Jesus will always level with us (Luke 6)

Everybody always thinks about the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), but Luke gives us the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:7–49).

In both gospels, Jesus has begun his itinerant healing and teaching in Galilee. He becomes famous and crowds begin to follow him (Matthew 4:23–25; Luke 5:15.

At this point in Matthew, Jesus, seeing the crowds, ascends a mountain (we’re not talking the Rockies here, or even the Appalachians, just the Galilean hills) and sits down to teach his disciples (Matthew 5:1). The implication seems to be that he got away from the crowds and directed his teaching to a smaller group: not the crowds of the curious but the smaller group of people who were deliberately following him and learning from him.

In Luke also Jesus ascends a mountain (Luke 6:12). This is not in reaction to the crowds, at least not as clearly as in Matthew, but no crowds would have been there on the mountain. In Luke he ascends the mountain in order to pray all night long and select twelve who will be his apostles (envoys and successors in leadership). Then he goes back down the mountain to a level place (a “plain,” but again, not the Great Plains, just a level, easily accessible place). And there, on the larger level place, where there is more room, a great crowd gathers, which is also a diverse crowd—not only Galileans, but also Judeans from Jerusalem, and also people from Tyre and Sidon, which probably means gentiles. They all gather in a level place, and he levels with them. No riddles, no paradoxes, no trick questions. He speaks straightforwardly.

The difference in setting and audience is a striking difference between Matthew and Luke, and there are also striking differences in the content of the teaching.

Here I will digress a bit.

If you’re seeing the gospels as positive history—i.e., as documentary films that show us exactly what happened day by day along the way in the life of Jesus—the difference between these two gospels on this point (and the differences between the four gospels on many other points) leaves you with a problem: the gospels contradict each other.

So then—because you presuppose that the gospels are presented as inerrant positive history— you have a choice.

Either you deny that there is any contradiction, although obviously there is, thus setting yourself up as a person who will manipulate texts and deny facts in order to maintain your doctrinaire presupposition. That is an all too well-trodden path in American fundamentalism—including those who call themselves fundamentalists but also evangelical fundamentalist who prefer to call themselves evangelicals or just Christians, implying that those who see the Bible differently are either not real Christians or not real evangelicals. This is a dangerous course. As we have seen, those who will deny facts and affirm falsehoods regarding the Bible will eventually do the same regarding anything and everything else.

Or else, if you presuppose that the Bible is positive history but refuse to ignore the contradictions, you say that they undermine the Bible. If it contradicts itself it can no longer be the infallible Word of God, and thus can no longer really be the Word of God at all—because you have accepted the view that what it sets out to be is positive history, and it fails to be that.

But in my opinion neither of those alternatives is acceptable or right. Which means that their common premise is wrong. The right conclusion is: the gospels are not trying to set forth positive history. Which also means that when Luke’s prologue says what it does about aiming to set for a more accurate and orderly account, it does not mean what we in our textual culture assume that it means, namely that Luke is claiming and trying to work like a modern historian or newspaper reporter. Luke (and Matthew and Mark and John) is doing something else. They are telling the truth about Jesus in another, deeper sense. The tell the story differently in order to highlight different aspects of the truth of Jesus (i.e.,the truth that he is, the truth that he does, and the truth that he says).

End of digression.

The thing I wanted to say that struck me as I read this text in Luke this morning is this: Jesus comes down the mountain to meet us where we are, all of us: his faithful followers and leaders of his followers (who were up on the mountain with him and came back down the mountain with him to the “plain”) but also the crowds of the curious not only from his homeland and his own people but also from the diverse cultures in others lands. Here, with this diverse crowd assembled around him, for the first time in Luke’s gospel, he speaks at length.

Before, it has always been just a few words. Now, for this mixed multitude, he speaks many words.

He speaks of and to his faithful followers who are poor and know they are poor (Luke 6:20–23). He speaks of and to the rich people who know they are rich (note that they are not called his followers, Luke 6:24–26). And he speaks to everyone who hears regardless of whether they believe they are poor or rich or something else (Luke 6:27–49).

Jesus will always level with all of us. It is for us to hear.

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