The Gospel text for this Sunday [Luke 6:17-26] contains the start of the not-so-famous Sermon on the Plain. I know this is a silly way to say it, but you might say that this sermon has lived ‘under the shadow’ of the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew 5-7).
It seems that the Gospel according to Matthew has always been more popular than the Gospel according to Luke; some people treat it very highly. It is the first of the four accounts, and some people take that to mean it was written first. This gospel account, at first glance, seems much more organized than the Gospel according to Luke. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus gives five discourses, and these discourses have connections to the first five books of the Old Testament--the foundation of the entire Bible. And we have many more early manuscripts of this account than we do of the other accounts.
It is interesting that the Concordia Self-Study Bible emphasizes the possibility that the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain could have been the same event—that there may have been a ‘plateau’ on the mount where Jesus was. Whereas The Lutheran Study Bible emphasizes the point that Jesus would repeat himself often in his important teachings, and the implication there is that this is probably not the same event.
Which one is it? Is the Sermon on the Plain really a Sermon on a Plateau? Now if someone had visually recorded what had happened that day, we would have some conclusive evidence. But I do not think that we are going to find that evidence. And even more important than the very small details of what 'happened' is what Jesus said--and what he continues to say.
I do like the idea of repetition for emphasis. Repetitio est mater studiorum. I first heard that phrase from a pastor friend soon after I graduated from the seminary. And that phrase has stayed with me. And I think it just makes more sense that these are two different events and that Jesus would repeat some important things with his disciples. (And the text begins by saying that Jesus ‘came down … and stood in a level place’. It does not say that he went up to a plateau.)
The structure Jesus uses in both sermons--starting with a blessing and ending with an importance on his words--this structure can be found elsewhere. The Psalms are an excellent example of this. The first one starts with a blessing, and the last five focus on praising the Lord--using words--because of some of the important things he does. (See especially Psalm 147:19-20; and I think these last five Psalms can also be connected to the first five books of the Old Testament; and the entire book is divided into five books anyway.)
I also think that the Sermon on the Plain is quite appropriate to the living creature that is most often connected with this account, that of an ox. The ideal field is one that is quite level. Jesus, like the ox, goes to work on a level place. And when he engages a wide variety of people—even people from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon--that is like having a wide variety of soil with which to work.
Jesus, like the ox, gets the job done. He has the power to do it (see verse 19 but also 5:17). He has the strength to overturn the lives of various people, much like the hard work of overturning soil. Soil needs to be overturned so that something significant can grow.
The Lord's Law and Gospel do that same work today.
The gospel text for this Sunday is Luke 5:1-11, and looking at that text was a reminder to me that the context of a word or a thing is important. You might think of the previous uses of a word to be sort of a dictionary, to help you understand the word when it comes up later.
Peter ends up saying that he does not want to be close to the Lord. ‘Depart from me…’, he says. And you can see that same thought come up in a lot of places.
Right after the text, Jesus heals a leper, and only in this account does the text say that the leper falls on his face (verse 12)—and is, therefore, not able to see Jesus. In the healing of the paralyzed man that follows after that, the response of the crowd is, literally, that they saw a ‘paradox’, something unusual (verse 26). According to the actions of Jesus—that he forgave and healed a person—he was God, and a person should not be able to look at God. But Jesus looked like a normal person, and they had no trouble looking at him and being in his presence.
This theme of presence has not gone unnoticed. In The Lutheran Study Bible, on page 1705, right at the very top of the page, are the following words: ‘God ‘s presence permeates the birth events of John the Baptist and Jesus (Luke 1:5-2:52).’
