17. Blessings and Woes (Luke 6:20-26)

Gospel Parallels §73-74
Audio (30:33)

James J. Tissot, 'The Sermon of the Beatitudes' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 9.67 x 6.44 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'The Sermon of the Beatitudes' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 9.67 x 6.44 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Have you ever had a time when your mentor gathered you and several others around, looked you in the eyes, and said, "There's something you need to understand...."? This is one of those times for Jesus' disciples.

"20  Looking at his disciples, he said:
'Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
 Blessed are you when men hate you,
when they exclude you
and insult you and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy,
because great is your reward in heaven.
For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.
 But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
 Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
 Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets." (Luke 6:20-26, NIV)

A large crowd is crammed together to listen to an increasingly famous teacher -- people all the way from Judea and Jerusalem in the south, as well as hearers from the Gentile lands along the coasts of Tyre and Sidon to the north, present-day Lebanon. Jesus is healing the sick with great power, and many, many are being healed.

Location of Tyre and Sidon (larger map)

But at this moment he is speaking to his disciples. The word "disciples" in verse 20 is broader than just the Twelve. These disciples are Jesus' followers, his adherents, but they are distinguished from the multitudes that are present on this occasion. Still, there is a "large crowd" (6:17) of disciples. Jesus is speaking to followers.

"Blessed are you poor," he begins, "for yours is the kingdom of God."

He addresses them as "the poor," and begins to explain how the kingdom of God turns the values of the world upside down.

Sermon on the Mount vs. Sermon on the Plain

But before we examine minutely what he is saying, we need to step back to the larger context. If you have read other parts of the New Testament, this looks a lot like the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. The difference is, that in Matthew you don't have the "blessings" contrasted with the "woes" that Luke records. Why is that?

Perhaps to give Bible scholars a field day. I. Howard Marshall, whose opinions I respect highly, notes in his Commentary on Luke,

"It is generally accepted that one basic piece of tradition underlies the two Sermons and that both Evangelists (and possibly their predecessors in the transmission of the material) have expanded it and modeled it in accord with their own purposes. A greater degree of freedom has been shown by Matthew."157

All this shows me is that Bible scholars like Marshall probably aren't really preachers. You'd be amazed and amused at all the energy that has been spent trying to trace how Matthew took it one way, and Luke spun it another. This is meat for doctoral candidates because it supplies endless topics for doctoral dissertations. (I'm only partly joking here.)

The truth is that Jesus was an itinerant preacher. He often spoke for several hours per day, several days a week, to crowds in one village and then on to the next, all over Galilee and the Jordan, as well as Judea. He was teaching his hearers the basic truths of the good news of the Kingdom. Do you think he ever once repeated himself? Do you think he got up early each morning to write a brand new sermon for the day's teaching? Of course not! He spoke without notes, repeating the same truths over and over again. Certainly, with different parables and illustrations, and endless variations of them. But the same basic teaching.

If you've ever been on a speaking circuit, you probably have prepared several basic speeches. You get so you don't need your notes after a while. Every speech comes out pretty much as the one before it. But they vary according to events in the news, the mindset of the particular audience, or an event that occurs in the middle of the speech that you respond to and use to illustrate a point. Sermons are much the same, and often different. Over three years, the disciples had heard the same sermons, with variations, many, many times.

So the differences we see between accounts in the four Gospels shouldn't surprise us. There was variation in the form of the basic teaching. We should expect that. So we shouldn't be all worked up that in Luke we find both "blessings" and "woes," but in Matthew only "blessings." Instead of concentrating on the differences between the two, we do better studying Jesus' particular points recorded accurately in Luke's Gospel and learn from their particular flavor on this occasion. I, for one, see no reason that we have to conflate the Sermon on the Mount with the Sermon on the Plain. Let them be separate! Jesus could easily have uttered them both.

Hebrew Parallelism

Instead of studying each of the blessings first and then each of the woes, we'll be looking first at a blessing and then its corresponding woe. They come in pairs.

The Hebrews often expressed themselves by parallelism. For example, we see:

"Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me.
Bless his holy name." (Psalm 103:1)

Lines 1 and 2 are parallel. In the first line he uses the word "soul" (Hebrew nephesh), in the second a word meaning "midst, inner, internal" (Hebrew qereb).158 Is the psalmist trying to distinguish between the words? No, he is saying the same thing another way. We find this often in the New Testament, too, even though these Hebraisms have been translated into Greek. For example:

"Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined,
and every city or household divided against itself will not stand." (Matthew 12:25)

This is Hebrew parallelism, and you see it thousands of times in the Old Testament prophets, Psalms, and Proverbs especially. To rightly interpret the Scriptures we need to recognize it as a common form of expression.

