One of the best things about the Gospels in the New Testament is that there are four of them – each one named after the saint who, according to tradition, was its author: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
All four gospels recount the same astounding story: that of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whom they proclaim to be the Christ, the promised Messiah. And very often they include episodes that are recognisably the same – sometimes almost word for word in their similarity.
So why is it so good that we have four of them? The answer is that, although they all recount the same basic narrative, each one of the evangelists (the Gospel writers), tells that story in a very distinctive way, emphasising different themes. It is a bit like reading the report of the same incident in four different newspapers, each of which is targeting a different audience. Or like one of those novels where you witness the same event through the eyes of a sequence of different characters. Any one of the four Gospels will tell you the basic story; but when you encounter it from four different perspectives it acquires a richness, and a depth, and a power that would otherwise be lacking.
That is also why it is always worth having an eye to the distinctive themes of each Gospel, so you can listen out for them. And we are helped in that particular task in that each year we follow one particular Gospel in our Sunday Eucharistic readings, on a three-year cycle. So, last year we followed St Mark’s Gospel; next year we shall follow St Matthew; and this year, we are reading through St Luke – as you may already have noticed. But what about John’s Gospel, you might ask? Well John doesn’t get a whole year to himself, but he does bag the best bits of every year – in that we always tend to hear passages from John’s Gospel at the major festivals and feast days – particularly Christmas and Easter.
Now, in case you are wondering why on earth I have started my sermon in this particular way today, it is because in order to make sense of this morning’s Gospel reading, it is really useful to know about the themes that most interest its author, St Luke.
So what are the distinctive features and emphases of Luke’s Gospel? Firstly, St Luke is an absolutely brilliant storyteller – which is one of the reasons why may churchgoers would identify Luke as their favourite Gospel. For example, it is only in Luke’s Gospel that we find those marvellous and memorable parables told by Jesus of the Good Samaritan, and the Prodigal Son. St Luke also rumbled something long before the editors of tabloid newspapers recognised it: namely that if you want to grab and retain the attention of your readers, give them ‘people stories’: Luke’s Gospel begins with that wonderful sequence of stories about fascinating and memorable characters: Zechariah and Elizabeth; Mary and her encounter with the Angel Gabriel; the extraordinary story of the shepherds visiting the Christ child at Bethlehem – all of which are found only in St Luke.
Secondly, unlike Matthew’s Gospel, which was designed primarily for a Jewish readership, Luke is writing for a Gentile audience – I shall come back to this in a moment. Thirdly, Luke is really big on the Holy Spirit – the Spirit is everywhere in Luke. Indeed, you may remember a couple of weeks ago we were reflecting on the famous and highly dramatic incident when Jesus, in the synagogue in his home town, read aloud that famous text from Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.’ An incident that again is only found in Luke.
And finally (and this is the most important point I want to make this morning), Luke is supremely the evangelist who puts the poor and the marginalised absolutely centre stage. In the opening chapter of St Luke, in the incident known as the ‘Visitation’, where the pregnant Mary travels to see her kinswoman, the pregnant Elizabeth, we hear the words that are familiar to many of us as one of the canticles sung by our choir here every Sunday evening at Evensong: the Magnificat. It contains the lines: ‘He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away.’ These words were deemed so dangerous and so subversive during the days when the British East India Company was effectively ruling India, that in 1805 the Magnificat was banned from Evensong there for fear that it might provoke local uprisings. And: surprise, surprise!: that passage, too, is found only in Luke’s Gospel.
Which brings us on to our Gospel reading today. Now, those of you who know your way around the New Testament will be familiar with the very well-known passage from St Matthew’s Gospel often referred to as ‘The Sermon on the Mount’. It is the incident where Jesus addresses the crowds who are following him with those famous words, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, etc.’
Our Gospel reading this morning is St Luke’s account of that very same episode – which makes the differences between the two versions fascinating and very instructive. Firstly, and most obviously, in St Matthew’s text, the incident takes place up a mountain – which is why it’s called the Sermon on the Mount (funnily enough). But in the version we heard today, from St Luke, it’s not up a mountain at all – on the contrary, he has just come down from one, and, we are told specifically, was standing on a level place.
What possible significance might that have? Well, it is worth remembering that a lot of the really significant action in Matthew’s Gospel happens up mountains. Why is that? Matthew, you will remember, is writing for a predominantly Jewish readership, and you may well have noticed that in the Old Testament, mountains are highly significant – not least because they are the places where encounters with God tend to happen: we have Mount Ararat – where Noah’s boat came to rest; Mount Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments; Mount Zion where the Jerusalem Temple was built; Mount Carmel, where the Prophet Elijah used to hang out – and so on. So Matthew has a very particular reason for situating this particular event up a mountain which Luke, writing for a Gentile audience, does not.
But much more importantly, note the differences in content. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount begins rather perplexingly with the phrase ‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit’ (what exactly does that mean? – and who are these people?). Now compare that with the blast that we hear in Luke’s Gospel. His version is far less well known, and far less often quoted – I suspect precisely because the challenge with which it confronts is so stark and so uncompromising. Not, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit ..’ But:
Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger.
Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
Blimey! That is about as challenging and subversive and as radical a message as you could possibly get – and it also nails a truth that lies at the very heart of the Gospel: a truth that to my mind Luke communicates more powerfully and more memorably than any of the other evangelists.
Because it is demonstrably the case that wealth and power and all the trappings that come with a life of comfort, can not only deaden us to the things of God; but they can stultify the very qualities that make us fully human. If you want to learn about the true nature of generosity, don’t look to the rich – look to those who have little, but know how to value what they have, and know what it is to be dependent upon one another. Poverty is a curse, and an evil that must be resisted: it devalues people, and keeps them in chains.
But those of us who live privileged and comfortable lives here in this part of the world, wear chains that are no less real because they are less visible. And sometimes we fail to see that in putting up barriers between ourselves and those who suffer, we also barricade ourselves against the love of God.
The other day I came across a quotation from the Fourth Century saint, St Basil the Great, which is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it:
The bread you hold back belongs to the hungry.
The coat you guard in your locked storage-chest belongs to the naked.
The footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes.
The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need.
St Luke’s Gospel is a wonderful read – but not always a comfortable read.
And thanks be to God for that.