Ah, the beatitudes: I’ve heard so many completely different interpretations of these scant handfuls of words. “Blessed are the poor.” Does this mean 1) God saves the materially poor to make up for their poverty on earth; 2) Christians should strive to be poor; or 3) even the poor are blessed?
To begin, there’s a clear juxtaposition between the beatitudes and the woes—as you can see in table format, this is v 20-23 straight down in the left column, and v. 24-26 straight down in the right column (Luke 6:20-26, hcsb):
The eternally blessed (vv 20-23)
The temporally blessed (vv 24-26)
|You who are poor are blessed,||But woe to you who are rich,|
|because the kingdom of God is yours.||for you have received your comfort.|
|You who are now hungry are blessed,||Woe to you who are now full,|
|because you will be filled.||for you will be hungry.|
|You who now weep are blessed,||Woe to you who are now laughing,|
|because you will laugh.||for you will mourn and weep.|
|You are blessed when people hate you, when they exclude you, insult you, and slander your name as evil because of the Son of Man.||Woe to you when all people speak well of you,|
|“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy! Take note—your reward is great in heaven,|
|for this is the way their ancestors used to treat the prophets.||for this is the way their ancestors used to treat the false prophets.|
I never noticed the incredibly precise structure there—this is clearly not just a meandering off-the-cuff sermon Jesus rambled out one day. Beyond the side-by-side parallel, there’s interwoven reversals – the hungry will be filled, but the filled will be hungry; the weepers will laugh, but the laughers will weep.
Since elsewhere in Scripture we see that it is not a sin to be rich, nor a surety to be poor (and also, hungry/full, weeping/laughing, etc.), and since Jesus explicitly connects each group of people to either true believers (the prophets) or the damned (the false prophets)—and further, since He is explicitly addressing the disciples, not the crowd at large (v. 20)—it seems to make the most sense to interpret the “blessed” as referring to believers in general, and the “woe’d” as referring to the lost. And, at least as it’s arranged here in Luke, it seems to be primarily an encouraging message. “If you are poor, hungry, sad, hated in this world, rejoice!” “If you are rich, full, happy, and popular in this world, beware!”
Particularly, Christ seems to really hit somewhat subtly on the idea that we are either dissatisfied with the world, and looking to heaven; or we are satisfied with the world, and that is where our satisfaction will remain. Jesus is simultaneously belittling the world’s empty pleasures, while promising better ones in heaven, and warning against finding the unsatisfying (the world) satisfying.
So, it’s a nice little encouraging passage, except harder to live out! Be happy with trouble. Rejoice in the day men hate you! You’re in good company with all the prophets. And, on the other hand, beware of the treasures of the world! Woes and bad company and damnation.
Last note, I think it’s worth noting God’s dissatisfaction, generally, with Israel in these verses about how Israel treated the prophets and the false prophets. These verses are an inverse of how one might think they should have been—that Israel should have loved the true prophets of YHWH and persecuted the false ones, as He charged them to. But they didn’t.
“Prone to wander,” we see in Israel, and everyone since Genesis 8:21—”man’s inclination is evil from his youth” (HCSB). The world is broken, and we cannot conform to it—or woe! Christ’s word is dire and serious. Is my satisfaction the kingdom of heaven, or my comfort?