In the fall I wrote several pieces on why many Catholics, including me, still go to church, despite the spectacular failings of the official church, particularly the scandalous sex abuse epidemic perpetrated by the clergy and (I would add) the insistent, stubborn subordination of women. We do not go to church in a self-congratulatory mode, or because we are blandly content with the way things are. We go to be transformed, aided in stepping aside from and beyond the banalities of our everyday culture. We go to share in ritual practices that open our minds, set our hearts on fire, and expose us to the reality of God in a way that cannot be replicated merely in private practices. We go to pray, together.
And we go to be challenged, even to the extreme. I add this today, because of the Gospel for the 6th Sunday of the Year (Cycle C) heard in many churches this weekend, from Luke 6:
Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. Then he looked up at his disciples and said: Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh…
It has long been discussed by scholars whether Luke and Matthew have a common source other than Mark; more recently, some have suggested that in some cases, such as this Gospel passage, Luke is editing Matthew: transforming Matthew’s lovely, inspiring, nourishing beatitudes into a harsher and more demanding Gospel that should make almost all of us uncomfortable. Luke’s Jesus, in the midst of his people, wants us to be very uncomfortable indeed.
This Jesus does not sit on the mountain above the people, he comes down and walks right among them. He hears close up their needs and troubles, he sees – and smells, surely – their diseases. And he heals all of them, giving his power to them. And then he “looks up” – perhaps this means nothing, or perhaps his disciples are safely “up” the hillside, at a distance from the crowds – and begins his sermon “on the plain.” None of Matthew’s spiritualization here: not poor in spirit, but stark poverty; not hungering and thirsting for righteousness, but simply brutal hunger, tormenting thirst; not gentle mourning, but loud weeping.
And unlike Matthew – whose inspiring beatitudes are all blessings – Luke’s Jesus is not reticent: woe to the rich – woe to the sated – woe to the comfortable – your pleasant existence is a scandal:
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
If you are rich, if you are well fed, if you are content — you are in trouble. Woe!
It is not, I think you will agree, that Jesus is against a decent lifestyle; he is not against having a good meal; he is not in favor of misery. But the woes have to do with inequity: you are rich, and they are poor; you have too much to eat, and they have too little; you are quite content, and everyone else is miserable. It is not acceptable that the “haves” build a wall to keep out the “have-nots” — not merely a crude and heartless stretch of wall along the Mexican border, but also the outrageous gap between the prosperity of the super-wealthy but even of the moderately well-off and the misery of others. When other good and decent people are inhumanely poor, undernourished, bereft of every physical requirement, and faced too often with day after day of misery: on the other side of the wall, then we fall under the judgment of Jesus, the compassionate.
Luke is previewing here the unforgettable passage that comes later:
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. (Luke 16)
Where are we when Lazarus is dying in his poverty, hunger, bereft? What are global comfortable doing when seven billion sisters and brothers are in trouble?
Those of us who are called to positions of servant leadership have even more to be concerned about. For of course there is a fourth blessing and a fourth woe:
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets... Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Most of us want to be good priests and pastors, comforting our people, helping the community to get along in hard times. But Jesus is reminding us to rock the boat, to remind us all of the vast and terrible inequities in today’s world, the 1% vs the 99%. If you are popular and no one complains, you are probably not a very good minister to God’s people.
There is no real justification for lucking out, so to speak, being born in a wealthy country and then assuming that we are a right to keep everyone else out. Give to the poor; feed the hungry; give real comfort, not merely comforting words, to those who are miserable. If we are not sharing, we are not doing our duty. If we are not disturbing people – ourselves included – to the point of real discomfort, we are not worthy to be called followers of Christ. (No wonder they killed him.)
Whether Trump’s mean-spirited, spiteful wall is built or not is a trivial issue compared with the much vaster inequity of global injustice. For those of us who hear and are smitten by today’s Gospel, for those who would dare to take the name “Christian,” the problem is far greater than more or less moderate border security: what will we do to share our relative wealth with those who are in the extremities of poverty, hunger, and misery? Luke’s Jesus cries out to us, “Woe to all of you — until you do something.”
This too is why we still go to church or temple or mosque or synagogue: to be divinely discomforted.
(Based on an unwritten homily, Saturday evening, February 16, 2019)