Over the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about the call to be God’s prophetic people.
What does a prophet do? A prophet is (a man, a woman, a group) called by God to speak and to live divine truth, in season and out of season (when it’s popular and when it’s not), to provide an interpretation of reality (past, present, and future) through God’s message of mercy and hope, or correction and repentance. A prophet is not one who predicts the future, but one whose message can have a predictive aspect, because he speaks truth, and truth is beyond time. He reminds the world of what is true: that if we act in harmony with God’s truth of reality, we will receive the blessings of our choices; and if we act in conflict with God’s truth of reality, we will be subject to the curses of our choices. To use a great quote from a recent article (The “Wayward Daughters,” written by Haley Stewart) talking about female main characters in different books (Julia from Brideshead Revisited and Kristin from Kristin Lavransdatter, two wonderful books, very popular in Catholic circles), who suffered as the consequences of their bad choices, the author says, “The years of misery they suffer are not punishment inflicted by a parent or by God—the consequences of sin itself are what tortures them. They are punished by their sin, not for their sin.”
Our first reading is from the words of the prophet Jeremiah. We heard his call to prophetic ministry two weekends ago. God had told him, “…Tell them all that I command you… for it is I this day who have made you… a pillar of iron, a wall of brass …They will fight against you but not prevail over you.” We also remember the context of Jeremiah’s ministry: Israel was being tempted to rely on their military strength and their political alliances, and they weren’t in the practice of calling on God.
Now we read today’s reading from Jeremiah, “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD.” So Jeremiah is reminding Israel of their call to be faithful to God, that God is their strength, their salvation, and the prediction that if they believe that other people, other nations, will be their salvation, they will end up in misery, and the curse of death or slavery.
“He is like a barren bush in the desert that enjoys no change of season, but stands in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth.” That’s a pretty desolate, lifeless, hopeless image. That, no doubt, was Jeremiah’s point. The crucial issue is not Israel’s working together with neighboring nations; the problem was Israel trusted in them, and had turned their hearts away from God. Once you turn away your heart from God, the source of life, you become like a shrub in the dry wilderness: not bearing any good (spiritual) fruit. But then on the other hand, “Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is the LORD. He is like a tree, planted beside the waters, that stretches out its roots to the stream: it fears not the heat when it comes; its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.” What is Jeremiah’s prophecy? If Israel remains faithful to the covenant with God, they will endure the time of difficulty and receive the blessings of their faithfulness, bearing good fruit. That doesn’t mean they won’t suffer, but that they will not end in suffering, and even in their suffering, they have the certain hope in God’s eventual vindication… which is a very different kind of suffering than one experienced as hopeless and meaningless.
What does it mean to remain faithful to the covenant with God? It’s more than just to believe that God will save them. It’s to live each day according to the truth of the Scriptures, the law, the commandments and worship that defines what it means to be God’s people.
I know I don’t usually reference the psalm, but today it’s Psalm 1, which sets the tone for the whole book of the psalms. And like much of the Old Testament, and even the New Testament, it establishes the “two ways,” the way of wisdom, and the way of folly; the way of blessings, and the way of curses; the way of life, and the way of death. The psalm says, “Blessed the man who follows not the counsel of the wicked, nor walks in the way of sinners, nor sits in the company of the insolent, but delights in the law of the LORD and meditates on his law day and night.” So if you hang out with good, wise people, you learn from them goodness and wisdom. If you hang out with foolish, wicked people, you become like them.
That doesn’t mean we don’t hang out with our friends (or even strangers) who are on the wrong path. We do want to be friends with them; we want to walk with them, accompany them, support them, and ideally, to help them avoid things that will hurt them and lead them to greater happiness. But we don’t want to encourage or approve of their sins: we want to be the good, wise, holy friend in their life, who doesn’t judge them, but who gives them good counsel. We want to be the prophetic witness in their lives. And then we also need to have other people in our life for our own well-being, who are more good and wise than us. We need to pray the scriptures frequently, and even more frequently the more we’re with people who present bad influences to us. We need the word of God in our heart and on our lips, and the wisdom of how and when to share it in love, sometimes in tough love.
