Jeremiah 17:5-8; 1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-20; Luke 6:17, 20-26
Contraries abound in today’s readings. We have the images of abundance and sterility, blessings and woe, time and eternity, and all these make us reflect our ultimate destiny. Jeremiah contrasts the blighted state of those who trust in human devices with the blessed state of those who trust in the Lord. For the Israelites the images of running water, lush greenery and abundance of fruits express the blessings from God as they experienced it in the desert. The words of Jesus show how startling the Gospel message can be. In fact it is just the opposite of the wisdom pervading our consumer society. Woe, says Jesus to the rich, the satisfied, those financially secure and blessing to those poor, suffering and the hungry. How can this be real? On reflection we see that material satisfaction can isolate us but a lack of it can take us beyond ourselves. Our poverty, hunger sorrow can lead us to greater riches as it takes us close to the divine.
Thus the readings, especially the Gospel, are going to cause difficulties to some people, if not to most of us. It is easy just to read or hear the words and we may even agree with them but they are not really easy to put them into practice. The teaching of Jesus is addressed not just to his chosen disciples but also to “a great crowd of people” from both Jewish and non-Jewish areas. This is to say that the teaching is for everybody and not just for a chosen few. Again his teachings show a way of life for all. In the Gospel of today we hear Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. It is in fact the counterpart of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Unlike Matthew, Luke prefers to have Jesus down on the level ground where he can be in the midst of people. They can hear him, reach out to him and touch him. In this portion of the Sermon Luke presents four Beatitudes followed by four Woes. A major difference that is quite apparent to those familiar with Mathew’s Beatitudes is that Luke does not spiritualise them. Jesus is addressing the concrete experiences of poverty, hunger, weeping and hate. The Beatitudes also make it perfectly clear that God is on the side of and committed to the poor and the oppressed. The tone is set in the first Beatitude where poor are blessed because theirs is the Kingdom of God.
In the first reading we encounter Prophet Jeremiah in his difficult times. Prophet Jeremiah served God as a prophet during the troubling final years of the kingdom. He was persistent in presenting the word of God to the people and to the royal household and was constantly rebuffed. The outcome of it is seen in the writing where the Babylon has won its victory and the royal persons are imprisoned. Jeremiah makes sufficient effort to motivate people in the right direction as we heard in today’s passage. This was the time when many believed that the best chance for survival they have is build a fresh alliance with Egypt. The prophet discourages this move and warns them that trusting in human persons is disastrous to the kingdom itself. He compares this bad policy to the barren bush in the desert. It is surrounded by salt and emptiness. The nations outside can never be a help. On the other hand trusting in God is something beneficial to them. The prophet compares this outcome to that of a tree that exists beside the steady water supply. Even in harsh conditions it will survive. Below the surface its root goes deep below into the source of water. That is what happens when one trusts in God.
In the second reading of today Paul stresses on the faith in Resurrection of our Lord. Apparently some people seemed to have thought that life on earth in spiritual union with Jesus was all that resurrection implied and that bodily resurrection from death was impossible. Paul tells them in no simple terms that this is a wrong notion they are holding. The resurrection of Jesus is real and this makes certain our own resurrection. If Jesus had not risen from the dead our faith and hope would have had no foundation. Paul explains to his community the certainty of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. He says: “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.”
The Beatitudes as given in the Gospel of Luke seem to be scandalous because they go against all the common understanding at the time regarding who is blessed by God and the concrete signs manifesting that blessing. The Beatitudes of Matthew give a set of ethical teachings of Jesus and they are a must for every disciple of Jesus. There is an eschatological content contained in it in the sense that there is a future fulfilment of God’s kingdom that the faithful can count on. The present condition is not the final condition. There is always the expectation and fulfilment of hope for the individual. They tell us that those who are poor, hungry, weeping and those of you who are hated, driven out, abused, denounced are the happy persons. It is not at all easy to take this recommendation seriously.
