The Church’s agenda is about levelling down
Liz Stuart, 13 February 2022
Jeremiah 17: 5–10; 1 Corinthians 15: 12–20; Luke 6: 17–26
In the autumn of last year, the government found itself subject to a little bit of ridicule for launching a Department for Levelling Up. Someone on Twitter wrote, ‘Hello, is that the Department for Levelling Up? Can you send someone round to help me with this shelf I’m having problems with?’
I’m fascinated by the fact that the author of the gospel of Matthew places Jesus’ great sermon on a mountain – the Sermon on the Mount – but the author of the gospel of Luke situates it on ‘a level place’. The dynamic of movement in the passage that we’ve just heard in Luke is all downwards. Jesus has been on a mountain all night praying, and he comes down from there with his disciples to this level place. And when he speaks, he ‘looks up to his disciples’, suggesting that he is sitting or standing at a lower level than they.
The concept of level ground was a potent one in the ancient Israelite imagination. In the Psalms, in wisdom literature, in the prophets, it’s a metaphor for God’s coming salvation. ‘Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path’, prays the author of Psalm 27. Isaiah promises that ‘every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain’, and there are many other examples. So, Luke’s placing of Jesus on level ground is significant. Level ground is God’s ground. It’s the ground on which the foundations of God’s kingdom are laid.
I suspect that the author of the gospel of Luke’s is also saying something here about incarnation. Jesus comes down from that mountain, down from communion with his Father, to be among people – Jew and Gentile (Tyre and Sidon were Gentile cities), people teeming with disease and troubled by their demons. His flesh meets their flesh. He finds himself in so deep with them that he has to look up to his own disciples. He’s completely one with that crowd.
Jesus’ teaching to his disciples on that level place concerns eschatological reversal. Those who are now poor will have the kingdom of God; those who are hungry will be filled; those who weep now will laugh; those who are hated, reviled and defamed will have their reward in heaven; and, crucially, vice versa. The rich have received their consolation; the full will be hungry, the laughing will mourn, the loved will prove false. The narrative of Luke’s gospel begins with the great song of Mary, which is all about reversal: ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and raised the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away’. And in the chapter that follows this one in the gospel, the tears of the widow of Nain will turn into joy when Jesus raises her son from death, making the point that this great eschatological reversal has begun. It’s the dominant theme of Luke’s gospel.
What does it mean for us? I suggest it means that the Church’s agenda is about levelling down. Indeed, you might describe the Church as God’s department for levelling down. We are called to be where God is. And God has come down from the mountain into the crowd to stand with those who are poor, those who are hungry, those who weep, those who are hated or excluded. Jesus resolutely refused ever to define himself, but rather he showed himself, as indeed God does, as being for others, so that when we look at him, we see God because we see somebody whose identity is to be for others. Here he demonstrates and preaches that he is for the poor, the hungry, the hated, the reviled, the defamed; and more than that, he’s one of them. Theirs is his kingdom and he takes them in him through death into new, abundant life. The rest of us only get there by riding on their coat tails.
Jesus demonstrates and preaches that he is for the poor, the hungry, the hated, the reviled, the defamed; and more than that, he’s one of them.
What propelled Jesus down from that mountain? Deep, intense prayer. Prayer propelled Jesus to level ground and it will help us too to come down from the mountain on to level ground, because prayer enables us, if we let it, to see people as God sees them. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, spent his life in prayer, and then one day he was running errands in Louisville and he came to the corner of two streets, Fourth and Walnut, in the shopping district of the town. And suddenly at this busy, commercialised swarm of humanity he was overwhelmed with the realisation that he loved all the people around him. He realised, as he put it, ‘That they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers … There’s no way’, he said, ‘of telling these people that they are all walking around shining like the sun’.
I bet if you had asked Jesus what he felt about that crowd on the level ground that day, he would have said something very similar to Merton: ‘They are mine and I am theirs’. Our job as the Church is to realise that that is true of us, that everyone is ours and we are theirs. And our job is to let people know – all the people, the people that we encounter and observe at the street corners of our lives – that they shine, shine like the sun. Amen.