From time to time, I receive solicitations from the credit card company I patronize. The solicitations usually begin with the impressive-looking announcement: “New Benefits for Members!” The upbeat advertising always leaves me with an unanswered question, “What does this mean?” Are the new benefits an attempt by the credit card company to cut costs by discontinuing the older benefits? Are the new benefits an attempt to sell me more services? There is usually a vague explanation presented in a type font so small as to be illegible.
Statements and propositions such as “New Benefits for Members!” often require some effort to be understood. Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading, likewise, require some effort in order to be understood.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says that the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the downtrodden are blessed while the rich, the satisfied, the happy, and the well-respected are cursed. Anyone who is paying attention to these statements should ask, “What does this mean?”
Today’s reading is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes; Matthew’s Gospel also has a version of this sermon by Jesus. The two versions of the Beatitudes differ in several ways, signifying two distinct traditions inherited individually by Matthew and Luke. Despite their numerous differences, the two versions of the Beatitudes share a similar meaning. The Beatitudes are examples of Biblical prophecy.
In our modern era, the word “prophecy” conjures up images of fortune tellers, conspiracy theorists, futurists, and charlatans. None of these modern meanings are remotely related to Biblical prophecy. In the ancient world, prophecy was divinely inspired wisdom addressed to the present-day reality of a particular person or population. Rather than being a prediction about the future, Biblical prophecy presents a possibility for living in the present.
Luke’s version of the Beatitudes conforms more closely than Matthew’s to the standard format for prophecy in the ancient world. Biblical prophecy is most often composed of two complimentary elements. The first is an exhortation to a particular behavior that is judged to be virtuous; this exhortation usually contains a promise of reward for those who follow its advice. The second element of ancient prophecy is a warning to those who ignore the divinely inspired wisdom being spoken. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes contains both a promise of reward for those who listen, i.e., “Blessed are you . . .” and a warning of impending doom for those who don’t listen, i.e., “Woe to you . . .”
Keeping in mind that these statements are divinely inspired wisdom about how to live in the present reality of our lives, we can begin to understand the meaning of Jesus’ words.
Deprivation, neediness, sorrow, and marginalization are common experiences. Everyone faces at least their fair share of disappointment and loss. Some people, through no fault of their own, are burdened by extraordinary sufferings and deprivations. No one wants these types of experiences, but everyone has to endure them. The divinely inspired wisdom of Jesus’ preaching offers a redeeming possibility for living in a world where suffering and tragedy ineluctably occur.
For a moment, try to entertain the following possibilities. What sort of person would you be if the occasional deprivation and loss you experience made you more empathetic toward the sufferings of others? What sort of person would you be if the normal and extraordinary sorrows you feel made you more compassionate toward the people in your life? What sort of person would you be if the neglect and disrespect you endure made you more generous and charitable?
In practical terms, the answer to the questions above is that you would be the sort of person with whom you want to be close friends. In more abstract terms, you would be blessed.
Jesus is not recommending that anyone should seek to add to the sufferings and burdens that he or she experiences. Rather, he is recommending that one should seek to alleviate the sufferings and burdens of others; one should be the sort of person in whose company one would want to be found.
What does it mean to be blessed? It means to be the sort of person who would comfort you in your sorrows, nourish you when you are deprived, and console you when you are mistreated. Everyone knows what it means to suffer; not everyone knows what it means to be consoled. You are blessed when you choose a life that demonstrates the meaning of God’s compassion for the world.