This is a Sunday of contrasts and questions, of stark challenges and choices. The prophecy of Jeremiah, using images drawn from landscape and botany, drives us into the desert then leads us to streams of living water. “What do you want to be?” the Prophet asks, “a scraggy shrub struggling to survive in a salt-waste, or a “wealful” willow leafing and fruiting in well-watered soil?” The answer is obvious: embrace the Lord, then!
The poetry of Jeremiah leads us to the Galilean plain. The landscape image has not entirely disappeared. Our Gospel passage opens with the words, Jesus came down with them (the Twelve) and stood on a level place. He has just in fact spent all night in prayer on the mountain and then chosen his twelve apostles. Now, Moses-like, he returns to the throng.
At this point in the Gospel of Luke, we find a body of teaching that enshrines the essential spiritual message of Jesus. Matthew’s version is called the Sermon on the Mount, while Luke’s, the Sermon on the Plain. Both begin with the Beatitudes of which Luke’s version is briefer.
Challenges and choices: we may note at once the uncompromising contrast between the four “blesseds” and the four “woes” that follow them. Unlike Matthew’s Jesus, Luke’s does not speak in the third person (blessed are they) but in the second (blessed are you). In effect, he is looking us in the eye and asking, “Where do you stand?”
Poverty, hunger, sadness and ill-treatment: at face value, these are not desirable qualities; throughout history, people have rightly sought to escape them. Jesus is not inviting us to embrace a spiritual masochism. Instead, he is suggesting that when such experiences inevitably come, as they do in one way or another, they can somehow symbolize a stance before the mystery of existence. Maybe “stance” is a word too self-assured: let’s say, rather, a “genuflexion” that recognizes the lacklustre and the limits and the longing of the human heart. “Our hearts are restless till they rest in thee,” writes Saint Augustine.
What then are the kingdom of heaven, and satisfaction and laughter and bounding joy, all promised to the Blessed? They are images of the destiny of those followers of the Lord who gather around him on the Galilean plain, and who chose in simplicity and humility to embrace the challenge of the Beatitudes. From Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoasts they come, but they stand for people of all times and places: they stand for us.
Others, however, are caught in the glamour of present, passing pleasures. Instead of simplicity and humility, they find their satisfaction in fortune’s flighty favours, choosing in fact woe rather than weal.
What do you want to be? Where do you stand? Which do you choose?
Fr Edmund Power osb*