Sometimes people say to me, “My spiritual life is so dry. It’s hard to pray. I don’t feel God’s presence. I feel spiritually fruitless.” A good response to that might be, “How much time each day do you invest in praying with the Scriptures?” If the answer is, “I don’t; I’m too busy,” then the problem is a malnourished faith. The Scriptures are the living waters that our soul should be drinking from, and refreshing itself. It is the flesh and blood of the Word of God that gives life. The Scriptures are Christ. As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” We can’t expect to have spiritual life if our spirit hasn’t been nourished in weeks or months or more. And I don’t mean just to read the Scriptures, or even read a lot of scripture, but to read it deeply. The Psalm says, “…and meditates on his law day and night.” It is to gnaw on it, chew on it, listen to it, wrestle with it, squeeze all you can out of it, reconcile yourself with it, and live it. As I said before, lectio divina is a wonderful way of really interacting deeply with the Scriptures.
Our Gospel from Luke is what is often called “The Sermon on the plain,” compared to Matthew’s Gospel which has “The Sermon on the mount.” Even within the sources I used for preparation, they disagreed whether this was two accounts of the same event, or if this was two different events. On the one hand, the scripture says that Jesus went up the mountain to pray, and then came down to, in Greek, “a flat place,” which could mean a relatively flat part of the terrain, but still an elevated place. On the other hand, Jesus, like many public speakers, may have given the same or similar message a number of times to different audiences, and so this in Luke might be a different occasion than in Matthew. Since the Holy Spirit doesn’t make it clear, it’s not an important question. What’s important is what the Gospels say, and even how they compare. For one, Matthew speaks in the third person, “Blessed are they who…” and Luke speaks in the second person, “Blessed are you who…” Matthew only has blessings, he doesn’t include curses. But the blessings, like here in Luke, are not what you would expect. And while Matthew has 8 blessings, Luke has 4 blessings and 4 curses. And lastly (of the ones we’re going to mention), Luke’s are stated more simply. Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” while Luke simply says, “Blessed are you who are poor.” In both cases, Jesus is being presented as a new law-giver, a new David, and new Moses.
A lot of people don’t like Luke’s version, because in its simplicity, it’s kind of harsh. Sure, blessed are the poor in spirit, we can all strive to be “poor in spirit.” But in Luke, it’s simply “Blessed are you who are poor,” and then he says, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” Wow. Ok. “Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied.” That’s comforting. “Woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry.” How does that big breakfast sound now? “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.” So we also need to understand what Jesus meant, and what situation Luke was addressing his Gospel to.
Jesus was speaking to Jews who knew the Old Testament, and in the covenant-making, law-giving ceremonies, the blessings and curses depended on whether you followed the terms of the covenant. If you did, you received the blessings of lots of children, lots of livestock, lots of wealth and happiness. If you didn’t, you got the curses, the opposite of all that. And that, the blessings and curses, were received here in this life.
In the new covenant, Jesus orients us toward the next life, toward heaven. And the way to heaven… is through the paradox of the cross. Jesus was the perfect, most blessed man, and on the cross he endured the most egregious suffering for sin, although, not for his own sin, but ours. And then he resurrected. His hour of glory, his time on the cross when he poured out his love for us, was the way to the resurrection and eternal glory. “No cross, no crown.” You have to go through the tension of Good Friday to get to the release of Easter Sunday. And we follow him. “Blessed are you who are poor in this world. The kingdom of God is yours” in heaven. “Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied” fully in heaven. “Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh” in heaven. But woe to you who do not follow Christ in this world, in his suffering and sacrifice. Woe to you who rely on your wealth, for they make you feel self-sufficient and not in need of God’s mercy. And so you have received the consolation of your riches, in this world. Woe to you who are filled and sated and gluttonous in this world, which deafens your ears to the cry of the poor. At judgment, they will have plenty, and you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, woe to you when all speak well of you, because you are of this world and like this world. When the shallow images of this world pass away, and you did not weep for your sins, and you did not endure hardship for the sake of the gospel, you will grieve and weep.
In the Beatitudes, the law of the Christian Covenant, the blessings are curse-like (in the view of this present world), because it is through the curse and suffering of the cross that we receive the blessing and happiness of resurrection glory. Jesus on the cross is the intersection of this world and the next world, judgment, heaven and hell. If we suffer like him and for him, and for the vulnerable members of his mystical body, then we will enter the kingdom of God. But if we have lived according to the immorality of this world, the pleasure and sins of this world, did what was popular, and complacently avoided the suffering that would come from being a heroic and prophetic witness to the gospel, then we will be locked out of the kingdom of God.
