Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Upside Down Kingdom of God: 6th Sunday in OT


As we continue our journey through the Gospel of Luke in Ordinary Time, Jesus keeps teaching us that his kingdom, the Kingdom of God, reverses many of our expectations and stereotypes. His is a kingdom where the typical markings of “blessing”—health, wealth, prosperity, power—are doomed to woe, and the typical markings of “curse”—weakness, sickness, poverty, humiliation—are signs of happiness and rejoicing.  What is going on?  Jesus’ teaching “upsets our apple cart”, and forces us to think more deeply about who God is and who we are.  

1.  Our First Reading is from 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.

The prophet Jeremiah had a very hard life, as he preached to the people of Judah in the last years of the Kingdom of David (597-587 BC) and had to endure the final siege, famine, fall, and destruction of the holy city Jerusalem.  Moreover, Jeremiah’s message of repentance was rejected by his contemporaries, and he was persecuted by both the religious and civil authorities.  He died in Egypt, still rebuking the people of Judah who had fled there and forcibly taken him along, despite his protestations against this plan of action.

Jeremiah resembles Our Lord in many ways.  Both preached against the royalty, priesthood, and Temple business of their own day, and subject to lethal duress by the authorities.  Neither experience, within their earthly lives, comfort, peace, or prosperity.
Therefore it is striking that Jeremiah utters the oracle contained in our First Reading.  Judging from externals, one might say that Jeremiah’s life was like a “barren bush in the desert.”  But Jeremiah has a deeper insight: in reality, the one who is like a barren bush in a salt waste is the one who trusts in men and natural power (“seeking his strength in flesh”), whereas—despite appearances to the contrary—the one who trusts in the LORD is like a green tree that keeps it’s leaves and fruit even in time of drought.
It is significant that Jeremiah’s oracle does not say that the “one who trusts in the Lord” will not experience heat or drought, but rather that he will stay green in the midst of it.  This means, the one who learns to draw strength from God alone, through prayer, receives the strength to endure the afflictions of this life without losing faith or hope, because he looks forward to what is unseen, not what is seen.  

P. Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 1:1-2, 3, 4 and 6 

R. (40:5a) 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.
R. 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.
R. 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.
R. Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.

Our Responsorial Psalm sounds very much like Jeremiah’s oracle—in fact, it may well be that one influenced the other (either Jeremiah quoting the Psalm, or the psalmist quoting Jeremiah).  In any event, Psalm 1 adds something to Jeremiah’s prophecy.  Jeremiah described the righteous man who flourishes like a green tree as the one who “trusts” in the LORD, but the psalmist adds that he “meditates on the law of the LORD day and night.”

On the one hand, we can take “the law of the LORD” as a reference to Scripture.  In this way, the blessed man is the one who meditates on Scripture, who reads it, ponders it, memorizes it.  This is what the great saints did, and we Catholics need to recover the practices of mediation and memorization of Scripture.

On the other hand, the “law of the LORD” can be taken specifically as the moral law taught in Scripture.  The “law” has a bad reputation nowadays, both inside and outside the Church, as many even among theologians and clergy make a false and misleading opposition between “love” and “law”, as if there could possibly be times when the requirements of the moral law—what is “right” to do—are contrary to the way of love—the “loving thing” to do. 

In actual reality, however, the morally right thing to do is always synonymous with the loving thing to do.  Our real problem is that almost all of us simply equate “niceness” with love, such that we seldom have the courage to be truly loving and tell people the truth in difficult situations.  Instead, most of us prefer to be nice and tell others the lies they want to hear and will keep our lives comfortable.  However, speaking or condoning lies and falsehood is never the way of love, it’s the way of cowardice. 

Our Lord sets us the example in this.  Although he was love incarnate, he did not shrink from “being real” with the Pharisees, scribes, and others whose salvation was in danger.  I suspect we often think that Jesus simply “didn’t like” the Pharisees, but the truth is he loved them, and wanted their salvation.  That’s why he spoke so strongly and plainly to them.

