Tradition tells us that the author of Luke’s Gospel was a physician from the Greek city of Antioch, situated in ancient Syria. Given his obsession with level roads, however, I’m beginning to think that maybe he was a Dollar General executive who had his teeth rattled during his commute down I-65 every day. This isn’t our first foray into level places with Luke. Way back in Advent, we heard the story of John the Baptist coming onto the scene. In it, Luke uses Isaiah’s prophecy of a great leveling for the Israelites living in exile in Babylon to describe what John came to do. There will be no more desolate valleys, all will be filled in. The haughtiness of the mountains will be humbled. Every path will be made straight. Even the rough patches, potholes, and deep ruts will be made smooth. In Luke’s understanding of what God is all about, this leveling of the world makes it possible for all people, from all over the globe and every walk of life, to make their way to Jerusalem and the final victory of God.
Fast forward a few months, in real time and in the Biblical narrative, and this morning, we hear another prophetic sermon on a similar theme coming from Jesus. Often referred to as the “Sermon on the Plain”, I’d like to propose we retitle it “The Sermon on and of a Level Place.” Either way, it is one of the longest recorded teaching discourses we have from Jesus, and the first chance he has to impart wisdom on the newly formed band of twelve disciples. Having just spent the night in prayer atop a mountain, Jesus comes down to a level place, names the twelve, and immediately begins to teach them (and anyone who would listen) the basics of what the Kingdom of God will look like in reality. The scene is a chaotic one. There are people everywhere. Jesus had spent the day before healing people, and the crowds that morning were swollen with people just hoping that some kind of power might fling off of him in their direction. He doesn’t spend much time switching gears. His goal that morning was simply to lay the foundation for what he was hoping to inaugurate.
I’ve mentioned in sermons before that Jesus, while a perfect Messiah, wasn’t a great church growth guru. We see that again here, as the massive crowd pressed in on him, and he began to preach, saying, “Blessed are you who are poor.” I can imagine several members of the crowd shifting uncomfortably on their feet. “Blessed are you who are hungry… who weep… when people hate… exclude… revile… and defame you.” I’m sure there were many in the crowd who knew hunger, poverty, anxiety, and exclusion, and I’m equally sure very few of them would consider themselves blessed. He goes on, “Woe to you who are rich, full, and laughing now. Woe to you when people speak well of you.” There were certainly some in the crowd, even among the twelve he had just named as Apostles, who had experienced abundance and joy and were equally confused about what seemed like a curse coming their way.
The opening lines of the Sermon on the Plain are, admittedly, pretty intense, but they are not without purpose, and they fit perfectly within the worldview of Luke’s Gospel and his affinity for level places. We must be careful not spiritualize these words to assuage our guilt. It would be easy to run over to the Matthew’s Gospel, climb up from the Level Place and into the more comfortable and familiar Sermon on the Mount, and rest as Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but that isn’t what he says to us this morning. He simply says, “Blessed are the poor.” It would be easy to look at the big picture and assume that Jesus just means that one day, after the resurrection, the poor will inherit the Kingdom of God, the hungry will be filled, and those who weep will find joy. If only those who suffer are patient, they will get their reward, someday. The Church has teamed up with the powers-that-be and used this passage to pacify the poor while it enriched itself on far too many occasions. It would be even easier to look at the woes and rationalize our way out of categories like rich and full, so that we might catch an easy blessing and avoid an uncomfortable woe, but that doesn’t quite work either.
Instead, we must take this Sermon on the Plain at face value, in the context of the themes of Luke’s gospel, and see that the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus is envisioning here is the same one that God promised through Isaiah and John the Baptist. It is the world as God intended it in creation, where there are no desolate valleys, all will be filled in. The haughtiness of the mountains will be humbled. Every path will be made straight. Even the rough patches, potholes, and deep ruts will be made smooth. Here in his Sermon on a Level Place, Jesus anticipates a world made up only of Level Places.
While I was on vacation last week, inside a beautiful, seaside resort surrounded by walls to keep the effects of generational poverty and Colonialism at bay, sitting by a pool that featured two water slides and a lazy river, waiting on our server, Kermit, who rode a bus an hour each way to serve drinks to relatively rich people from around the globe thirteen days out of every fourteen, to come back with my pina colada, I passed the time reading a book. In an unintentionally ironic move, I was reading How to be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur, creator of shows like The Good Place, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It’s a book on ethics, written by a comedy writer, and I highly recommend it. Anyway, in his chapter on Aristotle, Schur translates eudaimonia, the Greek word that Aristotle used to describe the end goal of human existence, not as “happiness” as many modern English translators have, but as “flourishing.”
Immediately, I was transported to several of the meetings we’ve had with our City Shapers cohort where we’ve discussed what it means for our entire community to flourish. What City Shapers, Aristotle, and, I believe, the blessings and woes in the sermon on the plain have in common is the understanding that flourishing, the telos, or end goal of all humanity, what Jesus would call “blessedness,” only happens in a world of balance: a level place wherein all thrive, and no one has too much, and no one has too little. Luke’s Jesus invites us to work on filling in the gaps. Jesus doesn’t go so far as to hand us a shovel but is clear that those of us who live in the luxury of the hills, dangerously close to woe territory, ought to get to work leveling out the playing field, working toward a more just society, and helping to smooth out the valleys that our neighbors live in every day. In his Sermon on and of a Level Place, Jesus calls on all his would-be disciples, us included, to build a world in which all are thriving, all are well fed, and all find joy. It is only in the level places that all can truly be blessed. Amen.