Today we read the beatitudes from St Luke’s Gospel. They are not as familiar as Matthew’s, and some may find them strangely unfulfilling. I think Luke would have smiled and suggested trying again when they grew up and could read between the lines. Let us see how grown up we are.
There are so many obvious differences between the beatitudes in Matthew and Luke. Matthew has 9, Luke, 4. Luke also balances the blessings with woes. Matthew speaks of personal moral qualities, Luke, states of life. In Matthew, Jesus speaks from a mountain, in Luke from a plain. Yet the most crucial difference is that Matthew is addressing a congregation, Luke a class of people. Matthew is speaking to a specific community which is divided on issues of Judaism, Luke to people who were well off and might live throughout the Roman world. Matthew wishes his community would learn how to work together, Luke is warning his own class that they must be on guard lest they become complacent and so begins with “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours”
Blessed means more than happy, it is closer to bliss filled. It cannot be produced by human or earthly means or calculations. Indeed, the reward is the Kingdom of God. The kingdom is harmony between God and humanity, among humans ourselves, and humanity and nature. The kingdom begins here and now in Jesus’ incarnation but will only be fulfilled when he returns. If this is the goal the rich may be comfortable but are they at peace with God, humanity, and nature?
This is contrasted with, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
The other blessings and woes are similar – blessed is the person who is now hungry, woe to the person who is filled, blessed are the weeping, woe to the laughing. The pattern is the same earthy shortsightedness has eternal consequences.
The seeming power of the rich person is achieved here and now and is fleeting. We should remember that the story of Lazarus and the rich man is only in Luke. Lazarus is in the bosom of Abraham; the rich man is in hell.
Luke skillfully shows that the rich man’s blindness to Lazarus had consequences in this world as well. He was a useless boor and a man without qualities, not even a name. Future generations simply called hm Dives – rich man, reducing his life to his comedies. We will see when we examine this later in the year that Luke has painted him with acid, every aspect of the scene is marked by vulgarity.
Contrast this to his concern for the poor. As we saw several weeks ago when Jesus, quoting Isaiah, told us that he came to bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives and freedom to the oppressed. Jesus comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable, for the good of each.
As usual in Luke’s gospel, we find this first in Mary, whose response to her call is:
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty
At the very beginning of the Gospel, St. Luke told the members of his own caste that they were in danger. That which gives them the most pleasure in this life may cause them much pain in the next.
Remember well the rich young man. He obeyed the commandments and sought to be good, but could not give up his possessions. He went away sad, and Jesus said: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” But added, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” God’s love will conquer but the strain will be felt in this life.
Luke may very well have been a rich young man who did give up his possessions. He knows that most of his hearers will not – indeed we will not – but he urges them, us, to do personal acts of generously to the poor. As we will see in the Acts of the Apostles these should be first directed to the poorer members of the Church. Joining the church may have jeopardized the living of the most marginalized members, and the rich would be expected to help them. Luke alone has the story of the good Samaritan, the great act of personal generosity. This inspired Christians for centuries. But is that all?
Personal generosity is a wonderful thing, and we should share our time, talent, and treasure with others particularly in and through the Church, but that is not enough.
Our world is marked by sinful structures existing before we have a thought or make a move and will not be eliminated by personal generosity or holiness.
The gospel writers – Paul and the other authors of scripture – did not address these issues directly because their society did not allow for much change. Reform and alteration required a different form of social organization. Consequently, Catholic Social teaching developed only in the late 19th century when society was changing, and the Popes realized that it could be changed for the better.
Pope Francis when discussing CST begins with the story of the Good Sarmatian but expanded it from individual benevolence to the entire society. He sees the good Samaritan not only as individuals working for the betterment of society but groups and movements as well. Let us remember that he referred to Black Lives Matter as a corporate good Samaritan.
Luke’s vision can be better lived now than 2000 or even 200 years ago. We have become more than subjects – we are citizens. The world is changing around us, and we must ask where we want it to go. Will we be like Dives, who being blind to Lazarus, missed the way to bliss, or will be like the good Samaritan, who seeing the man in the ditch found the road to heaven?