Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Week 23 Wednesday (Year 1) - 9 September 2015

Readings: Colossians 3:1-11; Psalm 145; Luke 6:20-26

Luke's version of the beatitudes is not as well known as Matthew's. The eight beatitudes that open the great Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's gospel have a secure place in people's knowledge of the New Testament. The fact that they are often read at funeral Masses and on other special occasions puts Matthew's beatitudes up there with 1 Corinthians 13 as one of the best known texts of the Bible.

Luke gives us just four beatitudes. Famously Jesus here says simply 'blessed are you who are poor'. We are told that the radical edge on this is already blunted a little by what might seem like a gloss in  Matthew, 'blessed are the poor in spirit'. Throughout Luke's gospel Jesus is more direct, more incisive, about the dangers riches pose for following him. It is not just our attitude to riches that might be problematic, it is the simple fact of being wealthy (in all the many ways in which human beings can be rich) that makes it less likely that people will be able to respond to his call.

Another contrast between Luke and Matthew is that here the four blessings are followed immediately by four woes or laments that mirror the blessings exactly: woe to you who are rich, who are filled now, who laugh now, of whom people speak well. Poverty, hunger, weeping and rejection are blessings because knowing these things allows people to understand what the prophets experienced. We need think only of Jeremiah and what he suffered at the hands of the people and their leaders, a passion that anticipates very clearly the passion of Jesus. The woes, on the other hand - of wealth, a full belly, laughter and esteem - these are what the false prophets received. The most radical contrast is between the true and the false, the prophet serving God's word and the prophet serving other interests.

Here is another way in which Jesus teaches 'the great reversal', the first will be last and the last first, the one who humbles himself will be exalted and the one who exalts himself will be humbled, the one who saves his life will lose it whereas the one who loses his life for my sake will find it. Happy are you when you are last, humbled, losing your life ... It is not simply a moralistic teaching, it is an analysis of what serving God's word of truth will inevitably bring.

In today's first reading Paul presents in other words this same teaching of Jesus. You have died, Paul says, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Here too the fundamental contrast is between truth and falsehood. 'Stop lying to one another', Paul says. Neither is this just a moral exhortation but the recognition of a radical falsehood that is shown up, brought out into the light, by the truth that is Christ. Paul speaks of the reversal in this way: the old self is dead, all the masks and pretences, the sad efforts at fame and fortune, the ways in which we try to save ourselves by making something of ourselves, by being some kind of effective persona in the world - all of this is empty, vain, disintegrating. But our true life, the life of the new self, is hidden with Christ in God. This new life means our re-creation in the image of the Creator, the emergence of the human being as originally intended by God.

We are to shed the old skin, let it go, with all its pathetic aspirations, and allow ourselves to live from this new source, Christ who is all and is in all. A whole series of 'behavioural changes' must inevitably follow. It is not simply effortful teeth-gritting that brings an end to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, anger, fury, malice, slander, obscenity. It is much simpler than that: stop lying to one another. Stop lying, in the first place, to yourself. Look to Christ, walk in him, be rooted and built up in him - all that Paul said yesterday - and we begin to see things correctly, without distortion. We see that the austerity of the beatitudes recounted by Saint Luke is simply the fresh air of truthful living, the capacity to be in touch with reality, the way along which Christ will appear, and we with him in glory.

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