The second of two weekends designated by the diocese as Commitment Weekends for the Catholic Ministry Appeal
In the first reading, the prophet Jeremiah said, “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings.” (Jr 17:5) Later in his proclamation, he said, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.” (Jr 17:7) Blessings and curses like these often comprised the content of the preaching of the Israelite prophets. When Jesus preached his Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s Gospel, he employed this standard form of prophetic preaching. He pronounced four blessings (beatitudes) and four curses (woes) on the crowd which had gathered to hear him.
There is quite a lot of disagreement among Scripture scholars about the meaning of the Beatitudes in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Some scholars say that the Beatitudes were Jesus’ introductory remarks to his mission of preaching and healing. Others says that, rather an agenda, the Beatitudes represent a later summary of Jesus’ preaching; presumably, this summary was included for the benefit of readers. These opinions fail to account adequately for the nature of prophetic preaching. Beatitudes and curses were a common form of prophetic preaching and literature. In his Beatitudes (and woes) Jesus was consistent with the generally accepted format of prophetic pronouncements.
The intended audience of the Sermon on the Plain is further evidence of the prophetic nature of Jesus’ preaching on this occasion. Immediately before the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus had chosen twelve apostles from among the total number of his disciples. He came down the mountain with the Twelve and addressed the Sermon to the larger group of disciples already gathered. (Lk 6:17) During the Sermon, he referred to the blessings and challenges that would face a faithful prophet. He was not speaking about himself alone but about all his disciples; he considered his disciples to have a share in his prophetic vocation.
When understood as prophetic preaching, the beatitudes and woes pronounced by Jesus fit perfectly with the recurring theme of his preaching, the kingdom of God. It is not mere coincidence that the first beatitude in Luke’s list mentions this explicitly. (Lk 6:20) Jesus understood himself as called to proclaim a renewed relationship with God and neighbor. (Lk 10:27) The “kingdom” Jesus preached was neither a geographic nor spiritual realm; it was a metaphorical description of a righteous and just way of life.
The Sermon on the Plain was an exhortation addressed to Jesus’ followers. It is plausible, as some Scripture scholars suggest, that these beatitudes and woes constitute an explanation of the moral demands Jesus placed on his disciples, but I suggest that the beatitudes and woes have a slightly more nuanced purpose. I think they are intended to depict a vision of the renewed life Jesus preached; the beatitudes and woes are a prophetic vision of the kingdom of God.
Every prophet wants to share her or his vision of the world. Prophets of doom want everyone to be terrified by the obvious and inevitable. (The universe is finite and, therefore, guaranteed to end.) Prophets of shame want everyone to be deeply remorseful over the predictable consequences of an imperfect world. (Selfishness and thoughtlessness are not passing fads.) In a like manner, Jesus wanted his disciples to share his vision of a world in which the poor are treated with compassion, the forgotten are lifted up, enemies are reconciled, and all are faithful to God. (This world is possible only as the result of Divine intervention of the sort we see in the life and death of Jesus.)
In the Beatitudes, Jesus asked a rhetorical question of his disciples, “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone acted responsibly and charitably?” He phrased this rhetorical question in prophetic terms because it leads to another rhetorical question, “Where do you think that Divinely inspired change could possibly begin?” The answer to both questions is the same: it can only begin with faithful disciples.
On a regular basis I hear lamentation from those who are weary of the pandemic. I sympathize completely with them. I wish things would return to normal. While we await the return to normalcy, it is necessary to learn to live in challenging circumstances. To that end, I’d like to propose a rhetorical question of my own. Why don’t we do what we can to hasten the end of the pandemic? To put it another way: why don’t we do something really extravagant and live long enough to see the return to normalcy? (Even if that requires tolerance of inconvenience and uncertainty.) In the Beatitudes, Jesus was making a similar statement to his followers. He said that, if you want to live in a world of peace and justice, then why don’t you just do something extravagant and contribute the actions that promote good faith and morals?
As this is the final Commitment Weekend for the Catholic Ministry Appeal, we might translate Jesus’ prophetic exhortation into concrete actions and ask, “Why don’t we all contribute to the diocesan ministries that accomplish Jesus’ vision for a renewed life?” The Catholic Ministry Appeal funds the ministries that serve the poor, lift up the lowly, reconcile enemies, and lead people to faith. Each one of us would love to live in a world where we are treated with compassion and respect; that world is possible because of God’s Grace poured out in the death of Jesus. Let’s be really ostentatious this year; let’s indulge ourselves and do the things that will renew the whole world.