Scripture Readings: Prophet Jeremiah 17:5-8; First Corinthians 15:12,16-20; Gospel According to Luke 6:17,20-26
What is usually called the “Sermon on the Mount” in Saint Matthew’s Gospel is generally referred to as the “Sermon on the Plain” in Saint Luke’s Gospel. Both Gospel texts include what are known to us as “the Beatitudes,” words from Jesus for the good of all.
Saint Luke describes Jesus as coming down from the mountain and stopping at a level stretch of ground, where a large crowd had gathered to hear the teaching of Jesus and thus the name, “Sermon on the Plain.”
We presume that those who were there and listening hoped to find true meaning, genuine riches and lasting nourishment for their lives.
For the same reason, to hear God’s words of encouragement, we also willingly listen to God’s Holy Word, Jesus speaking to us in a personal way. In this Sunday’s Gospel it would translated as: “blessed are YOU poor, blessed are YOU hungry, blessed are YOU in mourning, and blessed are YOU who endure persecution.”
The words of Jesus are meant to be effective for our lives, not as literature from the distant past to which we listen purely for their historical value. No, the Word of God is living and active, meant to touch the very depths of our being, where we find our need for God, since none of us lives nor dies for self alone. In other words, the teaching of Jesus needs to be adapted to our setting and our particular needs, yet ironically, we all are in need of the same things as Jesus’ first hearers: the need to love and be loved without reserve.
Each of us has come into being by God’s love. We are precious in God’s sight, so we should be eager to hear all that the Lord is saying to us, who are in special need at all times. We are frail and sinful, yet always being offered a life that cannot be taken away, a life that will satisfy our deepest longings. We call this “our life in Christ,” who is the cause of our hope.
We might ask, listening to the Gospel for this Sunday: is a happy, joy-filled life really possible here and now? Jesus seems to be saying clearly that in fact even sorrow can be changed into happiness now for those who keep things in proper perspective and truly desire to live as citizens of God’s kingdom.
So much in our culture and times can bog us down and make God’s entry into our lives difficult or impossible. We may prefer that which is not of God and miss the opportunity to allow God to rule in our hearts and lives. The beatitudes (or “blesseds”) of Jesus both amazed and challenged his listeners, and are meant to amaze and challenge us as well.
The word beatitude literally means happiness. The way of happiness that Jesus outlines calls for a transformation from within, a conversion of life, which we Benedictines vow to do each day of our life, through the profession we make. Everyone who follows Christ is called to do likewise through thick and thin. The Gospel message, which is Good News for all people, is summed up well in this familiar phrase from scripture: “Be converted and live.” No one is excluded from this call.
That means dying to self, though, and living for God and neighbor without counting the cost. This is unlike what the world describes as happiness, often considered to be found in health, wealth, youth and beauty, which in fact are very fleeting things.
The Holy Spirit more easily acts in hearts that are humble and open, making a life in God more possible and visible. This means living our life in conformity with the Gospel message of Jesus Christ, putting God’s ways above our own and cultivating a life of prayer and humble service.
But we still might ask: how can one possibly find happiness in poverty, hunger, mourning and persecution as Jesus seems to be saying in the Gospel today? These are things we are taught in our culture to avoid at all costs, literally!
If we want to be filled with joy and true peace, and the happiness of heaven, Jesus is telling us we must empty ourselves of all that would shut God out of our hearts.
Poverty of spirit means possessing God above all other things. God is the greatest possible treasure, not a fatter bank account, a faster car or eternal youth. All those things pass quickly in this life and can’t be taken to the next. It’s the point well made by the Reverend Billy Graham: who’s ever seen a U-haul trailer in a cemetery?
Only by finding our nourishment and strength in God is our deepest hunger satisfied. Sorrow and mourning over sin and any wasted time leads to a joyful freedom from the burden of guilt and eternal death, defined as separation from God.
God is ready to give to the humble of heart, all those who know they need God, real life and genuine happiness. Jesus promises his hearers, including us, that the joys of heaven will more than make up for the troubles and hardships that are a part of every life.
And mysteriously, many of the hardships are exactly what bring us to our knees, so to speak, when we finally seek out God without reserve, knowing nothing else can ultimately satisfy our deepest longings. Even in this life we can “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (Psalm 33.9).
The great Doctor of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas, who died 1274, said that no person can live without joy. That is why those deprived of spiritual joy seek out other forms of it, only to discover that real joy, what really satisfies and lasts forever, is joy in God.
May we know the joy and happiness of belonging to God alone, through Christ our Lord and in the Holy Spirit. May our hunger and thirst not be for material things but for the kingdom of peace and righteousness which God is offering us all. May we find perfect joy in doing the will of God, who lives and reigns forever and ever.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB