Revd Rob Lamerton
Epiphany 6, 11th February 2007
So often we hear people say "we must have a level playing field", meaning a place that is fair to all participants, where all players get a "fair go"!
In the Gospel we hear that Jesus comes down with "them" (which seems to indicate a bunch of disciples and the twelve who are now called apostles) and stands on a level place.
He had been on the mountain in prayer. Then he called the disciples, those who were learning from him. He chose twelve and named them apostles, his appointed representatives, the ones who are sent.
So Jesus "came down with them and stood on the level place with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judaea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon."
Traditionally, up on the mountain was the place where people went to encounter God, for example Moses, Elijah, etc. Instead, in this story, it is the agent of God coming down "to a level place", a level playing field where everyone gets a fair go with God! Once again, it is not only Jesus but the Gentiles "from Tyre and Sidon." It is in this setting that Jesus delivers his address — a policy speech almost!
If you go to the Holy Land, you may be shown the "Mount of the Beatitudes." This mountain only occurs in Matthew's telling of the story (its geographic location is really a mystery) because it is symbolic, in Matthew's version, as the new Sinai, for the new law.
The sermon on the level place has the same sentiment as the sermon on the mount, but Luke has been very deliberate in describing the setting as being of the plain, the level place where, as the hymn says, "cross the crowded ways of life."
The sermon is not delivered in the rarefied air of some deeply religious location, but in the midst of life's push and shove. And the sermon is addressed not to the crowds, but to the disciples and the twelve apostles, in the presence of the crowds.
The ethics of the sermon are evidently not for the crowd, but for those who have already responded to the call to follow Christ! Jesus expects that those who have responded and chosen to follow his path will also have the grace to fulfil such a demanding ethical standard:
"Blessed are you who are poor.
Blessed are you who are hungry.
Blessed are you who weep.
Blessed are you when people hate, exclude and revile you."
Can we bear it?
In Matthew's version of the beatitudes, he adds, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness." He seems to indicate a spiritual hunger, a spiritual need.
Luke's version of the sermon differs. He addresses not a spiritual poverty, but a poverty of money and possessions, a poverty of wealth. He also adds four woes.
"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."
In Luke's version, Jesus pronounces judgment of the "haves" of this world and favours the "have nots."
We ask, "Why does God favour the poor?" Some will say that this is how God always acts. Looking at Mary's song we find, "The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich he has sent away empty." So those who have nothing now, it seems, will inherit the kingdom as the unmerited blessing of God.
Matthew recognised that this is true, but that it is also true for those who are poor in spirit and for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He recognised (or did Jesus really say it this way!) that the kingdom is also open to those
who wrestle with,
who struggle with,
or who are aware of,
their need of God.
Possibly we could explain it this way. The very poor are always aware of their dependence on God, while others of us who are not poor are still aware of our dependence on God. Maybe it means that we need to move to being dependent on God!
Last week we heard about God being visible in theophany. The mountains were traditionally the location for such events. In today's reading, Jesus moves away from the high ground, away from the place where God is traditionally encountered. He moves down into the midst of the disciples and the crowd. He makes known God's presence among people! He offers a blessing for all who will take up his challenge to live under God's grace — or a curse for all who choose to live for themselves now!
As I think of Jesus "on a level place",
I think of how we Christians are called to live out our faith in the midst of all that is around us — among people of all faiths and none.
I think of how tricky it is to be a Christian in the midst of the crowd.
I think, too, of those who are excluded from the crowd of everyday life and whom Jesus wants included.
I think, too, of Jesus standing with us on a level playing field and calling us to reflect on how we relate to him among us,
how we can live in God's grace and blessing
and how we relate to the crowd who have not yet comprehended the call.