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The 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 17, 2019

 

     Blessings and curses are on today’s liturgical menu. We got them from Jeremiah; we got them from Jesus.  Jeremiah stated the case for both curses and blessings. Those who place their trust in human things are cursed, he says: they are like “a barren bush in the desert.” Those who place their trust in God are blessed: they flourish like a tree planted near water.

     We all know the kind of people Jeremiah describes as cursed - people who don’t know good when they see it: the goodness of God, the good in themselves, the good in the people and the world around them - people so fixed on things that they are oblivious of God and God’s wondrous gifts. Their lives are a dead end street. Often they’re people who, humanly speaking, seem to have the most going for them, but appearances are misleading. I think of a well-off fellow I once knew. He was kind of a hot shot and a high achiever. He had it all, but he was so busy making money that he had no time for family and friends. He was even too busy to spend his money! He seemed obsessed by the thought that he would end up one day with nothing.  Well, he did. But the nothing he ended up with wasn’t what he’d feared. He died young, his legacy a fat bank account and a large investment portfolio, but he didn’t leave much love behind.

     On the blessed side, I think of Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche movement, one of the saints of our time. Vanier was born into privilege: his father was the Canadian ambassador to France who later became the Governor General of Canada. He himself became a highly respected naval officer with an advanced degree in philosophy and a brilliant career as a professor ahead of him, but one day he decided, at the gentle encouragement of a priest friend, to invite to live with him two men with intellectual disabilities who had been confined to a mental institution. His life was never the same, and neither was theirs. Reflecting on it later, he wrote, “I made the great discovery that we are healed by the poor and the weak, that we are transformed by them if we enter into relationship with them; that the weak and the vulnerable have a gift to give to our world, and that the poor and weak are also ourselves, each one of us.” Jeremiah’s blessing fits Jean Vanier to a tee: “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord. He is like a tree planted beside the waters whose leaves are always green.”    

     In today’s readings, Jeremiah’s blessings and curses are nicely paralleled by the blessings and curses of Jesus in that passage from Luke’s gospel commonly called the Sermon on the Plain. That’s to distinguish it from Matthew’s collection of similar sayings of Jesus known as the Sermon on the Mount.

     And similar they are, except that the first of Luke’s Beatitudes is strikingly different from the first of Matthew’s. We know Matthew’s best. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In Luke, he simply says, “Blessed are you who are poor.”  The rest of Luke’s beatitudes are substantially the same as Matthew’s, but what a list they are: the hungry, those who weep, those whom people hate!  With a lineup like that we can hardly be very eager to hear the list of those who are cursed, can we!  But that’s precisely the point: the blessed are not the ones we normally consider blessed, and the cursed turn out to be people who seem to have it all.

     This is a paradox we can understand only if we have some understanding of Jesus because I see Luke’s Beatitudes as a window onto the heart of Jesus. I think Jesus could say, “Blessed are you who are poor” because he himself was poor. Born poor among the poor, he held onto absolutely nothing in life – didn’t even have a place to call home or to lay his head.  So, of course he could say “blessed are you who are poor!”

     And Jesus could say “Blessed are you who hunger” because his fast of forty days and forty nights probably made him so physically hungry that all he had left was a hunger for God.  Well could he say “blessed are you who hunger.”

     And Jesus could say, “Blessed are you who weep” because, time and again, he allowed himself to be moved – deeply moved – by the tears of those who were suffering – the sick, the sorrowing, the sinful.  One day he himself would weep over his beloved Jerusalem and later, in the garden of Gethsemane, he would cry out to his Father with tears and great trembling. So, well could Jesus say “blessed are you who weep!”

     And Jesus could say “Blessed are you when people hate you” because he knew well the sting of rejection – he whose own neighbors and friends angrily tried to throw him off a cliff at the edge of his home town, he “who came unto his own and whose own received him not.”  Well could he say “blessed are you when people hate you.”

     My friends in Christ, each one of those four blessings that seem so much like curses was for Jesus a meeting place with God, a point of profound transformation. And Jesus says to us today: it can be that way with you, too.

     And it can.  But only if we are willing to loosen our grip on all those things in our lives that look like blessings but really are not; only if we take steps to follow the way of Jesus.  I admit it seems like a huge gamble, but it’s really not, for didn’t Jesus say, “yours is the kingdom of God!”

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

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