THE SERMON ON THE PLAIN
Jer 17:5-8; 1Cor 15:12,16-20; Luke 6:17,20-26
After choosing His apostles, Jesus came down the mountain and proclaimed the four beatitudes and four woes. In it, 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 worldly preaching and the preaching of Jesus, the world preaches efficiency, it glorifies success and worships power. 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. What is the reason? Why are they 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 Matthew Chapters 5-7. And this is certainly only the highlights of the message. In the gospel of Luke, which we read today, a good chunk of that “sermon” is found in Luke 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 spoke the same message in different locations. If you compared those messages they would have the same themes but would not be identical. For instance, even though a priest or deacon preaches the same message at both the 6:00 a.m. and 9.00 a.m. Masses, the homilies are by no means identical. Similarly, the words may not match exactly in Matthew and Luke but the message is the same. We often repeat things in different contexts, but with different emphasis.
That said, we must note that in these teachings, Jesus is helping to us see God’s intention and desire for our lives. 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 the Church seems to lack the power it had in the past is because Christians are working so hard to show the world that we are “just like the rest”. We have become “Just like everyone else”.
- We are just as preoccupied with getting rich
- Our marriages are just as fragile
- We are just as addicted to power
- Our business ethics are determined by what is to our advantage (Christian are just as likely to “pay someone under the table”)
- And we watch the same shows and laugh at the same crude and obscene jokes
- We consult the same “marabouths” and soothsayers like them
- We give and collect bribes like anyone in the world, etc.
Those who are outside the church see us and 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.
- FOUR AREAS WHERE CHRIST-FOLLOWERS SHOULD BE THINKING DIFFERENTLY FROM THE WORLD AROUND
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. Just as Jeremiah reminds us, in the first reading, that we cannot rely on human or material things since they have no lasting value, only loving God and doing His will here and now will lead us to ultimate happiness now and in the world to come.
- a) WEALTH
The first warning Jesus gives is about wealth. In our world people equate riches with success. People who make more money are deemed “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 we face in life. Similarly, the people of Jesus day looked at wealth much as we do. 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. Remember Jesus’ words: “Store up treasures in heaven where neither rust nor moth can destroy” (Matt 6:20).
In his version of the Beatitudes, Matthew puts the focus on our attitude: “Blessed are the poor IN SPIRIT.” This qualifier helps us to see that the term “poor” is not only economic or financial; it is also theological. The person who is poor in spirit recognizes that he/she deserves nothing from God. Everything he/she has is an undeserved gift from God. Jesus is warning that if we put our hope and confidence in our income and financial muscles, we may know great comfort and pleasure in this life; but we will find that we have spent our lives trusting that which does not last into eternity and will never ultimately satisfy. We may find that in the end we have put our faith in stuff (“ground cargo”) rather than in the Saviour. St. Paul, in the second reading, sums it all up for us. He states that if we follow Jesus only for benefits in this life “we are the most pitiable of people.”
- b) COMFORT
Next, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.” Once again we turn to Matthew and we see this verse clarified, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” 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). Jesus restates it, “Woe to you who are well fed NOW, for you will go hungry.” When we are “satisfied” we stop working, reaching, and growing. This is the curse of the “good enough”. Jesus wants His followers to be constantly hungering for a deeper and fuller relationship with God.
We can become so comfortable in the world that we become spiritually lazy. Probably the greatest indictment of the Post-modern Christian is our comfortableness in the world. It a generation that shuns sacrifice, diligence, passion or single-mindedness. Like students who reject effort, seemingly many Christians simply want to score a “pass”. They want to look good to others and feel that they have fulfilled the requirements to get to Heaven. Once again 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) HAVING FUN
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 (“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. 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).
The pursuit of pleasure is like a drug. We always need a little bit more pleasure to help us get our “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 cheerless 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 to “feel good.” Sin has caused havoc in life. We should 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. And certainly we should mourn over the many anguished people in our society who are victims of social, economic and political injustices. We are hereby called to strip away the pretend “happy world” in which so many try to hide. The Psalmist says: “Lord, teach us to know the shortness of our lives that we may gain wisdom of heart.” (Psalm 90:12).
True happiness comes when we are able to look at the sometimes harsh realities of life and rest in the Lord. This joy comes from finding the key to life in Jesus Christ. This happiness is not superficial. This happiness brings forth a laughter that is anchored in joy, security, and the love of God. It is a joy that does not disappear even in the toughest of times.
- d) POPULARITY
The desire to be accepted and popular is what we normally call peer pressure. In young people, it can lead them to do all kinds of dangerous and foolish things. That desire can be very strong in teenagers, as well as in adults. There is nothing wrong with having people to like you. After all, the Bible tells us that we should have a good reputation with outsiders. However, the big question is: “What are you willing to do in order to be popular?”
Jesus said, “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.”
Note the key words: “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”. 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 appearance.
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?
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 you 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. Jesus wants us to enjoy the journey of serving Him in this life. However, he is much more concerned that we attain and enjoy the destination, which is heaven. This reminds us of St. Augustine of Hippo who, after a life lived in 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!