THE SERMON ON THE PLAIN
Jer 17:5-8; 1Cor 15:12,16-20; Luke 6:17,20-26
Last week, we read about Jesus choosing his apostles. After choosing them, Jesus comes down the mountain and proclaims the four beatitudes and four woes. In this pronouncement, he gives his disciples a roadmap to success in their mission as “fishers of men”. In doing so, Jesus turns worldly values up-side-down. If we compare the worldly preaching and the preaching of Jesus, the difference is very vast. The world preaches efficiency, it glorifies success and worships power. Modern society announces that happiness comes from wealth, affluence and freedom from any form of pain, while Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and the hungry, the weeping and the hated. These are God’s preferred people, Jesus says. What is the reason? Why are such people near to the heart of God?
- THE SERMON ON THE PLAIN
In today’s gospel text, we read the “Sermon on the Plain”, as distinct from the “Sermon on the Mount”. The lessons are so extraordinary that they force us to take notice. Even many who do not embrace Christianity have found these words insightful. The “Sermon on the Mount” is found in St. Matthew’s gospel, Chapters 5-7. In the gospel of St. Luke, which we read today, a good chunk of that “sermon” is found in chapter 6 and many of the other segments are scattered throughout Luke. Here, Jesus delivers his “sermon” on the plain, not on the “mount” as with the case of Matthew.
The differences between the two “sermons” troubles some people as to why. Like any traveling teacher, Jesus certainly pronounced the same message in different locations. If one were to compared those messages, one would realize that they have the same themes but they were not be identical. For instance, even though a priest, deacon or any pastor may preach the same message during holy Mass at both the 6:00 a.m. and 9.00 a.m., the homilies are by no means identical. Similarly, the words may not match exactly in Matthew and Luke but the message is the same. The location and the audience may also influence the manner of delivery. We often repeat the same things in different contexts, but with different emphasis.
- THE BEATITUDES IN LUKE’S GOSPEL
Biblical scholars tell us that St. Luke wrote his gospel at a time of terrible social and religious persecution of believers in Christ. The torture was so severe that anyone who professed to be a Christian knew for sure that he/she would be disowned by his/her own family, rejected by friends and even excluded from the synagogue. Such a person ran the risk of losing his/her right to inheritance. Even if such a person was wealthy, professing faith in Christ meant a total rejection that could reduce one to poverty. Christ called such persons “blessed”, because he assured them that whatever they lost here on earth, they would regain them all in the life after. One can imagine how those disciple of Jesus felt when they were appointed from the seventy-two! They automatically knew that by answering “yes” to the call of Jesus, they would lose all their possessions and entitlements in the community, instantly becoming poor, hated, reviled and excluded.
Practically speaking, poverty in itself is not a blessing. It is a misfortune. In fact, all the qualifying factors mentioned in Luke’s Beatitudes — poverty, hunger, weeping, hatred, exclusion are all misfortunes. These are things no good parents would wish for their children. Neither would God want these things for us, his children. However, one can understand St. Luke’s Beatitudes better, if one looks at the important clause which he adds at the end of the last beatitude, “on account of the Son of Man.” The evangelist wants to make us understand that we do not simply suffer for nothing. We suffer for “something”; and Christ is the reason for that suffering. We can accept all trials in life, because we want to serve God’s people as an act of our love for God.
- THE WOES OF JESUS
In Luke 6:17-26, Jesus makes four statements that start with the word “BLESSED” and then four that start with the word “WOE”. Each one of the “blessed” statements has a counterpart in the “woe” section. In these statements, Jesus calls us to a new reality, a new sense of right and wrong. The four woes point to four areas where the followers of Jesus should be thinking differently from the rest of the world: Riches, comfort-seeking, having fun and seeking popularity. In a similar light, the prophet Jeremiah reminds us, in the first reading, that we cannot rely on human or material things since they have no lasting value. It is only in loving God and doing his will here and now that one can gain ultimate happiness now and in the world to come.
- a) Riches constitute the first area in which Jesus gives is warning. In our world, people equate riches with success. People who make more money are considered “more significant”. Money translates into influence. Almost all of us would like to have more money because deep down we believe that this would solve most of the problems that we face in life. Similarly, the people of Jesus’ days looked at wealth much as we do today. They actually believed that those who had riches were “blessed by God”. The poor were therefore not blessed. Imagine the shock of the crowd when Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Immediately, Jesus qualifies these words with the following: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.”
Jesus was not cursing money as a means of exchange. He was not even saying that people who make a lot of money are bad. What Jesus is speaking against is the mentality that is so wrapped up in worldly possessions to the extent that one neglects the life to come. Riches tend to attach us to this world and so push many people actually worship money. Riches are bad when they become our source of security and the driving force of our life. In this case wealth becomes not a blessing; it turns into a stumbling block. Here, we recall Jesus’ words: “Store up treasures in heaven where neither rust nor moth can destroy” (Matt 6:20). St. Paul, in the second reading of today, sums it all up for us. He states that if we follow Jesus only for benefits in this life, then “we are the most pitiable of people” (1Cor 15:20).
