In today’s Gospel reading, we have something similar to the Beatitudes we find in Chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel. But instead of nine beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel, in Luke’s version, we have four beatitudes and four woes. As I was reflecting on the reading, I found myself grappling with the woes. The beatitudes promise a reversal of situation from what is present now: the poor will be given the kingdom of heaven, the hungry will be satisfied, those who weep will laugh, and those who are hated and excluded and insulted because of their discipleship of Jesus will be rewarded in heaven.
In contrast, Jesus says woe to those who are rich and filled and laughing: it will all go the other way. And for those who are well thought of, they will suffer the fate of the false prophets. If we take these words seriously, there is much to ponder here. Even before we get to the woes, the guarantee of better things in the life to come has been perverted from time to time to try to keep those who are oppressed from seeking justice: “You will get your reward in heaven. Things are the way they’re supposed to be.” I don’t see Jesus as advocating the maintenance of oppression and injustice.
So when Jesus says, “Woe to you who are rich,” and “Woe to you who are filled now,” and “Woe to you who laugh now,” is He saying that the rich and the filled and the happy are condemned? I can’t see how that can be, and the Scripture commentaries I’ve read affirm that opinion. So what does Jesus mean? In some ways, I think, He is merely expressing the truth. If we rely solely on material wealth to be happy, we will be sorely disappointed when we find out that it cannot fill the void. We may be “filled now” but we will go hungry looking for real meaning in our lives. And although we may be happy now, there will be times when we are weeping and mourning. Joy and sorrow are both part of life.
But I wonder if these blessings and woes do not also express an upending of worldly wisdom. I wonder if Jesus’ words startled His disciples, especially if they were used to a sort of “prosperity gospel,” in which the rich were seen as favored by God, and the poor as punished by Him. To promise the opposite might have been a great surprise. As I read Jesus’ words here, I was taken back to Mary’s words when she visited Elizabeth in what is often referred to as the Magnificat: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked with favor upon his lowly servant… He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, and scattered the proud in their conceit, He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy…” (Luke 1:46-48, 50-54). The coming of the Messiah would run counter to the wisdom that said God was almost by definition on the side of the rich and powerful. And here in our Gospel today Jesus is preaching the same thing!
If we follow Jesus, we will be living contrary to the wisdom of the world that exalts greed and self-centeredness. If we follow Jesus, we will seek to alleviate people’s suffering, and comfort those who are weeping now, seeing the material resources we have as a means and not an end. And we might even be led to work with others to change whatever needs to be changed so that it is no longer accepted that some amount of poverty is a small price to pay for the efficient running of things. It is true that some people make bad decisions, but most poverty in our world is not caused by the bad decisions of the poor. We do this work in following Jesus trusting in the Lord. And even though we might be hated and excluded because of it, we will as the prophet Jeremiah says in our first reading, be like trees “planted besides the waters,” who fear “not the heat when it comes” and show no distress “in the year of drought,” but will still bear fruit.
Fr. Phil, CP