Our Interserve Partners work in restricted access areas. We call these areas The Hard Places. This is because there is a degree of opposition to biblical faith and to Jesus’ followers in these areas. I encountered this opposition. Though most people were kind and incredibly hospitable, a minority viewed me with a bit of hostility. There were a few times when I was spit upon, hit, and even threatened. Guns were pulled on me. My son was in a school that was attacked by terrorists. So, I am not unacquainted with opposition.
Whenever I faced it and whenever our Partners face this, we often find ourselves asking: How does Jesus want us to respond to this when it happens?
I think the opening six chapters of Luke give us a good idea.
In his first chapters Luke shows us that Jesus encountered a gradually increasing level of opposition. The opposition begins in Nazareth where Jesus’ own townspeople resent him and even try to kill him (4:16-29). With no explanation given, Jesus is able to walk right out of that danger and goes on his way (4:30). This encounter in Nazareth serves as a portent, preparing us for Jesus’ rejection by his own people and his demise on the cross.
In this vein and from this point onward Luke shows us that Jesus encountered an increasing level of opposition to his ministry. It grows out of his interaction with the paralytic (5:17-26). The opposition increases when Jesus eats at Levi’s house along with a large crowd of tax collectors (5:29-32) and also when Jesus heals the man with a withered hand (6-11). Luke points out the heightening of the tension by describing the reaction of the scribes and Pharisees. They were filled with fury.
Immediately after this Jesus chooses the 12 disciples. Yet, even in the choosing of the twelve Luke keeps the theme of opposition alive by concluding the selection with the dark comment that Judas, one of the twelve insiders, will eventually betray Jesus. In this way, Luke fully establishes the story of Jesus as one of growing opposition.
Immediately after this Jesus heals and frees from evil spirits all who come to him (6:17-19). These healings and deliverances serve to demonstrate that the kingdom of God (see Luke 1:33 and 4:43) is arriving.
This context of growing opposition sets the interpretive framework for Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain.
Due to the similarity of content, this sermon is often compared with Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. In making this comparison, John Stott and Craig Evans (among many others) acknowledge that the Sermon on the Plain exhibits a different concern than the Sermon on the Mount. Stott and Evans feel that Luke is concerned with the economically marginalized whereas Matthew is concerned for those who are spiritually poor. In this vein Craig Evans writes: “Hunger and weeping are not to be considered as separate conditions from poverty but as characteristic manifestations of poverty” (Evans, Craig. Luke 1:1-9:20. Vol. 35A, Word Biblical Commentary).
Even though this is a standard comparison and interpretation of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Plain, I think the comparison and the interpretation is somewhat flawed. The interpreters appear to be missing sight of the bigger context in which the sermon is placed. The Sermon on the Plain appears in this context of growing opposition to Jesus. Cognizant of the consequences and the implications of this growing opposition, Jesus teaches his disciples how they should respond to such opposition as his followers. It is almost guaranteed that they will face opposition because they are his followers.
One of the consequences of the opposition they will face is that will become poor. In addition, due to the opposition they will suffer and weep. These are the two beatitudes that Jesus introduces. And then he talks about how blessed it is for them to be treated so.
Notice what he says in Luke 6:20-26:.
20Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
26“ Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Clearly Jesus’ disciples are to rejoice over their suffering they encounter. In contrast, those who oppose Jesus’ disciples will face torment. However, dishing out a just dessert to these tormentors is not God’s desire. This is why Jesus’ disciples are to demonstrate a completely different attitude toward suffering, and they are to respond in love and in kindness to their tormentors. This is also why Jesus immediately goes on to say that his disciples are to love their enemies (6:27-36). And this is why Jesus winds up by saying that his disciples are to be merciful as their Heavenly Father is merciful.
Then Jesus goes on to teach his disciples how to live in this difficult world (6:37-38).
Jesus knows that this is so counterintuitive. It will be only natural for the tormented to tell their tormentors how wrong they are. This is why Jesus tells his disciples that when they are tempted to do this, they are to pull the log out of their own eyes and leave the speck alone in their tormentors’ eyes.
Knowing that his followers will face opposition, Jesus says that his disciples are not greater than their teacher in verse 40: A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher.
Why else does Jesus wind up his sermon with verses 46 to 49. In these verses we read that those who hear and obey his words, they are the ones who build their houses upon a firm foundation.
Responding like Christ to opposition is not easy. But think- it wasn’t easy for Jesus either. The Gospel of Luke teaches us that Jesus didn’t live on his own power. He depended upon the power of the Spirit. In this way Jesus showed us the way we can live up to the standards he set: by absolute dependence on God’s Spirit. And who is the one who gives the Spirit? See Luke 11:13!