“Blessed are you who are poor: Yours is the kingdom of God…Alas for you who are rich: you are having your consolation now.” Luke 6, 17, 20-26
Matthew’s Gospel has a parallel to what we hear proclaimed in this coming Sunday’s gospel. The account in Matthew is referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. In contrast, Luke has Jesus deliver a sermon on a plain in which only four beatitudes are listed, and they are paralleled with four woes, which well-off people throughout history have mistakenly used as measures of success in life.
In the gospel reading for the third Sunday of Ordinary Time, we heard Jesus proclaiming to the people of his home town of Nazareth that his mission was “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and new sight to the blind, to free the downtrodden and to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour”. The four “beatitudes” at the start of today’s gospel are a more poetic rendition of his mission statement, and directed pointedly to the strugglers in his audience. His intention was to offer them a message of hope and encouragement. Then he directed a sterner message to those in the crowd who were smug, self-satisfied and comfortable. Clearly, he had summed up the audience in front of him and deliberately set about comforting the disturbed among them and disturbing the comfortable.
We know from experience, that our lives take lots of different turns. We have all known tough and difficult times and we have all experienced times of satisfaction and comfort. Consequently, there are times when we need to hear Jesus’ words of comfort and other times when our comfort and complacency need to be challenged. Implicit in Jesus’ words about the “four woes” is a message that we all have a serious social responsibility to reach out to the poor, the neglected and the alienated, especially when we have the means to assist them.
Of course, there is an additional message here for us about the way we speak to all the different people with whom we engage in the course of our day. Do we measure our words to fit what we think that others want to hear from us or are we prepared to say what our own integrity demands of us? How we say it is just as important as the content of our message. Therefore, we would do well to reflect on our readiness to speak the truth in love, especially when we realise that the truth of what we want to say might threaten or upset the person/s to whom our words are directed.
I suggest that it is not coincidental that Luke has Jesus speak this message of beatitudes and woes on a plain. I believe that Luke wanted to demonstrate that Jesus was one with the rest of humanity on the same level. In proclaiming the beatitudes, he was giving assurance to the poor, the forgotten and the discarded that they were not disregarded by God; rather, that God had a preference for them. His words of warning to those who were comfortably placed were a correction of a prevalent belief that wealth and good fortune were indicators of God’s favour. Any who did not subscribe to that belief seemed to think that all they had acquired had come to them as a result of their own efforts, and their efforts alone. It did not seem to occur to them that all their abilities were God-given gifts in the first place. Yet Jesus was quick to disabuse his audience of their misconceptions, pointing out that wealth so preoccupied those who had it that it often insulated them from the poor and marginalized, and desensitized them to their plight, in which they barely eked out an existence.
By debunking the prevailing idea of what constituted strength and success and elevating the lowly, the needy, those psychologically and physically imprisoned and those whose lives had been upended by loss and grief, Jesus acted as the great leveller. In so doing, he became God’s beatitude - a blessing to all, but especially to the downtrodden, in a society that gave preference to the rich and the successful. His words are a reminder to us that, whatever our status and circumstance, we are not overlooked by God, even if God’s way of noticing us is to give us a wake-up call. Nor are we meant to live only in the company of those who enjoy a similar status. We’re meant to interact with everyone around us, rich and poor alike. The level ground we share with everyone else is that we are all equal in worth and dignity, all beloved of a God in whose image we are created. We are not alone in our experiences, our needs and our losses, and we have an obligation not to leave our fellow human beings alone in theirs. And that’s the kernel of today’s gospel.
If it hasn’t struck us yet, another look at this gospel reading might help us to see that the list Luke’s Jesus gives of beatitudes and woes echoes the sentiments spelled out Mary’s Magnificat:
“He (the Lord) has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly.
He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty.” Luke 1, 46-55
Let’s conclude with a Middle Eastern parable about priorities:
Once upon a time in the depth of winter, an eagle was searching the frozen landscape for food. It spotted on an ice-floe the carcass of a deer that had been left behind by a party of hunters. The eagle swooped down and set about satisfying its hunger. It became so consumed by what it was consuming, that it became deaf to the thundering sound of a waterfall in the distance. Just before the ice-floe was about to go crashing over the edge, the eagle sensed the danger and flapped its wings to make its escape. However, its claws had become frozen into the icy remains of the deer. The eagle met the same fate as the deer on which it was feasting.