Another variety of Hebrew parallelism is called "antithetic parallelism," that is, a positive paired with a negative. This is frequent in Proverbs:

"Listen to your father, who gave you life,
and do not despise your mother when she is old." (Proverbs 23:22)

Then you find examples of antithetic parallelism in whole passages, the first positive and the second negative. The best-known example is Psalm 1:

"Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers.

Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish." (Psalm 1:1-6)

The "Blessings and Woes" passage we are studying in Luke 6:20-26 follows this sort of antithetical parallelism. First the positive, and then -- even more symmetrically than Psalm 1 -- a negative for each positive.

The kind of structure we see in the "Blessings and the Woes" are a clue that this is a Hebrew poetic style. You can often see a similar kind of clear structure in many Old Testament passages. Several Psalms are formed as an acrostic: the first letter of each section starting with the next letter in order of the Hebrew alphabet. The creation passage in Genesis 1-2, also, is in a very structured format. It, too, is poetry, not prose, and is meant to speak to the heart as well as the mind.

Blessings and Woes

The word "blessed" is Greek makarios. In Greek usage, it expressed the happy, untroubled state of the gods, and then more generally, the happiness of the rich who are free from care. In the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, it is used for Hebrew 'asere, and is found in the form of "O the happiness of..." The reference is to the religious joy of the person who has a share in salvation: "Fortunate is X because ...."159

The word translated "woe" is Greek ouai, "an interjection denoting pain or displeasure, 'woe, alas!'"160 It is an expression of pity for those who stand under divine judgment.161

Biblical and extra-biblical Jewish writing has many examples of a combination of woes with blessings.162 What really sets Jesus' blessings and woes apart is that they are 180 degrees contrary to reason. You'd expect someone to say, "The rich are fortunate ... but alas for the poor." Instead, Jesus says just the opposite. He must have made a lot of ears prick up and people reevaluate their own value system.

Poor vs. Rich (Luke 6:20, 24)

"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." (6:20)
"But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort." (6:24)

The first shocker is Jesus' word of the blessedness of the poor, and a hopeless future for the rich. I'm not sure the poor would agree, and the rich would probably laugh.

But Jesus is talking about a different kind of wealth than monetary wealth. Jesus told a parable about the farmer who was so wealthy that he planned to tear down all his barns and build new ones so he had enough room to store all his grain. He measured his wealth in possessions, but Jesus' commentary on his life was that he was "not rich toward God" (Luke 12:16-21). We in America are part of a culture that tends to worship money, and we Christians, too, can value life in monetary terms. If we make a low wage, we feel bad about ourselves; if we make a lot of money, we are proud. But money is a very poor indicator of spiritual riches.

What would we do in this life if we really believed that money had no lasting value and that serving God with all our heart accrues spiritual riches? So often we value money higher than Jesus! In these Blessings and Woes, Jesus is challenging our money-based value system and calling it worthless. True riches are spiritual.

Why does Jesus bless the poor? Aren't there any rich believers? Of course, but Jesus is using a sharp contrast to make a vital point to his disciples. Those who are wealthy feel insulated by their wealth. Their needs don't seem to be as acute as those of the poor, and they are less often desperate enough to change. The rich tend to be self-satisfied. The poor, on the other hand, are forced to trust in God, since they have no wealth to trust in to tide them over. It really is a case that you can't have two masters -- God and Money (Matthew 6:24). Each master has a diametrically opposed value system.

Jesus' commission was "to preach good news to the poor" (4:18), and the poor heard Jesus' words gladly. It was the rich religious establishment that felt threatened and resisted his teachings.

Why are the poor so blessed? Because through their faith and trust in God, they are the heirs of God's kingdom. They are fabulously wealthy "King's kids." The true wealth is theirs.

Why are the rich to be pitied? Because they have nothing to look forward to. They have already received their comfort. The Greek word translated "comfort" (NIV) or "consolation" (KJV) is Greek paraklēsis, "encouragement ... comfort, consolation,"163 from parakaleō, "to call to one's side ... summon to one's aid, call upon for help."164 The rich have already received whatever comfort they can expect. Their comfort comes from their wealth. When they die there will be no comfort. When they face eternity there will be no comfort. When they face everlasting punishment there will be no comfort. God will not welcome them into his home. Their future is bleak at best. Alas for them.

But what a blessing the poor have, for the whole Kingdom of which God is Master opens up to them. They are God's beneficiaries!

Hungry vs. Well-Fed (Luke 6:21a, 25a)

"Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied." (6:21a)
"Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry." (6:25a)

The second shocker is much less abstract than wealth. It refers to being hungry. Have you ever had to go without food? Have you ever had to cut down on what you bought at the grocery store because you just couldn't afford more? Have you ever had a crop that failed because of drought or blight, and you and your family had to eat the bare minimum to survive to make it through to the next harvest? That's what Jesus is talking about -- hunger.

