6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Meeting the Lord’s Gaze
Readings: Jeremiah 17:5-8; Psalm 1:1-2, 3, 4 and 6; 1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-20; Luke 6:17, 20-26
How happy are you who are poor… you who are hungry… you who weep… Happy are you when people hate you…
But alas for you who are rich… you who have your fill now… you who laugh now… Alas for you when the world speaks well of you…
Sisters and brothers, I’m not sure how you feel, but I must confess that I find these words pretty difficult to listen to, much less to preach. It’s difficult because I know I enjoy a decent roof over my head and three square meals everyday (not to mention the snacks). It’s difficult because I know that I live in an affluent country where the standard of living far surpasses many other places in Asia, let alone the rest of the world. It’s especially difficult because I know I belong to a parish where every Sunday the carpark looks like a huge showroom for luxury automobiles. Sisters and brothers, I must be honest with you. I listen to our readings today and I squirm with discomfort.
Yes, I listen to today’s readings and my first instinct is to try to find some way to water down their message, to make it less uncomfortable to hear. But it’s difficult to do this because we know that the author of today’s gospel has intentionally written in this way. According to the scripture scholars, he has deliberately chosen to modify the version of the beatitudes found in Matthew’s gospel. He has, for example, changed happy are the poor in spirit to happy are you poor. He has also chosen to replace the last five beatitudes with four anti-beatitudes beginning with alas for you who are rich…
Why, we may wonder, has the author done this? Why has he written such an uncompromising and hard-hitting version of the beatitudes? And what difference does it make for us today?
Reluctant as I am to do so, we must bear with our discomfort, at least for a moment, and meditate more deeply on these words, for they are spoken to us by the One who bears the message of eternal life, the Eternal Word of God himself.
We notice first how the speech begins. Jesus came down… and stopped at a piece of level ground… then fixing his eyes on his disciples he said… What, we may wonder, did Jesus see, when he fixed his eyes on his disciples that day? We know that they were a very mixed bunch. There were fishermen as well as Pharisees. There were Zealots plotting to overthrow the Romans just as there were those who collected taxes on the Romans’ behalf. Yes, Jesus must have seen all these when he fixed his gaze upon his disciples. He must have seen the rich and the poor, the pious and the sinners alike. But is that all? Or was there something more that Jesus saw?
We might imagine that Jesus must also have seen beyond appearances, beyond the superficial, beyond the clothes people wore and the words they spoke, even beyond their occupations and their reputations. Jesus must have also gazed deeply into their hearts. And what might he have found there?
It is likely that two images met his gaze, the same two images that we heard about in today’s first reading and responsorial psalm.
There were those whose hearts were like dry scrub in the wastelands. They were those who placed their trust on the things of this world, whether it was on their own piety or political power or wealth. And because they had chosen to root their lives in the shifting sands of the material and the temporal, they had also lost their taste for the things that were truly enduring, things like faith, and hope and love. They were easily disturbed by every little change that came their way, whether it was a change in the government of the day, or in their own personal fortunes, or in the opinions that others had of them. Theirs was indeed a woeful existence. Gazing at them, Jesus was moved to say: alas for you…
In contrast, there were others whose hearts looked like trees planted by the waterside. These were people who had come to appreciate how unreliable and illusory were the things of this world, things like wealth and power and reputation. Instead they had learnt to place their trust in God alone. The roots of their hearts were thrust firmly into the depths of God’s love. Such that even when faced with the onslaught of bad weather and drought, indeed even in the face of death, they continued to bear fruit. Gazing upon them, Jesus was moved to say: how happy are you…
All this brings us back to the question with which we began our meditation: why did the author of our gospel choose such hard-hitting words? Quite obviously he had come to see that all those whose hearts were like dry scrub in the wastelands, all those who placed their trust in the things of this world, were more often than not also those who were rich, those who were having their fill, those of whom others had good things to say. Conversely, he had probably also come to see that those whose hearts looked like a tree by the waterside, those who placed their trust in God alone, were more often than not also those who were poor, those who were hungry, those whom others hated and looked down upon.
And, uncomfortable though it may make us, doesn’t this evaluation have more than a ring of truth to it? I’m reminded of a brief conversation I had yesterday with a couple who had recently returned from a two-week mission trip to an orphanage somewhere in India. You can probably guess what they said. They spoke at once of how poor were the people whom they had met as well as how loudly and joyfully these same people had sung out to God during praise and worship. More importantly, it was also clear to me, as I gazed at that couple, how moved they had been by their experience. Quite obviously something had happened to them and in them. They seemed changed by the experience.
What significance then, does all this have for us, we who are probably more wealthy than we are poor, more satisfied than we are hungry? Do we have any basis from which to disagree with Luke’s assessment? Is it really possible to be rich and still to trust in God? Is it likely that even as we enjoy the luxuries of Jaguar and Mercedes Benz, or Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs, we might still have our hearts firmly rooted in the flowing stream of God’s love for us?
I hesitate to answer this question for myself, let alone for you. How can I be sure? What I do know is that the Lord continues to fix his gaze upon his disciples. The Lord continues to cast his eyes upon us, lovingly beckoning us to place our trust in Him who has in fact been raised from the dead.
Dry scrub in the wastelands or a tree by the waterside? Sisters and brothers, when Christ the Lord does look into our hearts today, what will he see?