‘Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.’ - Luke 6: 23

The gospel today from Saint Luke launches us into Jesus’ teachings. The passage is Luke 6:17, 20-26 and is still toward the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It includes a version of the Beatitudes — not exactly the same as they appear in Matthew’s Gospel — and several “Woe to you” statements that counterbalance the blessings enumerated in the Beatitudes. 

At first glance, the Beatitudes are disconcerting because the descriptions that Jesus gives are not things that people generally want, such as: “blessed are you poor … blessed are you that hunger … blessed are you that weep … blessed are you when men hate you … exclude you and revile you …”

None of those categories is appealing, so there is a paradox in this teaching of Jesus. Those states of being seem bad to us, but Jesus is saying that they are good. How and why is that possible? In addition, not only are the categories of being poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled not appealing, but some people are not in those categories! Does this mean that they are not blessed by God? Things seem upside-down in this Gospel. 

Good. Jesus turns things upside-down for a reason. The first thing to know is that the word “blessed” translates from the Greek word “makarios.” It was originally used to refer to the state of the gods, a sort of care-free, enjoyable existence, and came into use as a description for those who led leisurely lives. It is best translated as “blessed” or “fortunate,” as in, “How fortunate are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” 

It also describes a state of being, rather than the circumstances of the day-to-day. While the individual descriptions may seem distasteful to us, they should be read with the clause that explains the blessedness. That helps to decipher them. In the case of the poor, for example, they are blessed because “yours is the kingdom of God.” They recognize, in their poverty, that they can still possess the greatest of riches. They are already in a state of detachment from material wealth, wealth which could blind them from the wisdom to choose the kingdom of God first. The “woe to you” statements make this even more explicit: “But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.” They are consoled, and because of that, have stopped seeking beyond their material comfort. That complacency is deadly. 

Today’s first reading comes from the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 17:5-8) and succinctly states the two principles that underlie what Jesus is teaching:

“Cursed is the man who trusts in man … Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord …” The man who trusts is described as a tree planted near water. This tree is described as not being afraid of heat (its leaves stay green). The tree is also not anxious when there is drought; instead, it continues to bear fruit. The tree grows tall and strong because it’s roots are in the stream. The cursed man is like the shrub in the desert — no water, no growth, no fruit. 

Both the cursed man and the blessed man trust, but the former trusts in man. The latter trusts in God. This trust goes beyond what is needed for this world, and stretches out to eternity. Saint Paul makes this same point in the second reading for today (1 Corinthians 15:12,16-20). Our hope and trust in God starts in this life, but more importantly, we must hope for eternal life with him. Then we will grow strong in hope and be able to weather the circumstances of life. Whether we are poor, hungry, sorrowing, or persecuted, we are always rooted in Christ.