Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Happy are you who are poor

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

We are in for a treat this weekend. I’m not sure about you but I’m personally excited. It’s not always that you get to celebrate the liturgy of the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time in the Year C cycle. The last occasion was in 2010! It’s like a liturgical leap year of sorts. We have a late occurrence of Ash Wednesday and Lent this year to thank for this. An added treat would be that the gospel passage features the beatitudes as found in the Gospel of St Luke, and not the familiar eight that we hear more frequently (well, at least once a year on the Solemnity of All Saints and it comes at the top of a list of options for funerals).

The beatitudes in the famous Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of St Matthew and the Sermon of the Plains in St Luke contain some similarities and differences, despite the great likelihood that these are a narration of the same sermon. The striking difference between the two is to be found in the number of beatitudes: in Luke, who gives us four, compared to Matthew’s eight more developed beatitudes. But Luke balances his four blessings with four corresponding curses or ‘woes’ (or in our text “alas for you”). The Matthean beatitudes sees the world with a Jewish lens, where groups of people are identified as the righteous and the unrighteous. The Lukan beatitudes, on the other hand identify and categorise humanity as simply the poor and the rich. The Law, rightousness and piety found in the Matthean text is all but absent from the gospel of St Luke. St Luke is more concerned with the universality of the mission and message of our Lord Jesus Christ. We will not have sufficient time for a complete comparison of the two versions, but suffice to say that they are not just redundant repetitions.

After having provided the context of the sermon on the Plain (topographical location, demography of the audience), St Luke makes this poignant statement, “then fixing his eyes on his disciples, (Jesus), said …” In some translations, we have “And he, lifting up his eyes on his disciples.” This simple action of the Lord provides us with a clue of what is going to follow. St Ambrose asks, “What is lifting up the eyes, but to disclose a more hidden light?”  Christ is calling His hearers to a deeper understanding of God and His plan for mankind.  The Lord is not simply calling us to pay attention, but rather, He is calling us to see with the eyes of faith. 

Then we begin with the set of four beatitudes. Thirty years ago, the Jerusalem Bible created a stir by rendering the traditional “blessed” of the Beatitudes as “happy”: “How happy are you who are poor . . .” Happy? What a choice of word! Happy sounds frivolous and superficial. But the Greek word “makarioi” can be translated as both “blessing” as well as “happiness”. The problem is that many today often associate happiness with "having a good time"–with pleasure and comfort, the absence of suffering and want. But contemporary usage is flawed. True happiness is spiritual and moral, not merely emotional or pleasurable. The saints in heaven are supremely happy, because they're with God, the source of all happiness.

Just as the beatitudes in the Matthean gospel is hinged on the first beatitude, the four beatitudes of St Luke are likewise summarised in the first. That makes my preaching so much easier and your listening so less demanding. What is it about poverty that is so “blessed” or “happy” or even authentically “human”?  We must first make a critical distinction between poverty and destitution.  All human beings are entitled to have their basic needs met.  The fact that millions are living in our world in the state of destitution, where hunger and disease ravage entire nations, is a great sin against humanity. There is certainly no blessing in this, neither should it ever be a cause of happiness. Every time we withhold our cloak from the naked or our food from the hungry, we sin, not only against the human person, but also against the Lord Himself.  But poverty, or at least evangelical poverty, is not identical with destitution.  The destitute may think of themselves as forsaken, but the poor are definitely not forsaken by God. Poverty is the state of simplicity, that is the state of having only what one needs.  Poverty brings with it the simplicity to give oneself to God, who is the final cause of all of humanity. God is their wealth.

As the spiritual writers unanimously observed, to advance in the life of virtue, poverty must come first.  This is due to the chasm that lies between God and the world, the Creator and His creatures.  This world and all its riches is God’s gift to us to be used as a means for our return to Him.  Simply put: God is the end; things are means to this end.  On the other hand, the possession of material goods beyond that of basic necessity brings with it the risk of using goods as ends in themselves. Things therefore become our ‘idols.’ The outcome would be the proliferation of vices like greed, envy and possessiveness. It is interesting that, while Christ cured the sick, made the blind see, made the deaf hear, but to my recollection, He never once made a poor man rich.  Illness, blindness, and deafness are deprivations; poverty is not. Likewise, when one is deprived of the basic needs of life, this physical state of destitution necessarily brings with it the challenge of spiritual destitution.  This is precisely why we must work to eliminate destitution in the world, not primarily because of the physical sufferings, but first and foremost to allow God’s people the freedom to worship Him in health of body, mind, and soul. 

Christ, in this first beatitude, does not say, “To those who are impoverished, I say to you, the day will come when I will relieve you of this poverty and make you rich.” That’s the gospel of prosperity often preached by successful and popular pastors. No wonder, thousands throng to their churches. Instead, our Lord says, “happy are you who are poor.”  Poverty itself brings with it blessing, or rather, sanctity. The poor understand their need for God. The poor’s security and wealth lies with God. If the possession of goods beyond that of basic needs bring with it the risk of treating this excess as an end in itself, then it follows that the more we possess, the further we find ourselves from pursuing our proper end: God. We cannot serve both God and mammon. The further we are from our proper end, the less human we find ourselves.  This explains the unique theme of reversal present in St Luke’s beatitudes, the so-called four ‘woes’ as opposed to the four ‘blessings. Wealth, full stomachs, contentment and human respect, though good in themselves, can also risk becoming dangerous. They can lead us to believe only in ourselves and our resources and forget our true end which is God and His Kingdom. 

I hope that I have not given the impression that the Church has canonised material poverty as the ladder to heaven. The state of poverty cannot just be purely material; material poverty alone does not bring salvation.  St Basil warns us, “for many are poor in their possessions, yet most covetous in their disposition; these poverty does not save, but their affections condemn.” Material poverty in order to be humanising and divinising must be accompanied by spiritual poverty – being “poor in spirit.” On the other hand, neither is the state of poverty purely spiritual.  There are those who want to reduce Christ’s call to poverty to the mere spiritual detachment from goods and continue to live scandalously lavish lives at the expense of the poor.  This too is a distortion of the Gospel message.  Finally, this beatitude should certainly not excuse us from our responsibility to assist those who are in a state of destitution. Evangelical poverty can never mean a rejection of all material goods which are good in themselves. But it is an invitation to see that these things are better when they are shared with those who have-not.  As we continue our celebration of this Year of Mission, let us not forget the last point of the star. That our encounter with Christ, our learning from missionary testimonies and catecheses, should lead us to missionary charity, and in doing so, may we give true glory and worship to God, who became poor so that we may become rich in His graces.

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