He contrasts it with being well-fed. Cultures that are prosperous have many overweight people. But in a culture where poverty is rampant, only the rich are plump. It's easy to tell who is well-fed.

Jesus is appealing to the gut instinct to survive, the hunger for food that his listeners can easily identify with. As an agrarian society, all of them had faced very lean years where there wasn't enough food to go around. They knew what hunger is. And they have all felt envy for those who eat well during famine and drought. What is Jesus saying? He is saying that the tables will turn. There is a food that is even more important than bread. It is a spiritual food that satisfies the soul. In John's Gospel, Jesus says, "he who feeds on this bread will live forever" (John 6:58b).

There is something even more valuable than physical food. "Know that. Believe that, O poor of the world," Jesus says. It promises to leave you "satisfied" (NIV). The Greek word is chortazō, passive, "eat one's fill, be satisfied."165 Hungry now? Perhaps. But in the future, you'll be satisfied.

Weeping vs. Laughing (Luke 6:21b, 25b)

The third blessing/woe pair is weeping and laughing.

"Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh." (6:21b)
"Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep." (6:25b)

Who has not wept? Who has not felt the pain of disappointment and loss, of rejection, of struggle? We all have. But the caricature of the well-to-do is of those who are always partying and enjoying themselves. They are not weighed down by the struggle to survive. They laugh and joke while tragedy takes place all around them. They are carefree, happy-go-lucky. They laugh now. Jesus contrasts these carefree people with those who weep now.

But I think Jesus is talking about a different kind of weeping than just from pain and struggle. We see a theme in the Old Testament and New of those righteous people who grieve for the unrighteousness they see all around them. God directs the Prophet Ezekiel:

"Go throughout the city of Jerusalem
and put a mark on the foreheads of those
who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it."
(Ezekiel 9:4; also 2 Peter 2:8; Psalm 119:36)

Those who share God's broken heart for his world now will in the future laugh and rejoice at the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-9), when we sit down at the table with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob -- and Jesus -- in the Kingdom of God and enjoy their fellowship and feast heartily -- forever (Matthew 8:11).

Pie in the Sky When You Die By and By

Christians are often accused of being otherworldly. Detractors say that they endure pain now only by pinning their hopes on "pie in the sky when you die by and by." I think this caricature has merit. That may be a crude way of saying it, but that phrase accurately describes our hope.

The world's general view is: "I want it now." In America we live in an instant culture, a credit culture that mails out millions of unsolicited credit cards with the message, "Buy now, pay later." Americans amass huge credit card debt.

The Christian faith teaches a worldview opposite to "more now." It is not materialistic but spiritual in its focus:

"For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." (2 Cor. 4:17-18)

"We live by faith, not by sight." (2 Corinthians 5:7).

"If the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'" (1 Corinthians 15:32)

"Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things." (Philippians 3:19)

"... To teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord." (Deuteronomy 8:3)

"But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (Matthew 6:33)

We are well past the ascendancy of Marxism, but Marx's insistence on atheistic materialism and religion as the opiate of the masses would be endorsed by many capitalists, and seems firmly entrenched in the hearts of many -- rich, middle class, and poor. What Jesus is teaching in the Blessings and Woes is a radical corrective to materialism as a lifestyle and a worldview.

Hated vs. Praised (Luke 6:22-23, 26)

The fourth Blessing and Woe couplet in the Sermon on the Plain differs from the first three. The first three contrast present struggle with future reward. The fourth pair is not a now/later contrast, but a hate/love contrast. Money is deeply entrenched in the average non-Christian's motivational system; so is popularity.

"Blessed are you when men hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
'Rejoice in that day and leap for joy,
because great is your reward in heaven.
For that is how their fathers treated the prophets." (6:22-23)

"Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets." (6:26)

The desire to be liked is so strong. Our children long to be liked, our teenagers ache to be loved, and we adults still struggle with rejection. Jesus makes it extremely clear in this passage that, if we are seeking popularity and acceptance, then we may be severely deceived.

Jesus goes back to the prophets in Israel's national life. Their lives were mountain peaks in the history of the nation, but their tasks were thankless. They were faithful to the Lord, and often suffered persecution and death.

  • Elijah's zeal for the Lord won a huge victory over Baal worship on Mount Carmel, but Elijah became a hunted man who had to flee Israel to survive, and was later accused of being the "troubler of Israel."
  • Isaiah was called to call judgment down upon his own nation.
  • Jeremiah's burden was to tell his people to surrender to the Babylonians -- and was branded a traitor.
  • Ezekiel spoke fearsome judgment upon his own beloved land and was accused of being a false prophet.
  • Daniel was thrown in a lion's den.
  • John the Baptist was beheaded.
  • Jesus was crucified.

