The Gospel passage this Sunday is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Being paradoxical, they are difficult to understand. We do not usually refer to the poor as blessed, but rather the well off; we do not typically call those who mourn blessed, but rather the joyful.
The word “beatitude” itself means “supreme blessedness.” In ancient Greek, makarios (blessed) referred to a deep, serene, and stable happiness largely unaffected by external matters. It also corresponds to the Hebrew word asher, which is more of an exclamation.
Each beatitude could easily be translated to begin in this way: “O, the blessedness of ….” Such a translation emphasizes that something is being described and experienced rather than prescribed.
So, it is critical to understand that beatitude is not something we achieve; rather, it is something we receive. The Beatitudes declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act. The use of the indicative mood in the passage should be taken seriously; we should not turn it into an imperative. In other words, as noted, the Beatitudes are more descriptions than prescriptions. Jesus is not simply saying that we should be poor or meek and then God will bless us. Rather, He is saying that this is what the transformed human person is like; this is what happens to us when He lives His life in us and transforms us; this is what our life is like when His grace and the power of His cross bring about in us a greater meekness and poverty of spirit—we will experience being blessed.
This helps to explain the paradox of some of the Beatitudes. We are still blessed even when we are poor, or mourning, or persecuted. Further, we are confirmed in blessedness by such realities because they serve as reminders that we are not at home in this world; God and His kingdom are our preoccupation and the source of our true beatitude.
In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes there are also woes described for those who reject the Lord’s offer. Let’s pair them up and consider them together, seeing the choice the Lord presents in each case: blessing or woe.
Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.
Who are the poor? They are those who, by God’s grace, have their true treasure in Heaven rather than on earth. They are poor to this world but rich to God. They have learned to depend on Him and are not obsessed with the passing riches of this world.
All of us are dependent on God, but we may not realize it. The poor in spirit are those who have come to peace in the knowledge that they depend on God for every beat of their heart, for every good thing they have. Humans strongly resist any such sense of dependence or lack of control. Many people strive to acquire wealth, power, and possessions in order to create the illusion that they are in control—they are not. Ultimately this whole system will fail; it is a recipe for frustration and unhappiness.
Further, control is like an addictive drug. The more we get, the more we need in order to feel less anxious. Our modern age illustrates this. Consider, for example, modern medicine, through which we can control things we never could before. Are all our fears gone as a result? No. Humans have never lived so long nor been so healthy, yet we have never been so anxious about our health. Our medicine cabinets are filled with prescriptions and over-the-counter medications, but we still worry! Control is an illusion, an addiction all its own. In the end, it seems we can never have enough of it to feel sufficiently “safe.”
How blessed are those who delight in depending on God, who realize that every beat of their heart is His gift and that everything they have is from Him and belongs to Him! They are blessed because they are free from the countless fears that flow from an endless quest for illusory control.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
It’s nice to be rich, but if that’s all you live for, that’s all you’ll get. When it’s over it’s over, and then comes the judgment. Paradoxically, the only way to retain riches is to give them away or use them in serving others. Jesus instructs,
Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also will be (Matt 6:20).
St. Paul says,
Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be conceited and not to put their hope in the uncertainty of wealth, but in God, who richly provides all things for us to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, and to be generous and ready to share, treasuring up for themselves a firm foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life (1 Tim 6:17-19).
If we hoard wealth when others are in need or use our wealth in unjust ways, we may enjoy comforts in this world, but a stern judgment awaits. Live with the final judgment in mind; share and be generous. Jesus warns of woe that will come to those who resist his grace to be generous.
Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied.
All of us hunger physically, but the important thing is to hunger for God and the things waiting for us in Heaven. Many people hunger for anything but God—wealth, power, popularity, the latest fad.
It is in our hunger that we make room for God. It is then that we seek Him.
How blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the righteousness and justice of God and the values of His Kingdom! God will satisfy them with the joy of living under His law and they will rejoice to see the wisdom of His ways. They hunger for God’s Word and devour it when they find it. They rejoice to see God put sin to death in them and bring about virtue. They are excited and satisfied at what God is doing in their life. They are blessed indeed.
But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry.
If we are filled with the things of this world, there is no room for God. Worldly things can only satisfy temporarily; being finite they cannot fill the infinite longing we have. We were made to know and love God; He alone can satisfy our longing. If we refuse this true food and true drink (see John 6:55), which is Christ Himself in the Eucharist, there awaits only a longing that will one day be permanent if we reject the Lord to the end. The Lord warns of woe to those who resist His gift to feed them with His Body and Blood and fill their minds with His Word.
Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh.
Who are those who weep? First, they are those who are not obsessed with emotional happiness and who accept sorrow as a part of life. Their sorrow is not about merely worldly things. They weep because they delight in the Kingdom of Heaven yet see the awful state of most of God’s people. They see so many who do not know God nor why they were created. They see people willfully locked in sin and darkness. They see still others who are victims of the sins of injustice and oppression. Because of these things they weep, mourn, and pray. This beatitude is the basis of intercessory prayer and deepening love for sinners. Because we mourn, we pray for the world.
Again, the object of this beatitude is rooted in the Kingdom of God and its values, not the passing values of this world. If our car gets scratched or the stock market goes down and we may mourn, but that’s not the subject of this beatitude.
How blessed are those who mourn over what really matters and who pray! They will laugh in the sense that God will console, strengthen, and encourage them. He will cause their mourning to bear fruit in prayer and action for others. To mourn in this way is to be blessed. It is a grief that “hurts so good,” because we know that it brings abundant blessings for the world as it intensifies our prayer and our own commitment to God and His Kingdom.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep.
Rejoicing with the world is like celebrating on the Titanic before it hits the iceberg. The ride is wonderful for a while but then comes the cold and unforgiving depths. Too many in our world live frivolous lives. They “major in the minors.” They call good or no big deal what God calls sin; they even celebrate it and praise it. Jesus says, woe to them. While there are things to enjoy in this world, there is also much to lament. Sin and injustice, moral darkness, and confusion are nothing to celebrate. The Lord warns of woe to those who do not let Him transform their hearts so that they grieve over sin and darkness.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.
In life we are going to suffer, so it might as well be for something decent and noble. How blessed are those who, because they love God and His kingdom, are hated by this world! At least they share a common lot with Jesus. They know that only false prophets are loved by all. There is a paradoxical serenity that comes from this sort of persecution because it is a sign that we are no longer of this world, that the world has lost its hold on us and thus hates us (Jn 15:19). Forsaking this world and being hated by it, they are blessed, because the Kingdom of God is theirs in abundance.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.
If the world is cheering for you, you’re playing on the wrong team, the losing team. The “world” is the set of philosophies, power structures, and inclinations at odds with the teachings and truths of God. A friend of the world becomes an enemy of God (James 4:4). Jesus says,
If the world hates you, understand that it hated Me first. If you were of the world, it would love you as its own. Instead, the world hates you, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. Remember the word that I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you as well (Jn 15:18-20).
Jesus warns of woe to those who pitch their tents in this world. It is passing away as are all those who seek its friendship. Jesus warns of the woe that comes from being too friendly with a lost and sinful world.
In all these ways, the Lord paints a kind of picture for us of the transformed human person. He shows us what happens to us as He lives His life in us.
Decisions have consequences. Depending on our choice to let God work in our life or not, there is either blessing or woe. Choose the blessings, dear brethren, choose the blessings.
One of my mentors over the years was the late Fr. Francis Martin, a teacher at the Dominican House of Studies (among many other places), a great scholar of Scripture, and the author of numerous books and articles; he also gave many a retreat for priests. Here are some of his reflections on the Gospel: