Opening the Word: Blessings and woes


In this column, I often have cautioned against our mishearing of familiar scriptural passages. When we hear the parable of the prodigal son or the good Samaritan, we cease listening because we’re so used to these stories.

Luke’s blessings and woes (the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew) are one of those scriptural passages that, perhaps, have grown stale for us. We know that the poor are blessed. We know that the hungry will have food taken away.

Yet, the gift of the Scriptures is that we never can fully grasp the heights and depths of God’s self-giving love. There is an infinite meaning to be discovered, even in the smallest phrase in the Bible.

This is what we hear in the psalms on the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The translation of Psalm 1 in the Lectionary is overly abstract, referring to one who hopes and follows God.

But the psalm in Hebrew, Greek and Latin uses more literal language. The one who is truly blessed, who flourishes, is the one who walks not according to the wisdom of the wicked, but who delights in the law of the Lord. The one faithful to God’s commandments, who meditates on the words of the Scriptures, flourishes like a tree planted alongside running waters. Blessed is this man or woman.

In the blessings and woes in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus takes up this image of flourishing from the psalms. Jesus’ proclamation of the blessed state of the poor, hungry, weeping and the hated is linked to Scripture.

The poor, hungry, weeping and hated are obedient to the law of the Lord. They have lived as those who have relied entirely on God rather than depending on their own ingenuity.

It is the rich, those whose bellies are full, who laugh at the suffering of the poor and who are important figures in society who should be concerned. For, as the psalms make clear, if one really is following the law of love unto the end, of divine graciousness, rejection tends to come along.

The blessings and woes as found in the Gospel of Luke offer to the Christian an infinite challenge. God has not chosen those obsessed with power and prestige to inherit the kingdom of heaven. God has chosen the least of these.

But, it is the least of these who order their lives according to the Scriptures. They know that the truly blessed person is the one who takes up their cross. They know that perfect power is revealed in weakness. They know that God is love, and they have ordered their lives according to this central truth.

When we listen to our Lord’s blessings and woes, it is not enough to abstractly assess the truth of what is proclaimed. Jesus is not a politician, making a speech meant to move our affections.

Instead, we are to ask ourselves:

Have I allowed myself to be planted beside these fruitful waters? Do I live as someone who is poor, who hungers for God alone, who weeps with those who sorrow, and who is among the despised of the world? Do I live according to the law of the Lord, obedient to love unto end?

Or am I one of those who are condemned? Do I live as one who is full of power and prestige, fame and fortune? Do I care most about myself? Am I in it to win it?
If we are woeful, the good news is that there is still time.

There’s time to be blessed. We just have to plant ourselves along the proper waters.



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