Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Mount and Plain

Luke and Matthew each present a different setting for Jesus’ preaching of the beatitudes. In Luke, Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Plain, while in Matthew, he preaches the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 16:17; Matt 5:1). Both evangelists are careful to describe the terrain upon which Jesus delivers this sermon:

Luke 6:17, 20a

And he came down with them
and stood on a level place,
with a great crowd of his disciples
and a great multitude of people….
And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples,
and said….
Matt 5:1-2

Seeing the crowds, he went up
on the mountain,
and when he sat down his disciples came to him.

And he opened his mouth and taught them,

Each evangelist presents the sermon beginning with a listing of beatitudes in a different setting and according to his distinct perspective. These two scenes present contrasts that are worth examining. In Matthew, Jesus goes away from the crowds; in Luke, he remains among them. In Matthew, Jesus teaches from a high place; in Luke, he teaches from below. Matthew’s setting atop a mountain echoes the giving of the Mosaic law – does Luke see Jesus as a lawgiver? Luke’s setting places Jesus among the people, which effectively emphasizes Jesus' humanity – does Matthew make Jesus seem more remote or emphasize his divinity?
These two pericopes may retell the same sermon or there is the possibility that these are two separate but similar sermons.  This post considers differences of theme and emphasis between them. The differences between these accounts invite the question: What distinct understanding of the gospel does each evangelist convey with his distinct setting? Each setting effectively symbolizes the perspective more explicitly expressed in the subsequent beatitudes. The “level place” of Luke fittingly represents his more egalitarian and immanent, earthly vision, while “the mountain” of Matthew fittingly represents his more spiritual and transcendent, heavenly emphasis. Each evangelist’s presentation of the beatitudes reinforces what his setting symbolically implies. Are Matthew and Luke contradictory or complementary in their understanding of Jesus’ message as they present it in these passages? Does the tension between these two visions of Jesus’ message offer a problem or an opportunity for those who would follow Jesus? 
The Markan Spine
The setting for the sermon has its foundation in Mark (3:13).

Mark 3:13-14

And he went up
on the mountain,

and called to him those whom he desired; and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach
Luke 6:12-13

In these days he went out
to the mountain to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when it was day,
he called his disciples,

and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles;
Matt 5:1-2

Seeing the crowds, he went up
on the mountain, and when he sat down

his disciples came to him.

Mark contains neither beatitudes nor sermon of any kind at this point, but he does provide the stage upon which both Luke and Matthew have Jesus preach this sermon. Luke remains closer to the Markan spine, keeping the appointing of the twelve on the mountain and having Jesus come down from the mountain in order to preach his sermon “on a level place.” Matthew moves the appointing of the twelve to later in his gospel (10:1-5), which enables him to use the mountain as the setting for Jesus’ sermon. Their mutual dependence on the Markan spine further associates the two versions of this sermon and justifies a close comparison between them. “The [Sermons] are located at about the same place in both Gospels, and in both they are surrounded by a similar narrative framework” – part of which is the setting provided by Mark (Betz 43).[1]
The Mount
Scripturally, there is a symbolic meaning of the mountain as a high place from which to preach with authority, which comes from God. “For Matthew, mountains (especially in 5:1) represent places of revelation, akin to Sinai or Zion” (Baxter 29). The Old Testament frequently refers to God himself as “Most High” or “God on High” (Ēl ʿElyōn, e.g. Gen 14:20; Ps 9:2) and depicts high places and mountains as places of encountering God (e.g. Ps. 121:1). Preeminent among such images is Mount Sinai, upon which God revealed the Torah to Moses (Ex 19-24). The parallels of Jesus with Moses are evident in Matthew, which contains five great discourses, which “may be intended to recall the five books of the Torah” (Duling 1858). Just as Moses received the law on the mountain, so does Jesus fulfill the law on the mountain with his Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matt 5:17). In Matthew, Jesus sits atop a mountain preaching and directing those who listen beneath him.
 To whom does Jesus preach in Matthew? “Great crowds followed [Jesus]…. Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain” (Matt 4:25 – 5:1). The simple meaning of these words alone would seem to indicate that Jesus went up the mountain to get away from the people.[2] At first, he did get away from the great crowds because, apparently, only “his disciples,” and not the whole crowd, came to him (Matt 5:1). For this reason, Raymond Brown suggests, “Matt’s Sermon on the Mount… was directed to the Twelve” (239) and Edmund K. Neufeld observes that these “opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount have much clearer connection to the disciples than to the crowds” (272). However, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew reveals that, in fact, the “crowds” – and not just the Twelve – heard Jesus’ sayings and “were astonished at his teaching” (7:28). This is an apparent incongruity. Perhaps the idea is that, as Jesus preached his sermon to the Twelve, the crowds he had withdrawn from formed again to overhear what they could.
Neufeld suggests an interesting interpretation: “It is probably best to understand the setting to imply concentric circles, disciples on the inside and crowds behind them but also listening” (272-273). Clearly, Jesus removes himself from among the crowds to deliver this sermon in Matthew (5:1). This may indicate a more hierarchical sensibility in Matthew. Not all the message is for all the people. The inner circle of disciples has greater access to his teachings than do the outer throngs. For Matthew, the mountain may signify a hierarchy of revelation: Jesus “went up the mountain,” so he is the very source of revelation; “his disciples came to him,” so they are closest to him, and Jesus “went up” from “the crowds,” yet they too are listening to the things that Jesus says (5:1; 7:28).

