February 13, 2022| 6th Sunday after Epiphany
After telling a few significant episodes about the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, such as the conflict in the synagogue at Nazareth and the calling of the first disciples on the shores of the lake of Genassaret, the Gospel of Luke presents the basic teachings of Jesus in a speech. This speech starts with the so-called “beatitudes”, just like in the Gospel of Matthew: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:1). There are, however, a few remarkable differences between the two versions of the speech. In Matthew, Jesus sits on the mount and then begins to speak. Jesus teaches his followers how to live, what precepts they must follow, just like Moses gave the Torah to the people from the holy mountain. In Luke, instead, the same speech happens on a level field, in the open plain. Luke wants to underline how many people are following Jesus, coming from all parts, Jews as well as pagans. A multitude of different people, all brought together by their need to be healed and made whole. It is in this context that Jesus opens his mouth and proclaims the beatitudes. In the version of Luke, Jesus addressed people directly: “Blessed are you, who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” All these people, hungry for healing and hungry for bread, are the backdrop of the solemn words that Jesus speaks. He proclaims four beatitudes, followed, and paralleled by four curses. “Blessed are you, who are poor... cursed are you who are rich...” This is the major difference from the version of the same speech in Matthew, where we read nine beatitudes and no curses. It is a remarkable difference for us, because we are not used to hearing Jesus curse people and perhaps we would rather try to avoid believing it. It hurts our religious sensibilities. And, yet, we are not at liberty to discard, bypass, or sanitize the Gospel text. We ought to understand it.
The prophet Jeremiah, as we heard in the first reading, provides the literary frame for the Lukan beatitudes. Jeremiah presents curses and blessings. The order is inverted in Luke, which opens up lyrically with the positive message, the Gospel of hope: “Blessed are you who are poor... who do not expect anything from life anymore... because God is coming to save you”. But the Jeremiah poem helps us understand the blessings as well as the curses of Jesus. “Cursed are those who trust only human power, and whose heart turn away from the Lord... Blessed are those who trust in the Lord...”. The same message, in the inverted order, lays behind the beatitudes of Jesus in Luke. “Blessed are you poor... cursed are you rich...”. Then Jesus explains: the poor are those who are hungry and weep; the rich are those who are full, satiated, and laugh. However, in no case we should understand these words as general statements. Jesus is not saying that poverty is good, and wealth is bad; nor he is saying that each individual poor is morally good and each individual wealthy person is morally bad. He rather speaks in context. Who are then the poor and the rich that he is addressing as “you”?
During the Roman occupation of Palestine, the divide between the elites and the people grew larger than it had ever been in the history of the people of Israel. Few landowners, connected to the Roman aristocracy, owned most of the land. Perhaps the first disciples of Jesus, the fishermen, turned to fishing as a commercial alternative to an even harder life as peasants. Romans were very tolerant of local customs and religions, as long as their subjects were paying heavy taxes to them. The multitudes that flock to Jesus from all parts are not only sick in their body or their spirit; they are sick and yearning for wholeness, in part, because of the social conditions they live in. It is one thing to be poor in a balanced economy of subsistence; it is quite another to become poorer in a situation in which you are not entitled anymore to your own piece of land and your own house. In a sense, the divide between rich and poor is an old reality in the Israelite society. The prophets had long cursed those who lay on decorated chaise lounges for their banquets and “eat the people like bread” (Psalm 53:4). But in Roman times, the inequality has become even more unbearable.
Jesus does not talk about poor and rich in general. He talks about the situation that he is living in. And his message is political as well as it is religious. This is hard news for us, who are used to a neat separation between politics and religion. The Gospel of Luke, which we are reading in this year 2022, does not allow us to escape the entanglement of politics with religion. We will hear Jesus speaking over, and over again about wealth and power. And yet, because we live in such a different context, it not easy to derive from these texts a clear message for us. A generic appeal to social justice will not do. His message is just as spiritual as it is social and political. This conjunction of the spiritual with the political is the hard part for us. Jesus is saying that God looks on those who are in a condition of need with a special favor. He is not saying that the poor and needy are better people, or that they find themselves in a better place. He is saying that God honors them like kings and queens. He is telling people who are humiliated that they possess an infinite dignity. He is also telling those who have plenty that they will not get anything else. And that they will go hungry, they will mourn and grieve. There is no way not to understand this as the program for a revolution. And yet God is deeply implied in it. This is not just a social program.
It is really hard to understand for us. And perhaps we should just keep pondering these complex words. What should we do, we church people? We are called to be prophets, as we heard repeatedly in the past few weeks. We heard the stories of the vocations of the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah and their resistance to the call. We saw Peter asking Jesus to stay away from him, perhaps intuiting the magnitude of what was going to happen to him if he in fact followed Jesus. The fourth beatitude and the fourth curse in Luke speak to this point. They are about becoming prophets, and they introduce a litmus test. Remember the distinction between true prophets and false prophets. True prophets speak the truth, even when it hurts. They challenge the status quo and stand firm in front of the powerful, yet they console the downtrodden. False prophets, on the contrary, flatter the people, they tell them that God is on their side, at all times. That they should not fear any disaster, even when war is at the door. According to Jesus in Luke, the litmus test consists in the fact that if your words encounter no opposition, you are probably a false prophet. On the contrary, being excluded, reviled, and even defamed for the things that you say is the mark of true prophecy. Now, that is not a very inviting invitation, is it? Who wants to be excluded and vilified? And, yet, that is our call. As much as we would like to push this cross away from us, we are called to speak up and say uncomfortable truths to this generation, to this society. We are called to help the poor and downtrodden to regain confidence in their ability and strength, just as we are called to remind the powerful and those who put their trust only in themselves that they are going to fall and be miserable on the day they see how empty their life is. Because this is not only about social justice and politics. It is about God as well. God is the horizon of meaning, the aim of our deepest desires. God is the hidden reality that lives in us, as individuals and society, and opens us up, individuals and society, to possibilities yet unheard. The nobodies of this world need to hear that God values them, that they can get out of their misery. And the powerful of this world need to hear that all their efforts to keep their power are ridiculous and will lead them only to misery. For both, and everybody in between, God is the reservoir of new and different possibilities.
Today, at the eucharistic table, we encounter Jesus, the first risen brother. That is how Paul calls him: “The first fruits of those who have died”. He is the first because many others may follow. All those who came to Jesus in that large plain, Jews and pagans, and all those who came after. All the downtrodden and all of us. Even all the rich people who come to an understanding of the trap that wealth is. All are invited to share at the table. To share God. All are invited to invite others into new and unheard possibilities for their lives if they only trust God and let themselves be guided. If they start living their lives out of their deepest values, instead of playing with the accumulation of power and wealth, that leads only to misery. AMEN.