6th Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Sermon on the Plain

SCRIPTURES & ART: A fresco by the 15th-century artist Cosimo Rosselli depicts the scene from this Sunday’s Gospel.

Cosimo Rosselli, “The Sermon on the Mount,” 1481
Cosimo Rosselli, “The Sermon on the Mount,” 1481 (photo: Public Domain)

One man’s mountain is another man’s plain. In Luke (6:12-17, which precedes today’s Gospel) Jesus goes up a mountain to spend a night in prayer. The next morning he picks his Twelve Apostles. Then, descending a little, he begins to teach the people. 

Last week, we heard about the choice of Peter, James and John — that inner core — to be Apostles. This week, consistent with the constitutive uniqueness of the vocation of Apostle to the Church, Luke recounts the call of all Twelve.

(I mention this because what is in the preceding two paragraphs is not read in today’s Gospel, but it illumines it).

Hewing to strict chronological or historical detail in one Gospel can sometimes distort the theological message all the Gospels are getting at. We saw that last week, in the dramatis personae of Corneille’s painting, depicting the call of Peter. Luke doesn’t mention Andrew there. John focuses on another detail: how Andrew encountered Jesus first and then led him to Peter. The point is, the two brothers encounter and say “yes” to Christ, these various details being what different people saw and saw as appropriate to accent in that decisive moment. 

The same this week: Jesus is near a mountain. He’s prayed, chosen his Apostles, and begins to teach. Whether that teaching occurred in alpine or lower altitudes — on “mount” or “plain” — is really a secondary detail.

Jesus has chosen his Apostles — 10 of whom would be martyrs — and begins addressing his “disciples,” i.e., them and the larger group of his followers. In worldly terms, they were not likely a particularly affluent group. Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen, i.e., they worked for a living, and their prosperity depended on the viccissitudes of their catch: just last week, Peter was complaining about a lousy night fishing. If any of them had some money, it might have been Matthew, a tax collector, and Judas, who “was a thief” (John 12:6). 

Jesus is not going to promise a kosher chicken in every pot nor a Messianic political restoration of Israel’s fortunes — riches and power are not part of his agenda. Indeed, on top of poverty and obedience he’ll throw in chastity when he speaks of those who make themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 19:12).

So, in his Sermon on the Plain, Jesus first challenges those who want to follow him to know what they are getting into and reevaluate their situations. He’s not promising material prosperity but the Kingdom; bread (although he’ll later multiply it) but the fill of justice (John 6:1-15; Matthew 5:6); or remedies for tears until they are wiped away when the Kingdom arrives (Revelation 21:4). He is into full disclosure: He is promising them up front hatred, exclusion, denunciation, marginalization and persecution. 

And he’s telling them to count all those things as “blessings.”

Conversely, he challenges them to reevaluate what the world or “common sense” might have called “blessings”: material prosperity, carnal satiation, bread and entertainment, flattery and being in the good opinion of the times. They are not blessings but “woes.”

He also makes clear there’s nothing new about that.

Twice (vv. 23, 26) Jesus recalls their own history: the prophets were likewise reviled. The false prophets who led Israel and its leaders down primrose paths to promised rose gardens by preaching the Zeitgeist led them into Babylonian Captivity. The true prophets who challenged the elite opinion and common practices of their day found themselves in cisterns (Jeremiah 38:6), driven away (Amos 7:12-13) or hunted for their lives (1 Kings 19:1-2). 

Nihil novi sub soli. People don’t like truth (see John 3:19), so don’t be surprised if, by following him who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6) things will get rough.

So, he asks them, knowing what’s blessed and what’s cursed, are you ready to sign up? 

He asks the same of us.

Cosimo Rosselli’s fresco, Sermone della Montagna, a late 1400s work from the Sistine Chapel, depicts today’s scene. Full dislosure: I chose this work because — title notwithstanding — it captures today’s Sermon on the Plain. The “mounts” are clearly in the background; while Jesus is elevated, his “mount” may appropriately be a rock, fitting as a foundation for his Church built on Peter and the other Apostles.

Rosselli’s work also conflates a number of events from Jesus’ life — e.g., while he is most prominent preaching to the crowd on the left, he is also healing a leper on the right. In keeping with the budding Renaissance in Italy, the attendees at the Sermon are dressed like Florentines of the 15th century, not Jews of the first. The same can be said of the churches and castles dotting the highlands behind Jesus: they fit better in Rosselli’s Italy than Jesus’ Israel. Is the water behind Jesus’ right shoulder supposed to be the Sea of Galilee, where he just fished up some Apostles? One commentator notes that the man in reddish-brown facing us on the left may very well be Rosselli. 

Today’s essay opened with the question of context: where this passage fits in Luke’s Gospel (after a night of prayer and the naming of the Apostles). The artistic commentator just cited also raises a context question: Rosselli’s “Sermone della Montagna” is on the Chapel well opposite his “Le Tavole della Legga,” depicting Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and then giving them to Israel.

As in “Sermone,” the main characters appear multiple times: Moses being given the Tablets of the Law and conveying them to the people who cling to evil (the Golden Calf), the New Moses giving them the Beatitudes and freeing them from evil and its effects. The two scenes are clearly seen as complementary, not contrapositions: two encounters with God on the heights, one fulfilling but not replacing other. It’s not “Commandments versus Beatitudes.” After all, even St. John, the Apostle of Love, reminds us that the one who claims to “love” God without keeping the Commandments is a liar (1 John 2:4).

The content of today’s “Sermon on the Plain” will continue next week, appropriate given that today’s blessings and woes really constitute a preliminary warning to hearers about that to which (or rather, whom) they are are committing themselves. More to come …