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The Gospel for this Sunday, the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time is the Beatitudes in Luke — the leaner, meaner version of the Beatitudes we know from Matthew.
As Pope Benedict XVI pointed out, we needn’t worry about the contradictions between the two. Of course Jesus shared the Beatitudes on more than one occasion in his teaching, and of course it wasn’t exactly the same each time.
The Beatitudes we know from Matthew are magnificent, but I’ve always preferred the direct, concrete approach in Luke.
In Matthew, Jesus climbs a mountain to say “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” which we can sometimes misunderstand to think Jesus is praising a general attitude of poverty. In Luke, Jesus “comes down” to “a stretch of level ground,” and says, “Blessed are you who are poor,” which means, Blessed are you who right this minute are wondering how you will pay your bills.
Real poverty isn’t a romantic attitude toward life, it’s a desperate circumstance in life. “Blessed are you poor” means Blessed are you who, right now, can only afford to live where you shouldn’t have to live; Blessed are you who can only afford to eat what you shouldn’t have to eat; Blessed are you who have to give your children less than they should get. Matthew doesn’t soften that, he broadens it. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” means Blessed are you who are poor in talents, poor in health, poor in peace of mind, even poor in spiritual strength.
Blessed are you if your life on earth is hard, because you will be forced to look elsewhere for fulfillment. Once you do that, he promises, “the Kingdom of God is yours.”
Next, Jesus says with terrible immediacy: “Blessed are you who are now hungry.”
In Matthew, it’s “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” which we can sometimes misapply to ourselves because, heck, we want justice, not injustice. Luke makes it clear that there is nothing vague about what Jesus is talking about while Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is talking about more than an empty stomach. He wants us to “be hungry” the way champions in sports and in industry “stay hungry.” Only those hungry for glory will do what it takes to be champions and only those hungry for success will become billionaires. No one gets to the next level if they are satisfied with where they are now.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is saying the same thing to you: You will never do what it takes to be satisfied in the next world if you continue to satiate yourself with this one. The physically hungry are entirely focused on finding the food their family needs — and the spiritually hungry are entirely focused on finding what their community needs.
Blessed are you who are now dissatisfied, for you will be driven to find the one thing that satisfies.
Last, Matthew’s “Blessed are they who mourn,” can sometimes be misconstrued.
Jesus doesn’t mean “Blessed are the kinds of people who regret their losses in life.” Luke reveals Christ’s urgency and attention: “Blessed are you who are now weeping.”
Blessed are you who have been damaged by life and can’t seem to catch a break. Blessed are you who have been heart-broken by death, disease, disaster or difficulties. Blessed are you who are victims of injustice or imprisoned by your own past mistakes.
You weep now but “you will laugh” soon at Christ’s side.
For me, these “Blessed are you now”s make a stronger impression than the “Blessed are they who”s. Jesus doesn’t want me to improve my intentions; he doesn’t want me to embrace a hypothetical future state; he wants me to rid myself of attachments now, he wants me to struggle for a better life for myself and others now, he wants me to love so deeply that I have to hold back the tears for my neighbor now.
And I love that Jesus lists “woes”, too.
This is Jesus’s pedagogy, and it is the only teaching method that works: Yes, in the Beatitudes he emphasizes the positive, pointing out how great it is to do the right thing, but he doesn’t whitewash the negative. He warns us that devastation awaits those who freely choose the wrong thing.
“Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation,” he says. You who are not counting pennies but counting possessions, you are in trouble — and in America, that applies to a large number of people in every parish congregation.
“Woe to you who are filled now,” he says. You who have satiated yourself with what this life has to offer without finding a way to share it, you who have spent so much on yourself you have nothing left for others, you had better be careful because when all of those things go away — and they will — “you will be hungry.”
“Woe to you who laugh now,” Jesus says. You who are filling your time with pointless entertainment and passing pleasures, without a thought for God and neighbor, are in for a rude awakening, “for you will grieve and weep.”
Jesus means what he says. He isn’t bluffing. Don’t make the mistake of thinking he is just using scary words to make a point — don’t think that what he really intends to do is pat everyone on the back and say, “Yeah, you cut a lot of corners and didn’t take me seriously. Don’t worry about it. We’re good.” He means what he says, and what he says is “Woe to you” if you reject his way.
Every single reading explains just how serious Jesus is.
The first two readings, from Jeremiah and the Psalms, have beatitudes and woes of their own. They say the blessed who are radically centered on God will live in a leafy green oasis of cool water and verdant leaves. And they say those who are not centered on God will live in woe — “a lava waste, a salt and empty earth,” as Jeremiah puts it, and will be “chaff which the wind drives away,” in the Psalm.
The Psalm, which is the crucial Psalm 1, even gives a lesson in how to follow the right and wrong way.
To live the Blessed life, “hope in the Lord,” trusting that your Father will give you what you need; “delight in the law of the Lord,” using the gifts of the Holy Spirit to relish what is right; and “meditate on his law,” spending your time getting to know Jesus Christ, so you will thrive, the way a tree does, growing slowly but solidly, subtly but surely.
But woe to those who “follow the counsel of the wicked,” taking advice from God’s adversary; woe to those who “walk in the way of sinners” satisfying their flesh instead of their spirit; and woe to those who “sit in the company of the insolent,” hanging out with worldly people who think faith is silly. You may fill your house, and your belly, and your downtime, for now — but that will all go away.
St. Paul gives the final proof that there are “two ways” — one where dying to self now means spiritual thriving, and one where living it up now means interior death.
Jesus Christ himself is his final proof. He is the one who was poor, hungry, and mourning, yet prospered. He is also the one who fulfilled the final beatitude, which I haven’t mentioned yet; the one that it is almost identical in Matthew and Luke:
“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.”
If Luke’s beatitudes sounds like too much to handle, St. Paul reminds us that Jesus Christ himself did it all, including being crucified by friends who turned against him. He didn’t just commune with God; he wasn’t “blessed” in some abstract way. Every vestige of false pleasure was taken away from him, and then he was killed — and he still healed, and taught, and rose from the dead.
If he didn’t literally rise, Paul says, “your faith is in vain; you are still in your sins,” and “we are the most pitiable people of all.” But if he did, then Blessed are you who are poor like Jesus Christ was; Blessed are you who hunger like he did; Blessed are you who weep like he did.
And blessed are you even when you are hated, because it’s there that you meet the one who the whole universe was patterned after, the one who gives you life and gives it to you abundantly.
In the suffering of this life you don’t just follow Christ’s beatitudes, you enter through them into him.