ONCE again this Sunday we will hear the gospel reading on the Beatitudes (Luke 6:17, 20-026). The text will not be the longer and more popular version in Matthew (Ch. 5, v. 1-7) but the shorter and more contentious version in Luke (Ch. 6, v. 17, 20-26).
Whereas, in Matthew’s account, Jesus taught the Beatitudes on top of a mountain (hence, the term Sermon on the Mount), in Luke, Jesus is seen teaching on level ground (Sermon on the Plain). What might be the significance of the location? Jesus up on the mountain may symbolize that he was teaching as God exercising his authority upon men. Conversely, Jesus on the plain - on the same ground as the crowd - may symbolize Jesus as God with us (our Immanuel), sharing our humanity and lowliness.
The Beatitudes, eight in Matthew but only four in Luke, pronounced blessings, and parallel to these blessings, woes. In Luke’s version we read, “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.”
Proceeding, we see the woes, “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.”
For reading something that seems counter to the values of our contemporary culture, it is no wonder for a casual reader to ask, “But why?” What is the blessedness in becoming poor and hungry? Don’t we all know the dehumanizing face of poverty and the pitiable sight of hunger? And what blessing is there in sorrow, exclusion, and insult? Doesn’t everyone strive to be happy, and are not progressive groups pushing for more diversity and inclusion?
And then the woes. Is it evil to be rich? To be satiated? To laugh and to be praised by our fellowmen? Are these not indicators of success in the modern world, and don’t we work hard to attain these desirable things in greater and greater measure?
Could Jesus be wrong or could Luke just have missed the point? The answer is a big “No.” Jesus was right and Luke did no mistake in recording the Lord’s message.
While the undesirable states of life mentioned by Jesus - poverty, hunger, sadness, and persecution – involved the material and the physical, they were not limited to those realms. Destitution in life is not only in the body; it can also be in mind and spirit. And Jesus, in teaching the Beatitudes, did not romanticize suffering. He did not say, “Blessed is poverty, hunger, sadness and persecution;” rather he said, “Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and those insulted on account of him.”
Why? Because there is hope. When these people on the margins who have nothing and no one to lean on put their complete trust in God, God listens to them. Part of the First Reading (Jeremiah 17:5-8) tells us, “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.”
God is not happy seeing his children suffer. He is a loving Father who knows our needs even before we ask him (see Matthew 6:8), and the Lord Jesus came to give us life and have it more abundantly (see John 10:10).
Thus also his anger to people who cause their fellow human beings to unjustly suffer – the rich who exploit the poor, the overabundant who ignore the plight of the needy, the indulgent who can pamper themselves with the pleasures of this world at the sight of their neighbors’ tears, and the hypocritically popular who are elated by people’s praise and commendation while hiding evil and harboring indifference.
Between these two groups of people, Jesus teaches us that there will be a reversal of states. God will lift up the lowly who call upon his name, and bring down the arrogant who lived in self-centeredness. After all, our God is a God of justice and mercy.