The Plain
In Luke, Jesus goes up the mountain not to preach, but to pray and to appoint the twelve (6:12-13).[3] “Mountains in Luke seem to function (though not exclusively) as places of prayer (cf. 6:12; 9:28; 22:39-45)” (Baxter 29). After Jesus prays atop the mountain and appoints the twelve, he then comes down to “a level place” to be among the crowds to preach this sermon (Luke 6:17).
The symbolic significance of plains in scripture is less well established than that of mountains, but Luke is aware of an interesting idea about level places in scripture:

As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth (Luke 3:4-5; cf. Is 40:3-4; Matt 3:3; Mark 1:3; John 1:23).

The actual passage in Isaiah even more explicitly describes a level place: “the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (Is 40:4b). This passage in Isaiah describes the coming revelation of “the glory of the Lord” (Is 40:5), which brings “comfort” (40:1), pardon, and peace to Jerusalem (40:2). All four canonical gospels quote Isaiah 40:3, but only Luke continues the quote to include the filling of valleys and the lowering of mountains (Is 40:4), so he is certainly familiar with this significant meaning of a level place (Luke 4:5). It is uncertain whether Luke directly intends for the level place where Jesus preaches his beatitudes to refer directly to this idea in Isaiah, but it is an exciting possibility, and it is thematically plausible because Jesus, who reveals the kingdom of God, goes on to offer comfort to those who are afflicted by his preaching of the beatitudes. 
Even though Jesus preaches on a plain and not a mountain in Luke, and the parallels between Jesus and Moses are less evident in Luke than in Matthew, in at least one thing Luke presents Jesus as more similar to Moses than does Matthew. Moses went up the mountain alone to meet with God,[4] not with the people of Israel,[5] and he brought the Lord’s messages down with him and gave them to the people.[6] In Luke, Jesus goes up the mountain and prays – communicating with God, his Father. Then, he comes down and gives the people his teaching. It is possible, then, that Luke also sees Jesus here as a lawgiver in the tradition of Moses.
To whom does Jesus preach in Luke? He preaches to “a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon” (Luke 6:17). Here there is no clear distinction between the crowd and the disciples, as there is in Matthew. Jesus addresses the beatitudes to “his disciples” (Luke 6:20), just as he does in Matthew (5:1), but in Luke the great crowd is “of his disciples.” This presents a more egalitarian vision than Matthew’s more strongly implied hierarchy. 
The Sermon
Both the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain begin with beatitudes. Matthew and Luke present these beatitudes differently, and these differences more explicitly bear out the differences already symbolically implied by the difference in setting. The beatitudes themselves further illuminate the two evangelists’ reasons for the settings they chose.
Luke’s version of the beatitudes has fewer additions than Matthew’s does. Luke’s beatitudes are fewer – four instead of eight – and generally shorter. Because it is more likely that one would add to a text than take away, especially if altering the text to give it a certain emphasis, Luke’s beatitudes are likely closer to the original source (Q).[7]

Matthew 5:3 – 5:12

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger
and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when men

revile you
and persecute you and utter all kinds of
evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for
your reward is great in heaven,
for so men persecuted the prophets
who were before you.
Luke 6:20b-23

"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.

There is, however, in the case of the Sermon on the Plain, a significant Lucan addition: the woes. These four woes are the converse of the four beatitudes that he lists.

Luke 6:20b-23

"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.
Luke 6:24-26

"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.
"Woe to you, when all men speak well of you,

