Crowds of people, gathered around Jesus, strain to hear what he has to say. Whether they are on the bank of a mountain side or gathered together on a flat plain, it is difficult for them to hear. Jesus’ words are repeated back through the multitude, like a much holier version of “Chinese whispers.”
A group some distance from him are eager to hear what he has to say:
“Blessed are… what did he say?” “Blessed are the cheesemakers!”
“Yes, that’s what he said – Blessed are the cheesemakers, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
And so begins a debate about the sanctity of the dairy industry. What does it mean? Is Jesus saying that the happy ones, the blessed ones, are those who make cheese? And if so does this relate to all varieties of cheese? Or is Jesus making a more general statement about all those who deal with dairy products? (A theological conundrum familiar to all those of us who have watched Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’).
What did you hear when you heard the Gospel reading this afternoon? What did these words, ascribed to Jesus by the Early Church, say to you?
For those of us who are familiar with the parallel teaching which we find in Matthew’s Gospel, we may, without realising it, have been listening only selectively to the words of the Gospel of Luke today. In the Matthean account things are altogether more positive. Jesus is throwing blessings out all over the place – to eight groups in total. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted, blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth…” and so on. But by contrast the community of Luke remembers just four groups of the blessed, and for each of those there is an inverse – there is a group who are most certainly not blessed.
Our Gospel reading today finished almost in mid-sentence. We heard about the groups who are blessed, but we did not hear about those who were not. When we listen to the whole teaching of Jesus given to us by the writers of the Gospel of Luke, and not just the comforting part, it is altogether more uncomfortable than the collected blessing teachings in the Gospel of Matthew. What is so disconcerting is that you and I (rather than being blessed ones) fall into some of the categories of those who are going to be in big trouble.
So let’s hear what Jesus says again, the whole story this time:
- Congratulations those of you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Damn you who are rich, for you have received your consolation already – there is no greater prize to come.
- Congratulations you who are hungry now, for you are going to be filled. Damn you who have just finished lunch and are full now, there will come a time when the banquet is not prepared for you.
- Congratulations you who weep now, for as hard as it is today, soon you are going to laugh. But, damn you who are laughing now, without regard for those who are sad, for you will be the ones to weep in times to come.
- Congratulations you who are hated, and excluded, and reviled and defamed because you follow the Son of Man. Damn you who are spoken well-of, whose ambitions are fulfilled, that is how people in the past treated the false prophets.
If you are anything like me there will be a sinking feeling in your stomach when you hear those words. I don’t want to be damned, but I don’t want to be poor either. I mean, I don’t want to be all that rich, but I want to be secure, and I want my family to have nice things, and I want a pension plan for when I’m older. And whatever poverty I choose for myself within the life of this community, I know that choosing poverty is not the same as being poor without a choice… And its even harder when the whole of our culture seems to will us to buy more, and to have more, and to strive for more, whether we need it or not! Yet in our global-village we are reminded by the comparisons of images which we see on our television screens and in newspapers, that all of us here are richer in almost all ways – even the poorest of us – than the millions and millions of people in God’s world who’s names we do not know and who’s faces we have never seen, but who live in situations of absolute poverty.
Jesus says to them, and not to us, you are the ones who are blessed. Congratulations you who are poor, do not lose heart, have hope for the time will come, when you will be filled.
What do we hear when we listen to this Gospel teaching this afternoon?
What would the poor want to say to us if they were here with us to interpret this text for us today? Liberation theologians in our Church who listen and reflect with some of the poorest people in our world, remind us that the teachings of Jesus make explicit the preferential option for the poor which is a foundation of the Kingdom of God. They tell us that putting the poor first is not just a political choice, it is how things are in the Kingdom which was inaugurated by Jesus. So let’s listen, through them, to the voices of the poor:
- We are poor, they might say, because our own leaders have taken advantage of us. We can see their wealth, and what it is squandered on, whilst we remain poor – so we are powerless.
- We are poor because the whole global economy is against us. Most of the time we are too small to trade in the same league as rich nations, and when we do trade we are ripped off and most of our profit stays in the rich countries, and we never see it – so many of those around us have lost hope.
- We are poor because we are homeless. We didn’t choose this way of life, we were forced to flee from regimes which wanted to kill us, we were forced to leave the land of our ancestors because grain no longer grows there because the soil is dying. We are homeless because although we can see room for us in your country, or in the empty buildings of your cities, you won’t let us in – so we feel like we are losing our dignity.
- But that’s not the end of the story, they might say to us, in all of these situations we believe that God remembers us, we will be happy – we are blessed – because one day things will change…. God remembers us, and we are blessed!
The preferential option for the poor, this idea that God puts first those who are in the worst situations now, is an expression of God’s love in Jesus: a confirmation that God knows the pain of those who are poor, and hungry and sad, and persecuted. These are the priorities of the Kingdom of God, and we need always to remember that the Kingdom of God and the institutions of the Church are not necessarily the same thing.
When we use that phrase, “the Kingdom of God,” we refer to those activities, those thoughts and intentions lived out in the world which show God’s rule – where God’s priorities come first. Where no matter what the society around us may want us to conform to, those who Jesus says are blessed, are the ones who are treated accordingly. The hope of the Kingdom of God, is both here now, and also yet to come. Jesus inaugurated it so we know that it has begun, and the Kingdom goes on becoming, it goes on growing when we live it as signs of it, when we seek it out beyond the doors of our churches – together as a community.
Our Gospel today is not a set of commandments, Jesus does not tell us to become poor, but he does re-assure those that are on the margins of society that (regardless of appearances now) they are right at the centre of God’s plan: and if God remembers them first, then we must ask serious questions of a Church which appears not to make them the highest priority. If God puts them first, then we must put them first too, as we break free from the way that our society sees the world, and look instead through the lense of the cross of Christ.
To put it bluntly, if what we do is good news for ourselves, but not good news for the poor and for the hungry, and for the sad and for the persecuted, then we are in trouble.
What did you hear when you listened to this Gospel teaching today?
When you have four young children you have to be pretty careful where you go to Church, especially when they are four boys. The places which might be most attractive liturgically are often not the places which are most open to the sounds of crying children. Luisa and I have been learning this through trial and error for some time now. I often wonder how a Church will hear the cries of the poor when they are unwilling to be disturbed by the crying of a child in the middle of the liturgy.
That is, after all, why we gather around the altar day by day. We do not come simply to satisfy our own needs, our musical tastes, our liturgical preferences, our desire for some kind of warm and fuzzy religious feeling. We come to bring the pain of a crying and broken world, through the very act of the breaking of bread to God, again and again and again. And we do it in the knowledge that God comes close to us in the brokenness of his crucified son.
What do you hear when you listen to this Gospel? What do you hear when the words of Christ are inter-mingled with the cries of those on the margins of society?
Whatever we hear, whatever we have experienced, whatever we hope for, we bring today to God’s altar of love, as we pray once again for the coming of the Kingdom which is already amongst us. The Kingdom which turns our priorities upside down, which brings to the centre those who are blessed, even if it throws us out of the limelight, at least for a time.
“Blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are those who weep, blessed are those who are persecuted.” We cling to them because it is through them that we will find our own salvation in Christ. Blessed are they, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.