- b) Next, Jesus warns against comfort-seeking. Jesus says, “Woe to you who are well fed NOW, for you will go hungry.” Jesus is not saying that hunger and famine are good things in and of themselves. In fact, we should be working to alleviate all such suffering. However, physically hungry people tend to be focused people. Jesus says that we need to have that kind of hunger for righteousness (or the things that God considers to be important). When we are “satisfied” we tend to stop working, searching, and growing. We put up a lay-back attitude. This is the curse of the “good enough”. Jesus wants his followers to be constantly hungering for a deeper and fuller relationship with God.
When we can become so comfortable in the world, we become spiritually lazy. Probably the greatest indictment of the Post-modern Christian is our comfortableness in the world. Ours is a generation that shuns sacrifice, diligence, passion or single-mindedness. Like students who reject effort, seemingly many Christians simply want to score a “pass” before God. They want to look good to others and feel that they have fulfilled the requirements to get to Heaven. Today, the Lord draws attention to the fact that the Christian faith is not about fulfilling certain assignments. It is about living in dynamic and intimate relationship with God. The Lord wants us to hunger for a deeper relationship rather than being content with superficial spirituality.
- c) Our lord also warns against having fun for its own sake. The pursuit of pleasure is like a drug. People always need a little bit more pleasure to help them get their “high”. Jesus addresses this “good time” or “enjoyment” mentality when he says, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” Later he adds, “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.” Jesus is not against laughter or enjoyment, as such. In fact, the Bible tells us that laughter is good medicine. Jesus does not mean, “Blessed are grim, cheerless Christians”. Far from it! We are certainly not a cheer-less people, yet we are Christians! Jesus is speaking against the superficial and shallow laughter that characterizes the situation where people are doing all sorts of foolish and sinful things just in order to “feel good”. Sin has caused havoc in human life. We should, therefore, mourn over: disease, injustice that victimizes the weak, child abuse, battered women, the drug culture, the increase of violence, senseless killings, the increase in divorce, and the loneliness and alienation that so many people experience.
Jesus is calling us to strip away the fake “happy world” in which so many people try to hide. It is quite common to hear people saying, “I just want to enjoy my life”. Such people, as it were, live for weekend parties. They watch out for the next party (“the weekend action spot”). The only question they ask is this: “Will I enjoy it?” This is tantamount to the Epicurean saying, “Let’s eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die.” Such a life is so-so empty. It looks good on the outside but what is on the inside is different. In today’s first reading, the prophet Jeremiah describes such fun-hunters as follows: “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” (Jer 17:5-6). For such people, the Psalmist prays: “Lord, teach us to know the shortness of our lives that we may gain wisdom of heart.” (Psalm 90:12).
- d) Jesus also warns against seeking popularity for its own sake. Jesus says, “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.” The key words here are: “because of the Son of Man”. Jesus is not saying it is good to be disliked. Some people are disliked because of their abrasive personalities. They are not being persecuted for their faith but because they are unbearable. Blessing comes when we choose to stand with Jesus Christ and others reject us because of that fact. When people dislike you because you are a follower of Jesus, the Lord reminds us that “great is your reward in Heaven”. In such a case, we have chosen the right path and it will lead to eternal blessing.
The truth is that popularity is an illusion. It does not last. Those who celebrate you today can just as easily turn on your tomorrow. The only dependable relationship is with Christ. Christ’s true followers must work for permanence rather than for appearances. Jesus warns us in verse 26: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.” When everyone is singing our praise we should be on guard. We should ask, “Are we popular because we have compromised or sold out the gospel?” We should also ask if this popularity has come with a price tag. It is better to be faithful and hated by the world than to be popular at the cost of our soul. For, Ecclesiastes says: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity! What does a man gain for all the toil and strain that he has undergone under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 2: 22). What is our life on earth worth if we do not work with God?
- A CALL FOR A RADICAL CHRISTIAN LIVING
In these teachings, Jesus is helping to us see God’s intention and desire for our lives as Christians. He points us in the direction of living the new life that we can have in him. He corrects our wrong ways of looking at the world, by inviting us to live differently from those who do not know him; those who do not see clearly. From this, we can see that one of the reasons why Christians seem to lack the power to attract non-believers to the faith today is because Christians are working so hard to show the world that “we are just like the rest”. Christians seem to have become “Just like everyone else”. We are just as preoccupied with getting rich like everyone else; Christian marriages are just as fragile like any other ones; Christians are just as addicted to power like everyone else; their business ethics are determined by what is to their advantage (Christian are just as likely to “pay someone under the table”); Christians watch the same shows and laugh at the same crude and obscene jokes; they consult the same “marabouths” and soothsayers like others; they give and collect bribes like anyone in the world, etc. Indeed, those who are outside the church see the way some Christians live and they conclude that all this talk about “Jesus changing my life” is more of a slogan than a reality. They see no evidence of God’s transforming power in those who claim to follow him. Through the beatitudes, Jesus calls his followers to a radical living.
All things, said and done, who among us would not like to be rich, satisfied, enjoy life and be popular? Any normal person would desire these things. For, normally, these are the things that make life more enjoyable. Desiring them is not necessarily sinful. The big question is whether we want to be rich, satisfied, enjoy life and be popular “more than we want to be faithful to Jesus Christ?” The answer to that question will tell which path is really more important to us. That question gives a glimpse of who or what we are truly following. This should remind us of St. Augustine of Hippo who, after a life lived in search for worldly pleasures, said in the end: “Lord, our hearts are made for you. Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” May God help us to desire and make the right choices in our journey to eternal happiness!