Let’s try to answer some questions about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Is Luke’s Sermon on the Mount the same as Matthew’s or from some other occasion?
It is a mistake to see it as a Sermon on a Plain. Jesus has been praying in a mountain about the selection of his twelve apostles. He has called them to himself and now descends to a level place (on the mountain) where he meets with the crowds.
Is Jesus addressing the disciples or the crowds?
The picture Luke paints of the occasion is interesting. There are the twelve newly appointed apostles, a great number of disciples, and a representative gathering of the laos (people) of Israel from all over the land and beyond. Jesus is invested with power – truly the Messiah amidst his people. The Beatitudes have special reference to disciples (“having raised his eyes on his disciples”), but are heard by all.
Who are those who are pronounced happy? Are they four different categories of person or one?
Jesus characterizes his disciples (more than the twelve) as “poor-hungry-weeping”. This is how Israel in exile understood itself; God was the protector of the helpless and now the nation had fallen into that state. Through Isaiah God had promised that be would save poor, hungry, mourning Zion. But that raised the question whether all Israel would be saved, or only some. In the fourth beatitude Jesus identifies true “poor-hungry-weeping Zion” as those who are hated, excluded and insulted because of their association with the suffering Son of Man.
How can these people be said to be happy?
True disciples will be happy - when Messiah establishes his kingdom and all forms of poverty and need are abolished. They are happy now because they know their sufferings are light and momentary and will give way to something glorious: they rejoice in what will be. Christians are consoled when they suffer rejection because of Jesus, because they know their reward is great in heaven. I don’t think this means when they go to heaven, but that good things are stored up for them now and later with God, who is in heaven.
Who does Jesus address as rich, well-fed and laughing?
These are those who can be characterized as opposite to disciples. Remember that Jesus is addressing the whole people with disciples mingled amongst them. Each person needed to decide for himself or herself whether he or she would believe Jesus’ gospel and stand by the Son of Man and suffer exclusion for his sake, or to seek acceptance from those with influence. Jesus implies that these latter are a non-Israel whose fate is to lose even the good things they now enjoy, and whose laughter will turn to bitter tears on the day the kingdom is revealed in all its fullness.
So what is going on here?
Jesus is announcing the coming of the kingdom for Israel but warning that it will only be enjoyed by those who stand with him in the time of his rejection and suffering. Those who prefer what this world has to offer above the promises of the kingdom will ultimately lose everything, but those who go on believing the gospel will inherit Israel’s restoration future where poverty, hunger and unhappiness will be things of the past. Jesus is dividing the people.