for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

For instance, he says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20), and then later, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24). This formula repeats for the remaining three beatitudes. It serves to reiterate Luke’s particular emphasis on certain concrete virtues. According to the Sermon on the Plain, the poor, hungry, mournful, and persecuted are blessed. Yet, those who are rich, full, jubilant, and praised are woeful. These are not so much attitudes Luke is pointing out, they are tangible circumstances, and he strengthens their physicality by providing the tension between the blessings and the woes.
Matthew takes emphasis away from poverty as a blessed state throughout his gospel.[8] In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew lists more beatitudes, all intangibles, and shifts the emphasis on tangibles in the others. Matthew’s Christ points out not that people are to be poor, but poor in spirit, not hungry, but hungry and thirsty for righteousness. “It is likely that Matt has added [these] spiritualizing phrases” (Brown 178). For Matthew, one should be poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungry for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking, and persecuted. He gives no woes of any kind, just a list of intangible virtues that merit blessing. For Matthew, it is irrelevant how much money one has, or how much food one has, and these things are gifts from God. What matters is the kind of spirit with which we regard our gifts.  
Matthew’s spiritualized beatitudes stand in contrast with Luke’s more radical, more difficult to accept, and more likely to be unaltered beatitudes. Each evangelist complemented his understanding of the beatitudes with the setting in which he placed them. In Luke, Jesus preaches more down to earth and concrete beatitudes and woes on the ground among the people. In Matthew, Jesus preaches more spiritualized beatitudes from the mountain, closer to the Spirit, closer to God.
Exegetical and Theological Insights
Despite their differences in emphasis, Matthew and Luke offer two visions of Jesus and his message that are both essential. The tension between these two visions allows a fuller contemplation of the mystery of Jesus Christ, who is both God and Man, who is divinely present among all humanity, in both hierarchical and egalitarian human structures. Both kinds of human organization have the tendency to make those who favor the other uncomfortable. Jesus discomforts all and comforts all. Whichever image of Jesus a given institution or person finds more challenging, that is the image they likely would do well to meditate upon primarily.
In Luke, Jesus descends the mountain and stands on a level place among the people. Commenting on this passage, St. Ambrose asks, “How would a crowd see Christ, except at a low level? It does not follow him to the heights; it does not climb to majestic places. So when he descends, he finds the weak, for the weak cannot be high up” (Ambrose 102). Jesus goes to the people where they are and preaches consolation to them who are poor and hungry, who are weeping and hated. Yet he reminds this great crowd of his disciples that God their Father is “the Most High” (Luke 6:35) – the very name that associates God with high places.
In Matthew, Jesus ascends the mountain and preaches there to his disciples who come to him.  He offers beatitudes that are more spiritual and eschatological that those in Luke. Yet, when he has finished his sermon, he comes down from the mountain among great crowds (Matt 8:1). “Thus also Matthew teaches that the weak were healed down below” (Ambrose 103; cf. Matt 8:1-3). There is not any diametrically opposed difference between the images of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus both “descends to heal our wounds”[9] and makes it possible for us to “ascend the mountain”[10] and become “partakers in his heavenly nature”[11] (Ambrose 103).

Works Cited

Ambrose. “Exposition of the Gospel of Luke.” Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Luke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003. 102-103.
Baxter, Wayne S. "The Narrative Setting of the Sermon on the Mount." Trinity Journal 25.1 (2004): 27-37.
Betz, Hans Dieter. The Sermon on the Mount: A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, including the Sermon on the Plain. Minneapolis: Fortress Press: 1995
Brown, Raymond. An Introduction to the New Testament. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1997
Carter, Warren. What are they saying about Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount? New York: Paulist Press, 1994.
Duling, Dennis C. “Matthew: Introduction.” The HarperCollins Study Bible. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993. 
Neufeld, Edmund K. “The Gospel in the Gospels: Answering the Question ‘What Must I Do to be Saved?’ from the Synoptics.” JETS 51/2 (2008). 267-296.

[1] Wayne Baxter however, claims that Matthew put more “careful thought in his placement of the Sermon within his narrative” when “compared to Luke’s presentation of the Sermon material” (30). Hans Betz attributes the similarity of placement within the narrative to Q rather than to the Markan spine (43).
[2] Jesus does have a habit of this kind of retreat. For example, later in Matt, after feeding the five thousand, “he… dismissed the crowds [and] he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone” (Matt 14:23). Luke 5:16, which parallels Matt 14:23, also attests to Jesus’ habit of withdrawing from the crowds to pray. Yet, is that what is taking place before the Sermon on the Mount? It is not prayer, but preaching, that Jesus intends to do atop the mountain this time. Furthermore, Jesus does not dismiss the crowds, as he does later when he wishes to be alone (14:23). Rather, he allows them to follow him up the mountain so that they may hear what he is about to preach (5:1).
[3] In this, Luke follows Mark more closely than Matthew does. In Mark, also, Jesus appoints the twelve while “up the mountain” (Mark 3:13-16).
 [4] “The LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up” (Ex 19:20).
[5] “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai” (Ex 19:23).
[6] “Moses went down to the people and told them” (Ex 19:25).
[7] “By comparing the order and content of Luke and Matthew, [most argue] that Luke’s Sermon on the Plain is closer to the ‘Q’ Sermon than Matthew’s” (Carter 13).
[8] For example, in Mark and Luke, Jesus said to the rich man, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor” (Luke 18:22). Matthew places a qualifier on this: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor” (Matt 19:21).
[9]“When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean." And he stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, "I will; be clean." And immediately his leprosy was cleansed” (Matt 8:1-3)
And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples… who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases” (Luke 6:17).
[10]Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him” (Matt 5:1).
[11]But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:35).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To me it sounds like he is forming the priesthood during these sermons.He is instructing the Apostles on a higher level of spiritual knowledge.He then instructs the people and tells them the apostles father is in heaven.Am I wrong in this assertion?

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