Sunday, February 14, 2010

Jesus said: "Blessed Are You When They Exclude You Because Of Me. Rejoice On That Day!"

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Jeremiah 17:5-8
Thus says the LORD:
Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings,
who seeks his strength in flesh,
whose heart turns away from the LORD.
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.
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.

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Psalm  1:1-2, 3, 4 & 6

Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
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.
Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
He is like a tree
planted near running water,
that yields its fruit in due season,
and whose leaves never fade.
Whatever he does, prospers.
Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
Not so the wicked, not so;
they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
For the LORD watches over the way of the just,
but the way of the wicked vanishes.
Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
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Reading II
1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-20
Brothers and sisters:
If Christ is preached as raised from the dead,
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.
Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ,
we are the most pitiable people of all.
But now Christ has been raised from the dead,
the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Luke 6:17, 20-26
Jesus came down with the twelve
and stood on a stretch of level ground
with a great crowd of his disciples
and a large number of the people
from all Judea and Jerusalem
and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon.
And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.
For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
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.”
THE THOUGHTS PRESENTED in today's readings, especially the Gospel, are going to cause difficulties to some, if not to most of us. It is easy just to read or hear the words and we may even nod our heads in agreement but actually putting them into practice is not something we would think of taking seriously. There is a real danger here of separating life and religious faith. It is nice to hear these things in church but they are to be put away once we get outside the church doors and back into "real" life.

The first thing to note in the Gospel is that 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 chosen elite. It is not a special "vocation" but a way of life for all.

We are presented today with Luke's version of the Beatitudes. The format is different from that of Matthew. In Matthew there are eight while in Luke there are two contrasting sets of four: "How happy are you who..." and "Woe to you who..." I think we can take it that Luke's version is probably closer to what Jesus said and that Matthew's represents further reflection by the early Church.

At a first reading they completely fly in the face of the way of thinking with which we are surrounded and on which we have been brought up with our mother's milk.

"Happy are you who are poor, hungry, weeping and those of you who are hated, driven out, abused, denounced." Who can take such recommendations seriously? "Woe to you who are rich, filled, laughing and spoken well of." Are we not 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? Are not money, status and power the gods we are daily urged to worship? Are they not the keys to happiness and success in life? Can't I be a good Catholic and be rich and successful at the same time?

It may help us to divide these four beatitudes (and their opposites) between the first three and the last one. The first three are really addressed to everyone without exception but the one about persecution seems to come from a later phase of Jesus' teaching and is addressed more directly to his disciples.

The first three are addressed to everybody. 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 even as we enter a technically advanced 21st century. Things have not really changed much since Jesus' time, except that, on the one hand, the numbers are now much greater and, on the other, we have today more effective resources to solve the problem.

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. You find good and bad people both among the rich and the poor. Jesus is not speaking about some reward for the poor and unhappy of this world.

Jesus is speaking about God. These people are blessed and fortunate because, in spite of their condition, God deeply loves them. As someone has 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. These sayings of Jesus are not a promise for the future, they are not just words of encouragement; they are statements of fact. They are words that such people need to hear.
They are also, of course, words that those of us who are not materially poor, or suffering from lack of food, or immersed in sadness and depression also need to hear. Because 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. 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.

"As often as you did (or did not ) do it to the least of my brothers, you did (or did not) do it to me." "You must be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" - this refers to God's total and unconditional love for all people without a single exception. Jesus expects us to perform the same acts of goodness that he did for the poor, the alienated, the sick, the deprived, the oppressed. In fact, in John's gospel, he said that we would be able to do more than Jesus did.
To sum up, then, the poor are blessed because in the Kingdom, of which the Church is a sign, their deprivations will be brought to an end. The realization of that Kingdom is meant to have already begun. If it has not, then it is our own consciences we have to examine. 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.

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 (Christians or otherwise). 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 Scriptures.

In our own time there have been such outstanding prophets who risked pain, rejection and death for the sake of truth, justice and freedom. One thinks of Bishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, Martin Luther King in the United States, Mahatma Gandhi in India (a Hindu who puts many Christians to shame). 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. In fact, those who have come through such experiences do not regret what they had to endure for their fidelity to the Gospel. One Christian writer has said: "Jesus promised his disciples three things: that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy and in constant trouble." 

Living Space
The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

In a way, the poor are like prophets. They are a constant reproach to society, like the true prophets of the Old Testament. Also, according to Jesus' words, the rich can look at them and see their own future.