Rev. Joseph Keating
6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)
Our Gospel reading contains the Beatitudes, the very core of Jesus’ moral teaching to his disciples. We are used to hearing the eight Beatitudes from Matthew’s gospel, taken from the Sermon on the Mount. But today we just heard the parallel text from Luke’s gospel, in which the beatitudes consist of four “blessed are you’s” and four “woe to you’s”, and they come from the Sermon on the Plain. This contrast of blessing and woe gives us a fuller picture of Jesus’ preference of associating with the weakest members of society, and it offers us a contrasting warning for those who hold worldly power.
To those disciples gathered on the plain that day, these words must have been somewhat shocking. I can just picture the Q&A session at the end of the sermon, where some guy in the back stands up, let’s call him Bill, and Bill says, “Um, excuse me, Rabbi, did you just say blessed are the poor and hungry? Woe to the rich and the popular? I’m poor and hungry, and I don’t feel so blessed. And besides, isn’t the point of life to be wealthy and powerful, so that I don’t have to suffer? The rich seem to have everything going for them.”
Who can blame Bill for asking this question? Sure, it seems like the point of life is to get rich and live comfortably. Even the Psalmist expresses his frustration with the way of the world, when he writes in Psalm 73:
I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they suffer no pain; their bodies are healthy and sleek.
They are free of the burdens of life; they are not afflicted like others. (Psalm 73:3-5)
Here the Psalmist is asking the same question as our boy Bill, and he is tempted to envy, wishing he could have the comfortable life of the wicked. He continues, asking if it is really worth it to keep God’s commands:
Is it in vain that I have kept my heart pure, washed my hands in innocence?
For I am afflicted day after day, chastised every morning. (Psalm 73:13-14)
Yes, there must have been many like Bill in the crowd that day, asking if it’s really worth it. But the Psalmist answers his own question:
Though I tried to understand all this, it was too difficult for me,
Till I entered the sanctuary of God and came to understand their end.
You set them, indeed, on a slippery road; you hurl them down to ruin.
How suddenly they are devastated; utterly undone by disaster! (Psalm 73:16-19)
In the end, the wicked disappear like shadows, but the faithful are given honor from God. The psalm concludes with the Psalmist praising God, who is his rock, his portion, and his refuge.
This is the promise of the Lucan Beatitudes, the answer to Bill’s question, that the justice of God will be visited upon the unjust in this life, and the honor of God will be bestowed on the righteous. For the humble and the poor, this Gospel truly is Good News. It is the message that the Church has proclaimed for 2,000 years.
This dual proclamation of blessing and woe reminds me of an ancient text called the Didache, aka the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. It’s a short text from the 1st century, and it’s essentially the first written catechism. It begins with these words:
There are two Ways, one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the two Ways.
The Didache’s first four paragraphs continue to describe the Way of Life, and the next two paragraphs describe the Way of Death. This first section is basically a recap of the moral commands of the New Testament. In this 1,900 year-old text, we see the first echo of Jesus’ teaching in his Church, and it challenges the listener to make a fundamental choice—choose which path you will take.
After examining the two ways in the Didache, and the dichotomy of blessing and curse presented in the Sermon on the Plain, we can find ourselves nodding along, agreeing with the words we hear. It sounds great as a spiritual ideal, something lofty to which we can aspire. Trust in God, not in men. Got it. Do good, avoid evil. Check. Blessed are the poor, hungry, weeping, and insulted. Cursed are the rich, fat, jolly, and popular. It is a message we have gotten used to, to the point that it can become merely abstract, whereas in the concrete, when the chips are down, do we really practice what we believe?
Make no mistake, the Sermon on the Plain, the Psalms, the Didache and the preaching of Jeremiah the prophet are no abstract, pie-in-the-sky ideal. These teachings must be acted upon and incorporated into our daily lives. We cannot live comfortable, care-free lives and pretend that these teachings don’t apply to us.
As Catholics, we must be willing to act on our beliefs, and not relegate them to some back corner of our “private lives.” We cannot divide ourselves in two, and live a public life over here, and a private faith over there. We cannot travel both ways. That is the opposite of integrity. It’s the disintegration of the soul.
We have seen in the recent news what happens when nominally Catholic politicians decide to compartmentalize their public self and private self. They pretend that their faith shouldn’t have anything to do with the way they govern. They even say things like, “I personally don’t believe in abortion, but I would never prevent someone else from having an abortion.” Can you think of a less loving thing to say? I would like to ask them, “Why don’t you personally believe in abortion? If there’s something morally wrong about it, then why would you make it easier for other people to commit a moral evil? Do you have so little regard for your neighbor? You are trying to have it both ways, and you can’t. Either this is an evil act, and you should do all you can to stop it, or it’s not an evil act, and you shouldn’t be personally opposed to it.”
You can’t have it both ways; George Orwell would have called this, “double-speak.” And this double-speak is a sign of a disintegrated soul—a house divided against itself. It’s a soul that has lied to itself for so long that it has forgotten the truth. A soul that wants all to speak well of him, even to the point of cheering and applauding a horrific sin. It is a scandal when such pitiable men call themselves Catholic.
These wretched men do not come out of nowhere, as if they are good one day and evil the next. They begin life just like the rest of us, learning and forming the conscience to discern and choose the good. And their lives, like ours, entail a series of decisions. Every day, in matters great and small, we all make decisions. We choose how we will act and react. We either choose the good, or we choose the evil that is disguised as the good. The fear of the Lord gives us the wisdom to know the difference. The person who chooses the good repeatedly grows in virtue, whereas the person who chooses evil repeatedly sinks deeper and deeper into vice. The small decisions we make every day prepare us for the moments when we must make big decisions. The person who has cultivated virtue his whole life long will find it easier to make the right decision when it really matters.
This virtuous person is the man spoken of in our psalm today, Psalm 1:
Blessed the man who …
delights in the law of the LORD
and meditates on his law, day and night.
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.
When we fear the Lord and follow his commandments, it is like a vaccination against all manner of sin. God’s law keeps us from trying to win popularity contests. God’s law keeps us from feeding ourselves while our neighbor goes hungry. God’s law keeps us from becoming slaves to entertainment. God’s law keeps us from being slaves to our jobs and our possessions.
In short, God’s law is love. This love causes us to grow like trees planted near running water, and to bear fruit that will last to eternity. This is what Jesus reveals to us in the Beatitudes, and by the witness of his entire life. It is to this love that Christians are called, that we may share eternal life with all the Blessed in Heaven.