I once read an author who suggested that the Beatitudes are a good guide for examinations of conscience. Jesus calls us to more than simply following the letter of the law. He calls us to a fundamental attitude of heart that seeks to serve and to love others, not only ourselves. The Beatitudes do not only reassure those who are poor, who feel rejected, who are hungry or crying that God is present and will take care of them, though surely this is part of it. The words of Jesus here are also a means by which we can ask ourselves whether we are living out our Christianity radically enough. Unlike the Gospel according to Matthew, the words of Jesus in Luke do not ask us if we are “poor in spirit” but actually “poor.” Emphasizing the point even further, Jesus tell us, “Woe to you who are rich.” Uh oh. Like the challenge Jesus’ words to the young man who wants to do everything for God, and is told to sell all he has, give it to the poor, and to follow Jesus, Jesus’ words are radically countercultural. As we get ready for the Lenten season in only a couple of weeks, it makes sense to ask ourselves whether we are preoccupied with worldly goods or with the kinds of goods that Jesus proclaims, the goods of love, of justice, of mercy and of self-gift.
The Beatitudes are really paradoxical, because the word for “Blessed” really means “happy”. But no one thinks that weeping or being rejected is a happy occasion in itself. Surely Jesus is not recommending a kind of masochistic pursuit of suffering. No. Instead, Jesus lets us know why being rejected is a good thing: because you can rejoice in knowing that the prophets were also treated this way, he says.
Jesus’s idea seems to be something like this: if no one ever questions the value of what you are doing, if you never stand up for what is just (for example, stand up for immigrants, or stand against racism, or lobby for the poor), your Christianity is too tame. More to the point, Jesus is not asking us to judge whether anyone else’s Christianity is too tame, but only our own: am I advocating for the poor even if it requires I give up my own wealth to do so? Am I willing to advocate for my best understanding of what is just in my own world and community, even if people don’t like me as a result? Is my life too focused on material comforts and pleasures, or am I willing to feel uncomfortable for the right kinds of reasons? Am I willing to feel sorry when it’s right, or to change how I live, if I discover that I don’t like my answers to these questions? It’s a dangerous thing to think of oneself as a prophet, for sure, but an even more dangerous thing not ever to question the world’s values and to blindly conform oneself to them for the sake of being liked, respected, or just plain comfortable. At least we ought to listen to what the prophets are saying to us.
Jesus’ words are a challenge, then, not only a reassurance. Christianity ought to at least some of the time make us uncomfortable, to wonder about our privileges in relation to the world as it really is, with many people who do not have the same privileges that we have.
But maybe we can also go back to the ways in which Jesus also does reassure with his words. After all, we might be privileged in one area, but lacking something in another way. Perhaps as person has all the material wealth he needs, but a family member is ill . Perhaps a person lives simply and is content with this, but struggles to find meaningful work or a life partner.
Here the words of Jeremiah from the first reading might help us out:
“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.” (Jer 17:5-8)
We all need friends and communities, but Jeremiah reminds us that human beings are just….human! Our human hearts do require human love, but it is a valuable discovery when we discover that no one person and not even all the many friends and family in our lives cumulatively can meet all of our human needs, and that this is okay.
Our hearts long in a way that no ordinary person can ever meet; even if we are the most tender spouse or faithful friend, we all have limits, things we bring to the relationship and things we do not. However, if we can connect with God and find the “deep waters” within in which God resides, in our most interior spaces, then we have the sustenance we need to bear fruit. Then we are like a tree planted near a flowing stream that does not dry in times of drought. We have to be planted in God’s water, for this is what most fundamentally waters our souls.
This is also part of Jesus’ message: that when we do God’s work, there may be struggles but we need not worry overly much about praise/blame, acceptance/rejection, or material security/insecurity, because these are not fundamentally the things that sustain us as people. They are not what calls us to God, and they are not a good basis for sustaining our work on behalf of God’s people. Instead, our call and our deepest reward is in God’s very self. God provides for us in our efforts to labor on behalf of others, God provides for the love we have to share and the courage to stand for what is just, and if we are attentive, it is God’s presence in it all that is the reward that we receive.