of the poor and the blessing for those persecuted are taken together.[12]

What is interesting about Polycarp’s attestation is that it does not directly match the text of Luke, or Matthew, and certainly not the theorized Q1 or Q2. Here is Polycarp’s rendition of the blessings:

μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ

καὶ οἱ διωκόμενοι ἕνεκεν δικαιοσύνης, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ.

The first part matches the opening words of Luke’s first blessing “Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχο”, the second part does not match Luke’s fourth blessing at all. It does however match one of Matthew’s blessings in his rendition of the blessings and woes, specifically the one that comes right before Matthew’s rendition of Luke’s fourth blessing:

μακάριοι οἱ δεδιωγμένοι ἕνεκεν δικαιοσύνης, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.

Which is followed by Matthew’s rendition of Luke’s fourth blessing:

μακάριοί ἐστε ὅταν ὀνειδίσωσιν ὑμᾶς καὶ διώξωσιν καὶ εἴπωσιν πᾶν πονηρὸν καθ’ ὑμῶν [ψευδόμενοι] ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ.

What this tells us is a few things. First of all that Polycarp was not simply copying from Q, Luke, or Matthew, since his text does not match any of them; likely he was working with oral tradition or memory. It also tells us that every single place we find the blessing of the poor, we also find a blessing for the persecuted righteous. The fact that Polycarp does use include the first person plural, but rather the third person plural in his second blessing is a sign that he is quoting from memory, since no earlier attestation uses the third person plural; whereas both Matthew, Luke (Q), and Thomas have “blessed are the poor” in the third person plural. It is not difficult to imagine that someone would forget to shift from the third person plural to the first person plural when going from memory.

When it comes to the beatitudes and woes, the best way of reading them is as a block, starting with the contrast between the poor/rich class and the eschatological shift. Then moving on to the fourth blessing and woe which addresses the audience of disciples who desire to be allied with the Kingdom of God; and gives a sobering reminder that those on the side of the Kingdom of God are not going to be spoken well of in the present age.

[1] Arnal, William E., “Why Q Failed“, 76–77

[2] Brock, Darrell L, The Theology of Luke and Acts, 202; 352–353; 355–356

[3] This is a clear reference to the “son of man” figure introduced in Daniel 7:13–14, and theorized about in popular Second Temple apocalyptic literature such as 1 Enoch.

[4] Probably the most important work on this is John S. Kloppenborg’s Q, the Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus

[5] John Kloppenborg and Burton Mack, whose translations and critical texts of Q I will be using in examining the multiple redaction of Q theory, do not include the woes in their Q text.

[6] Arnal, William E., “Why Q Failed“, 75

[7] Ibid., 77

[8] Dunn, James D., Christianity in the making Volume 1, 413

[9] Ibid, 586­–588

[10] Matthew 5:3–12

[11] Thomas 52, 68–69

[12] Polycarp 2.3

The Sermon on the Plain

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