Despite everything that is said by people both outside and inside the Church, nonetheless, that man or woman is blessed who loves and ponders deeply God’s moral law, as it is stated in Scripture and in the teaching of the Church. He may be persecuted by king and priest, as Jeremiah was, but he will find his strength in God and receive an eternal blessing.

2. Our Second Reading is 1 Cor 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.

At first it seems that our Second Reading has nothing to do with the First and the Gospel, but upon further reflection we can discern a deep connection.  St. Paul emphasizes that at the heart of our faith lies the hope in the resurrection, and that without this hope, our faith is empty and we are the most pitiful of people.  Why?  Because in this life, we are not going to enjoy the reward for whatever good we do and holiness we attain.  This world punishes goodness and holiness, and in external terms, those who trust in God and follow his law can experience the most abject miseries.  Why do it, then?  Only if there is something to hope for beyond this life.  Only if there is a resurrection, and a life of the world to come where God will bless those who love him with the experience of his own Presence. St. Paul is reminding us of our hope for the next life, that enables the faithful man to remain “green” and “verdant” with hope even in the midst of “heat” and “drought.”

G. Our Gospel is Lk 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.”

This is St. Luke’s famous “Sermon on the Plain,” which has many similarities as well as significant differences from St. Matthew’s more famous “Sermon on the Mount” (Matt 5-7).  In the “beatitudes” that Jesus pronounces in our Gospel Reading, we hear the echo of the more famous Beatitudes recorded in Matt 5:1-9.  However, in Matthew Our Lord blesses “the poor in spirit”, whereas here in Luke it is simply “you who are poor.”

The usual explanation for the similarities and differences is that these are two confused and altered accounts of the same event.  Perhaps Luke is borrowing from Matthew but changing the location and the wording of Our Lord’s teaching in order to fit his agenda, or perhaps both Matthew and Luke are working from a common source and doing their own creative reworking of it.

However, freely fictionalizing the life of Jesus is not compatible with the leading of the Holy Spirit (who is truth itself) or true discipleship to Jesus.  Therefore, I find the usual explanations unconvincing.

In reality, Jesus almost certainly preached the same basic set of teachings or “sermon” on many, many occasions all over the land of Israel, but always with variations depending on the time, the setting, and the audience.  Matthew records a form of Jesus’ basic message that he once preached on a mountain in Galilee, whereas Luke records a different rendition of the basic message preached on a different occasion, on an unidentified plain, shortly after choosing the Twelve. 

On this occasion, Jesus teaches that those who experience poverty, hunger, sorrow, and persecution in this life for the sake of “the Son of Man”—who is Jesus himself—should rejoice greatly, because these afflictions are signs that they are headed in the right direction and will receive their just reward “in heaven.”  But on the contrary, those who live lives of wealth, indulgence, and popularity ought to be very concerned about their eternal salvation, because these signs of external happiness often accompanied the false prophets and other “fakers” in salvation history. 

Jesus’ words are indeed very sobering for those of us, at least, who have enjoyed a measure of external “success” in the world.  Jesus is saying that externals are often deceptive, that the truly blessed are those who appear cursed, and those who appear blessed are in danger of being cursed.  So we need to redefine “success” and re-evaluate what we celebrate and what we bemoan. Typically, we just fall into the common pattern of this world, bemoaning any hardships we face and envying those we perceive as externally prosperous.  The readings of this Mass are calling us to do an examination of conscience: could the measure of success or prosperity I enjoy actually be due to the fact that I do not publically identify with Jesus, but simply act and speak like the rest of the world?  On the other hand, could the sorrows and afflictions I endure actually be signs of God’s love and the reward he has in store for me in the life to come?  Do I fall into the trap of evaluating my life and the life of others based on material goods and other physical signs of health and prosperity?  Finally, am I a man or woman who trusts in the LORD, who delights in his law, and meditates on his word day and night?  If not, what is my trust in?
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