You can see that in the unique phrases which follow. ‘[Zechariah and Elizabeth] were righteous before God (Luke 1:6).’ ‘[John] will be great before the Lord (1:15).’ An angel says, ‘I [Gabriel] stand in the presence of God (1:19).’ There is also the part of Simeon’s song which relates to presence—in this case, the presence of people: ‘…my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples…(Luke 2:30f).’ In Jesus’ temptations, Satan says that if Jesus would worship ‘before me’, then he would give him everything (4:7). And I may be making too much of this, but in the Greek text of this gospel account, Jesus sometimes says things ‘toward’ someone rather than ‘to’ someone. With that word, you also get the idea that presence is important. (The translations usually do not pick this up though; compare Mark 1:38 and Luke 4:43.) In all these ways, the issue of presence is an important theme.
I recently found another new book which emphasizes this. The book is not for the faint of heart (and mind—and pocketbook—the price is outrageous). But the book supports the point I was trying to make above. The title is Scripture Re-envisioned: Christophanic Exegesis and the Making of a Christian Bible, by Bogdan Gabriel Bucur (Brill, 2019). Here is a quote from the Forward: ‘…Bucur offers us the first full and detailed study of how the ancient interpreters viewed God’s revelation as a dramatic act of presence, originally anchored in historic theophanic moments in the Old Testament where Jesus Christ was already active as principal revealer of the Divine (emphasis original, page vii).’ In other words, this idea of God’s presence has been present for a very long time; the New Testament is very much like the old one.
Like others, Bucur starts with a look at the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-49). I like that connection because we know very little about those disciples; they are like us, how we feel about ourselves sometimes; we can sometimes get the idea that God does not know or care too much about us. In the past parents often used bible names to name their children, and that provided some connection to the bible, but today that is not so common. But as Jesus came to those two unknown disciples, he comes to us.
The great thing about the theme of God’s presence is that it only takes one more step to say that the Old Testament word for gospel is one where the presence of the ‘king’—in this case, God—is important. We cannot stand in God’s presence, and so a messenger was sent with some very good news. And the name of that messenger, of course, is Jesus. And it is so wonderful that his name means the one who saves or rescues.
The Gospel text for this Sunday [Luke 4:31-44] has Jesus rebuking a fever (verse 39). That is an interesting phrase and deserves some focus. It is unique to the gospel accounts (see Mark 1:31). And that Jesus also rebukes a demon just a bit earlier in the text might make you wonder if there is some similarity between a fever and a demon!
That kind of conclusion would focus too much on ourselves and our own situations. It would certainly be nice for Christians to be able to rebuke a fever and it would leave. But the focus of this text and basically of the entire scriptures is and should always be Jesus.
Focusing on the word ‘rebuke’ will help to keep that focus on Jesus. According to its form, the word ‘rebuke’ is connected to the word ‘honor’. Whoever is doing the rebuking, that person is in a position of authority to the person (or thing) being rebuked. The person in authority deserves some sort of honor. And in the Greek dictionary [BDAG, p. 384], regarding the word ‘rebuke’, the following description is also given: ‘speak seriously’. That perspective may be helpful to understand the meaning of the word and the text’s proper focus.
Jesus is the one speaking seriously to the fever. Jesus is also the one speaking seriously to the demon. Given that context, the confessions of Jesus to be the ‘Holy One of God’ (verse 34), the Son of God (verse 41), and the Christ (also verse 41) do not seem to be serious enough for Jesus.
I also think it is not a coincidence that Peter calls Jesus ‘the Christ of God’ (Luke 9:20), and Jesus gives the same ‘rebuke’ (although it is translated as ‘strictly charged’). He starts to speak seriously to his followers. He says this: ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (verse 22).’
Jesus goes to Capernaum, and then he goes away from Capernaum. He goes to another place, but then he also goes away from that place. And then there is the famous verse in this gospel account which summarizes the rest of the account: ‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51).’ He goes to Jerusalem, to his cross, and then he goes away.
From the days of his youth to the day of his death—and the days which followed after that—he was the obedient one. He was the one who spoke seriously when people needed to hear some serious words about life and death, about who they were and about who he was. He was the hard worker, the serious one, the one who is like the ox, always willing to get the job done—for us.