Peoples’ Communist Bible Study: Luke 6:20-26

20. Then [Jesus] fastened his eyes on his apprentices[1] and said to them:

“The poor[2] today can be hopeful[3], because the fulfillment of divine[4] justice[5] is theirs. “You who are now hungering are to be hopeful, because you will be filled. “You who are now weeping can have hope, because one day you will laugh.

22. “You are divinely favored people even when others hate you and shun you and attack you and denounce you on account of the true destiny of humanity. Be confident at that time and celebrate, for your ultimate reward[6] will be spectacular! Even the ancestors of today’s tormentors did the very same things to the advocates of truth in their day.

24. BUT– “It will be a burning judgment[7] for you rich people, because you’ve already bought your good life. “Woe for you whose bellies are full now, because you will then go hungry. “It will be hell for you who celebrate today, because then you will sob and weep. “Beware when everybody speaks highly of you, for the ancestors of today’s generation said the very same things about the liars and deceivers of their time.

I’ve created the above translation using a few different translations as sources, such as the Cotton Patch Version, Amplified Bible, and my own study of the original Greek text. I consider this passage from Luke to function as a manifesto of what the early Jesus Movement in the 1st centuries considered its core mission. That mission was not religious in the modern sense, but was concerned about the fate of humanity and its suffering under the unjust rule of the rich and powerful. Below are my notes on this passage and the translation choices I’ve made.

1) Apprentices: The original term we today see translated as “disciple” didn’t have the romantic spiritual meaning many of us garnered from religious education. Jesus is depicted as seeking out activist leaders-in-training for his social movement and community-building work to learn his teachings and methods.

2) The Poor: Notice that Luke’s version is missing the phrase “poor in spirit” which appears in Matthew 5:3. It is clear in this passage that primarily material poverty is in view by its references to hunger and wealth.

3) “Blessed” is the classical English translation where I substitute “hopeful.” Since this passage is focused on a future earthly reward for the poor and hungry, I think the word “hopeful” captures both the positive meaning implied, but also the sense that the present is not a time to be accepted without complaint.

4) “God” I translate “theos” as “divine” or some other elocution in order to emphasize the distance we moderns have from the original text. We allow orthodox theology to be read back into the text, when it seems clear the biblical writers had a more mysterious concept of providence and natural forces than the sort of complicated personal deity we are likely to envision today.

5) “Kingdom of God” is the classical translation. The Greek term translated kingdom “basilea” meant any geographical territory with a central government. The US would be a “kingdom” despite its status as being king-less. Adding “theos” to the word “basilea” signifies the invoking of a universal justice that exceeds the imperfection and injustice of existing social regimes.

6) “Reward in heaven” is the classical translation. Heaven itself was not the reward, but from where it was given. It is a reward from the universe, based on perfect principles of justice, hence, “ultimate.” An earthly vindication of the suffering of the poor of the earth by a greater justice than ever seen in human history.

7) “Hell” is not an alternate supernatural dimension of punishment for petty sinners, but a symbol for the destruction of injustice and the deformations of human existence that the rule of the rich had wrought on the earth.

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