The gospel for this week (Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain”) is the first sermon that the Twelve hear from Jesus after their selection as apostles. We can imagine what may have been in the hearts of the Twelve at the moment they were chosen to be the closest companions and collaborators of the Lord: perhaps a sense of gratitude, of joy at being so close to Christ, but also perhaps a sense of privilege, a bit of self-importance.
After all, they, and not any others, had been invited by Jesus Himself into His “inner circle.”
If the Apostles had any vestige of pride in their own hearts, imagine now their surprise at Jesus’ words: “Blessed are you who are poor…you who are now hungry…you who are now weeping…you when people hate you….” At a stroke, Jesus overturns the conventional view of who deserved and received God’s blessing. Most people in our Lord’s day thought that material well-being (riches, a great deal of livestock, a large family) was itself a sign of God’s favor, a sign that the well-off individual was a righteous individual. On the other hand, poverty, hunger, misfortune were all thought to be signs of God’s displeasure, incurred because of some personal fault or sin. Now, though, Jesus proclaims blessed those whom His contemporaries would have viewed as accursed, and at the end of the gospel passage, Jesus speaks of “woe” to those whom His contemporaries would have thought favored.
Our Lord’s words are not meant merely to shake up a conventional view, however. There is much more at stake. Jesus is teaching His Apostles (and through them, all of us) a lesson about discipleship. The heart of this lesson has to do with the question, “Upon whom do we rely? Upon ourselves, or upon God?” Those who are poor or hungry cannot depend upon their own self-sufficiency; rather, they must look to others for what they need. Similarly, those who weep and those who are hated or insulted must look to others for sympathy and comfort. On the other hand, the temptation for those who are “rich,” who are “filled now,” who “laugh now” is to become so satisfied with themselves and their lot that their focus is displaced from God to the self, to the ego.
What, then, is the attitude of the true disciple? Smug self-reliance or humble dependence on God? For us, the answer appears to be straightforward hopefully all of us would say the latter. Yet, in the midst of daily life, with all of its attractions, benefits, rewards and yes, difficulties and anxieties too, how easy it can be to turn from the Creator to the creature, to focus on the things of this world rather than the things of heaven. Each disciple must struggle to overcome this temptation and to keep our eyes fixed on the reward Christ promises to those who put their trust in Him.
This is the real meaning of Jesus’ sermon on the plain: poverty and misfortune are not in themselves salvific, nor are the rich and the fortunate automatically condemned. Neither are fortune or misfortune necessarily indicators of the state of one’s soul. What counts is one’s inner attitude: the decision to follow Christ and to adopt His priorities as our own, to be guided at all times by the loving providence of our heavenly Father. If we make this commitment and live in humble trust and reliance upon God and not ourselves, then no matter what the circumstances of our lives may be, we can “rejoice and leap for joy” for our “reward will be great in heaven.”
Fr. De Ladurantaye is director of the Office of Sacred Liturgy, secretary for diocesan religious education, a professor of theology at Notre Dame Graduate School and in residence at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)