It’s not that laughing is sinful: laughing is joyful, and we are called to joy. It’s not that being rich is sinful: we are called to be blessed with abundance from living virtuously, and with prudent stewardship. But our laughing must frequently give way to suffering with those who are suffering, and working with compassion to minister to them in their suffering, and ultimately to help them out of their suffering, if possible. Now, there indeed might be some limited fulfillment in this life: those who suffer now may be vindicated, even in this world (e.g., Nelson Mandela freed from prison, and Jews freed from their concentration camps). Those who are poor do often get out of their poverty. The Israelites in slavery were eventually freed, in the course of history. But even that is a limited fulfillment of the deliverance to the perfect freedom, the perfect abundance, in heaven.
It’s not that being rich is a sin, Jesus in his ministry had rich people among his disciples. But having wealth presents some real challenges in the spiritual life. For one, having wealth provides the temptation to lean on one’s wealth to solve their problems, and not having to suffer and trust in God’s mercy (that was Israel’s problem in Jeremiah’s time). Also, having wealth tends to siphon our attention toward itself and away from more important priorities in our life (hence the evangelical counsel of poverty, or simplicity of life: the freedom from the trappings of material wealth, to focus on spiritual matters). And there is an increased temptation toward being uncompassionate toward the poor (“I deserve this, I worked hard, I sacrificed, I invested, I deserve this, that is fair” instead of “love your neighbor as yourself,” not in a compulsory socialist or communist way, but in a voluntarily generous way). It’s a self-centeredness rather than other-centeredness. Jesus was spiritually rich, yet he became poor to share his richness with us, and lift us up out of our spiritual poverty. (J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, is the only modern billionaire who lost her billionaire-status because of how much she has donated to others). So again, it’s not that it’s wrong to be rich; it’s dangerous to be rich. There’s a lot more that can go wrong with our spiritual life. If you want the best chance for salvation, the only thing that really matters, then it’s better (blessed) to be poor than to be rich. It’s better to be weeping than to be happy. It’s better to be hungry than to be satisfied. It’s better to have an all-encompassing desire for the fullness of heaven than to be satisfied in this life, and think less about heaven.
One of the major characteristics of Luke’s gospel is the reversal of expectations, very much like this “Sermon on the Plain,” and also very much like the Canticle of Mary, the Magnificat: “…He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty…” Luke’s target audience were affluent gentile Christians, who frequently had difficulty escaping the trappings of their affluence to identify with the poor, to minister generously and humbly to the poor and suffering. And so for the sake of their salvation, Luke highlights this aspect of Jesus’ ministry.
An interesting linguistic point is that Jesus’ main word in these blessings, in the Greek, is not really “blessed,” eulogēmenos, but rather makarios: “happy.” And this parallels Psalm 1. The usual word for blessing in Hebrew is barak. But in the psalm, it is ashar, “happy.” Following God’s law (the Beatitudes, the moral teaching of the New Testament, and of the Church) is the path to happiness. It isn’t necessarily the path to pleasure, and indeed might bring about quite a lot of suffering (like crucifixion), but we are made for happiness (ultimately, the happiness of heaven), and suffering is often the way to happiness. That requires discipline, which involves one of my recently-acquired favorite quotes, “Discipline is choosing what you want most over what you want now.” If what we want most is eternal happiness, then we have to choose now those things that advance us toward that, and choose against those things which are inconsistent with it, such as many of the ways we pursue a shadow of happiness through immoral pleasures. Sin never really brings happiness, because the little bit of happiness from sin always carries with it a greater unhappiness. And sin, of course is addictive. So we get hooked on that little bit of apparent happiness, and end up getting buried under the burden of the greater unhappiness that comes with it.
The second reading doesn’t usually relate to the other readings, but today, in a way it does. St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “How can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins.” The crucifixion and the resurrection are the key to the beatitudes. They are the key to unlock the paradox of human suffering. We unite ourselves to Christ who suffered and died and rose again. But if he didn’t rise again, we’re locked in the paradox of endless meaningless suffering and sin. Our upward possibilities are blocked off without hope.
But Paul (who was given his personal encounter with the post-ascension risen Christ) knows first-hand that Christ most certainly is alive, he did rise from the dead, because Paul met him. Paul clearly affirms for us: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead.” We are free, we are saved, we can outlive our suffering, sometimes in this life, but definitively in heaven, where you who are poor are blessed with the kingdom of heaven; where you who are now hungry will be satisfied; where you who are weeping will laugh; where you are hated and denounced (for your prophetic witness) on account of the Son of Man can rejoice and leap for joy, for your reward will be great in heaven.
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do great things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing I asked for – but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken words were answered.
I am, among men, most richly blessed.
(attributed to an unknown Confederate soldier)