The gospel on a level place

A long time ago I learned you don’t mess around with someone’s favorite passages of scripture. The connection people feel with their favorite passages is deep, even holy. There’s a reason, sometimes many reasons, why those passages are dearly held. Upsetting those connections can be more than disturbing: it can be deeply harmful, so proceed with caution and much love.

The Beatitudes (Luke 6:17-26; Matt. 5:1-12) are favorites, and it may surprise you to learn there are two different versions of them. Exploring the significant differences between those versions may cause you to rethink some long-held notions. It might also be a great opportunity for deepening your faith, but the door to deeper faith must open from within.

Like Warner Sallman’s famous painting, “Christ at Heart’s Door,” the door at which Christ, the embodied Truth, stands and knocks has no visible handle; the handle is on the inside, and the door can be opened only from the inside. So I hope you’ll spend some time with the questions at the end of this post and see if they help you find a handle that allows something deeper to enter.

Today I’m drawn not to the Beatitudes themselves but to what leads up to them. Unlike Matthew’s version, which sets the scene on a mountain, Luke sets it “on a level place” (v. 17). Jesus is not exalted, not placed in a high or powerful position. He’s on the same level with everyone else in the crowd, meeting them where they are, where they could touch him (v. 19).

That’s an important detail. He meets them on their level; he sees and addresses their real, pressing needs, their diseases and their troubled spirits; and his power makes them whole. He doesn’t start by preaching to them, by proclaiming his message, the good news that God has moved to restore everyone’s relationship with God to its original wholeness, and then inviting them to come to him and be healed. He starts by recognizing the needs that brought them there in the first place and healing them. Only then does he share the good news about what they’ve experienced.

My best lesson about the power of healing the real needs of people where they are as the context for sharing the gospel came in 1986 when I started the Quality of Life Retreat for persons living with AIDS. The week-long summer retreat was the first of its kind in The United Methodist Church, so I had no examples or experience to guide me. All I had was a conference retreat facility in the southern Adirondacks and a vision of making it available to serve the needs of those living with AIDS in the Albany area.

One of our biggest challenges was that the church had little or no credibility with those who might come to the retreat, who in those days were almost exclusively gay men. Most of what they had experienced from the church was judgment, rejection, and delusional attempts to straighten them out. They had a deep spiritual hunger, a yearning for union with God; they also had, rightly so, a deep suspicion and mistrust of the institutional church that made it very difficult to develop the retreat design and make it available to them.

The breakthrough came when I met with a client group from the AIDS Council of Upstate New York. I told them I had no plan for the retreat or its content, only a retreat facility and a desire to offer it for whatever use they would find healing and restorative. When they knew the offer was genuine, the retreat moved from vision to reality, reconciliation and healing began, and I worked with the retreat until I left the area six years later.

Only after meeting those clients where they were, listening to them speak of their real needs, and offering the retreat facility and staff to honor and serve those needs – only then could they experience through the church the good news of God’s reconciling and healing love. No one at that retreat was cured of AIDS, but make no mistake, there was healing there. Suffering was lifted, the pain of judgment and rejection was alleviated, and wholeness of life was at hand.

My experience with the Quality of Life Retreat is only one example of how the Beatitudes can best be heard, only one example of what needs to happen if we, the body of Christ, are to share the gospel effectively in the world today.

Only when we – today’s disciples, the body of Christ – know and can relate to the real needs of the people around us, and move to honor and address those needs, will we be able even to know the gospel and proclaim it credibly and with authority to those who desperately hunger to experience it. Imagine starting to rebuild the church not upon the ancient message and rituals of which we are stewards but upon the real needs we hear expressed by the crowds around us. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely our reward will be great in heaven.

Some questions to ponder

1. In Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12), when Jesus saw the crowds, “he went up the mountain.” In Luke’s version (Luke 6:17-26), “He came down with them and stood on a level place.” What do you believe is important about each of these locations? In which location would you find Jesus more relatable? Why?

2. Read the Beatitudes in Matthew side-by-side with those in Luke. What similarities do you notice in the details? What differences?

3. What kinds of people came to listen to Jesus? Why were these people the ones who came? Considering the heart of Jesus’ proclamation and the kinds of people who came, which version of the Beatitudes do you feel might be closer to Jesus’ original words? Why? Which version speaks more directly to you personally?

4. In Luke’s version, Jesus healed all of those who came to hear him. “Then he looked up at his disciples and said” what we know as the Beatitudes. To whom does the term “disciples” refer: a) the whole crowd who gathered; b) a subset of the crowd who chose to follow Jesus; or c) a distinct and smaller group separate from the crowd?

5. Was Jesus teaching directed to the whole crowd or specifically to a separate group of disciples? Why? What difference might this distinction make for you personally? What difference might it make for the teaching of the church today?

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