Many prophets were killed when they faithfully did and said what God told them to. Being a prophet was never easy, but God honored those who spoke his words at great personal risk. There is a prophet's reward. "Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward" (Matthew 10:41). Prophets have a place of high honor in the Kingdom of God. Jesus warns his enemies,

"There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out." (Luke 13:28)

The Trap of Popularity

Jesus is speaking very seriously to his band of disciples, the Twelve and the others who follow him. "Men and women," he is saying, "don't seek popularity and acceptance. Those are false paths. Historically, false prophets were widely accepted and praised when Israel was at its most decadent. Just because people praise you doesn't mean anything so far as the Kingdom of God is concerned. In fact, when they insult and despise you because you follow me, count it as a great victory, because you are now in the same league as the holy prophets of old.

I know some Christians who are flat out unlikable people -- and so do you. It's not because they are especially spiritual. It's because they are grumpy, full of themselves, inconsiderate, and self-absorbed. Some Christians see the fact that they are unpopular as a vindication of their "I'm-right-and-the-world-can-go-to-hell" attitude. That's not what Jesus is saying.

Nor is Jesus saying his followers will never be popular. For much of his ministry, Jesus was immensely popular with the common people.

What he is saying is that popularity is a dangerous value system on which to judge ourselves or others. People are notoriously fickle. What may be in favor one day may be considered poor taste just a few years later. We see massive shifts in public opinion even in shorter time frames. Just because in a democracy "majority rules" does not mean that "majority is right."

Jesus is saying not to seek popularity, but to seek faithfulness. We are not to seek persecution. But if persecution comes "because of the Son of Man," then that should be counted a badge of honor rather than something we abhor and shrink from. Our value system is based on love for and faithfulness to God, not the opinions of the community, either good or bad.

The multitudes thronged around Jesus on the Plain that day, but his words are directed to his real followers. Jesus is talking about what motivates and tempts you, and what motivates and tempts me. Blessings will abound if we steer carefully around the temptations and stay on the path of following Jesus faithfully. But woes and regrets are what we'll receive if we take the shortcuts that the devil points out for us along the way.

Alas, Babylon!

I remember the 1960s, when nuclear destruction was a very real fear in this country. I read a book as a teenager entitled Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (1959). It was about the horror of a nuclear holocaust consuming a city that was seen from afar only as a growing mushroom cloud. It was a chilling image. It still is. The novel's title comes from the Book of Revelation, where Babylon is the personification of the world system that has prostituted itself to the devil's allurements of riches and acclaim. Babylon is called the great whore.

"And the kings of the earth, who have committed fornication and lived deliciously with her, shall bewail her, and lament for her, when they shall see the smoke of her burning, Standing afar off for the fear of her torment, saying, Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come. And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more....

"And they cast dust on their heads, and cried, weeping and wailing, saying, Alas, alas, that great city, wherein were made rich all that had ships in the sea by reason of her costliness! for in one hour is she made desolate. Rejoice over her, thou heaven, and ye holy apostles and prophets; for God hath avenged you on her." (Revelation 18:9-11, 19-20, KJV)

Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.

Jesus calls his disciples to adopt now, by faith, a value system far different from this world's. But he promises that one day this world's system will be destroyed along with all who have pinned their hopes on its values. Then only God's eternal values will remain along with those who trust in them. Jesus says, "Blessed are you ..." and "Woe to you...." There will be a final epitaph upon the false world system. And it will be:

Alas, Babylon.


Father, render my heart pure for you. Try me. Refine me. Remove from me the dross of lesser metals and impurity of motive, and make me like gold to shine for your glory. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." (Luke 6:20)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  1. What does Jesus mean by his use of the words "poor" and "rich" in this passage? Does he intend these words to be taken literally or figuratively?
  2. Choose one of these four alternatives and then support your choice:
    (1) Christianity can be accurately characterized by delayed gratification.
    (2) Christianity can be accurately characterized as seeking a present blessing and experience.
    (3) Christianity can be characterized by both a present blessing and experience, and by delayed gratification.
    (4) Christianity can be accurately characterized by none of the above. Why did you make the choice you did?
  3. What is wrong with being rich? With desiring to be rich? Why is this such a stumbling block for Christians? How are you getting this in balance in your life?
  4. Why do we seek to please people? Why is pleasing people such a trap for Christians? Is there anything good about trying to please people? Why is it necessary to get this in balance in our lives?


Abbreviations and References

[157] Marshall, Luke, p. 243.

[158] TWOT 2:813, #2066.

[159] Marshall, Luke, p. 248.

[160] Ouai, BAGD 591.

[161] Marshall, Luke, p. 255.

[162] Examples are in Isaiah 3:10-11; Ecclesiastes 10:16-17; Tobias 12:12, 14; 1 Enoch 5:7; 99; 2 Enoch 52; Ber 61b; Yoma 87a; Sukka 56b.

[163] Paraklēsis, BAGD 618.

[164] Parakaleō, BAGD 617.

[165] Chortazō, BAGD 883-884.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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