Taking these four beatitudes together we see that the first three are really addressed to everyone without exception. Jesus takes three examples: those who are materially poor, the sad, and the hungry. These people make up a scandalously large proportion of the world’s population. Jesus is speaking to people who have very good reason to be deeply unhappy. How can they be spoken of as “blessed” or “happy” or “fortunate”? We must put any kind of false sentiment out of the way by which the poor are somehow regarded as morally superior to the rich or the affluent and so deserve a better reward from God. Jesus is not speaking about providing some reward for the poor and unhappy of this world. Jesus says that these people are blessed and fortunate because, in spite of their condition, God deeply loves them. It is generally said, God loves the poor not because they are good but because they are poor. Poverty means having less than you need for a life of human dignity when there are those around you living in plenty. Humanly speaking, the poor may be despised, resented or pitied. God, however, loves them deeply in their poverty, their sadness, their hunger and deprived status. It is a message they need to hear and also one we need to hear. This is the basis for the serious concern for the poor and the alienated, the so-called “option for the poor” that we are called to have. Their poverty, sadness and lack of resources are not at all a sign of God’s punishment and displeasure. But Jesus tells them that they are the recipients of the love of God. All of us are called to be agents of God’s love. If the poor and others in pain are to experience God’s love, it is mainly through the rest of us that this should happen. Ongoing poverty and hunger in our world is not something to blame on God but on those of us who belong to the rich, filled, laughing group. We cannot call ourselves disciples unless we reach out in love to abolish material poverty, physical hunger and try to relieve the deep unhappiness and depression that afflicts others.
The fourth beatitude on persecution has some differences from the first three. This one is more specifically addressed to Jesus’ disciples, who are called to be prophets, proclaiming God’s message to non-believers. Why can those who are being persecuted for their faith be called “blessed”? They are blessed on three counts: with regard to the future, the present and the past. First, their happiness will come in a future reward. “Your reward will be great in heaven.” Second, they are blessed because of their close sharing in the pain and suffering and rejection which Jesus himself endured for the sake of the Gospel. Such pain can be, for someone close to Jesus, a source of great consolation. And third, they are blessed because what they are doing is right, it is absolutely worthwhile and it is in the tradition of the great prophets of the Hebrew Testament. In our own time there have been such outstanding prophets who risked pain, rejection and death for the sake of truth, justice and freedom. Nor can we overlook the thousands of Christians – priests, pastors, religious and lay people – who lived and are living this beatitude in countries where the Church was and is still being persecuted and harassed. It has been said that more people died for their Christian faith in the 20th century than in any other previously. While we feel pain that they had to suffer in this way, their courage and integrity for human dignity and for their faith must also be a source of pride, joy and inspiration.
The four woes state basically the inverse of the four Beatitudes. The woe form can be traced all the way back to the Old Testament prophets. There God expresses a negative judgement on an unfaithful people. Luke has a particular suspicion of wealth and those who strive to attain it. He feels that the attitude of the rich people and their behaviour that follows are nothing but a false security that promises far more than it can ever deliver. Wealth leads to a quest for power that quickly dissolves into idolatry. “Woe to you people who are rich, filled with comfort, those persons laughing and persons spoken well of.” We are being constantly taught by our society and its means of communication that the ideal is to be rich, filled to overflowing, constantly enjoying ourselves and be looked up to and even envied by others. The Society looks for money, status and power that we are daily urged to worship. They are the keys to happiness and success in life. We can ask ourselves whether we can be a good Catholic and be rich and successful at the same time. Woe to those who are rich, filled, content but refuse to take care of their deprived brothers and sisters. Wealth becomes a curse when it is not shared with those in need. The rich are cursed as long as they remain unwilling to share their surplus with the needy. In fact, in the society which Jesus envisions there are neither rich nor poor but it is a place where the resources which belong to all are divided among all according to need.
We have a long way to go to make it a reality. It is not God or Jesus who are to be blamed; rather it is for all of us hang our heads in shame. Jesus expects us to perform the same acts of goodness that he did for the poor, the alienated, the sick, the deprived, and the oppressed. In fact, in John’s gospel, he said that we would be able to do more than Jesus did. These Beatitudes and Woes announce that the end is not yet, but when it comes, God’s reign will establish a radical reversal in the fortunes of the rich and the poor. Individuals who seek to follow Christ make choices every day regarding how to live their lives in response to the Gospel. These choices often show up as opposites. Ultimately, we must keep our eyes on the resurrection of Jesus and eternal life with him.
Fr Eugene Lobo SJ, Rome