Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction to these reflections and please look at the readings for Sunday Mass here (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):
“Christ has been raised from the dead” proclaims St Paul this Sunday. If he has not been raised he says, then our faith is in vain and we are still in our sins. For some time the importance of the resurrection of Jesus and our resurrection at the end of time has been
stressed strongly by the Church. It is at the end of the letter to the Corinthians that Paul makes his lengthy presentation of the resurrection which is now being read on Sundays. The result is that Paul begins the letter speaking of the cross and ends it with the resurrection. In between come all the issues affecting the Corinthian community. There is a sense in which we are a Holy Saturday people, we are between the Good Friday cross and awaiting the final Easter resurrection of the dead which we proclaim every Sunday in the creed.
As we live therefore in this time during the two comings of Christ, we learn from the teachings of Jesus and his values as we hear in the Gospels. The Gospel for the next three Sundays before Ash Wednesday present us with the first major presentation by Jesus as we hear the Sermon on the Plain from the Gospel of Luke. It is as well if we now look over Luke’s story up to this point and the background to the sermon. Because Luke is following Mark closely, much has been left out because it was heard during the year of Mark.
We heard therefore Jesus’ keynote speech in Nazareth and his rejection by his fellow villagers. Jesus then went down to Capernaum and Luke then follows Mark closely with the incidents that follow. Then he inserts the call of Peter and the other disciples which we heard last Sunday. After the call, he again follows Mark with the healing of a leper and five incidents of increasing conflict with the Pharisees. This leads to a strong ending in Mark but Luke just comments that his enemies wondered what they might do with Jesus.
After this, Luke ceases to follow Mark as he comes to the lead-in to this Sunday’s Gospel when Jesus chooses twelve disciples to be apostles. Yet this is a separate commissioning to the one we heard last Sunday and much has happened in-between. Jesus first spends a night in prayer on the mountain before he chooses the Twelve and comes down with them to a level place.
All of this sets the scene for this Sermon “on the Plain” as it is known, the first substantial body of teaching by Jesus in this Gospel. It is inevitably compared with the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.. The two sermons are sufficiently similar that it is possible that Luke has adapted Matthew’s sermon for his own purposes. Yet for Matthew, the Sermon is Jesus’ keynote speech for his ministry whereas as we have seen for Luke that was the sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth. Luke has also removed of the teaching in Matthew’s sermon because he relates it later in his story. This sermon comes after Jesus had become well known and as his ministry is developing with the established leadership now against him. Jesus has many disciples and needs the inner group. These are the primary audience for the Sermon though the crowd remains in the background. This brings us to the beginning of this Sunday’s Gospel. Left out is the evangelist’s comment about the many healings arising just by touching Jesus which are described as exorcisms. All of this forms the background for the teaching that follows.
Luke immediately begins with a series of beatitudes just like Matthew, but notably different. These form the Gospel this Sunday. Matthew’s Beatitudes are the well known group and possibly they form the Gospel which is most frequently heard at Mass. The result is that Luke’s Beatitudes with their accompanying woes are not as well known.1 Both beatitudes and woes are frequently found in the Bible. “Blessed” is also used for liturgies such as the blessing at the end of Mass but the beatitudes are about a way of life which leads to a sense of happiness, fulfilment, harmony and which promises rewards. Woes are the opposite and frequently found in the prophets such as Amos. They are best regarded as warnings, that the lifestyle described is inappropriate and will not lead to the final reward. Luke by bringing blesseds and woes together makes his point strongly and clearly.
We need the Beatitudes of both Matthew and Luke. It has been said that the Beatitudes in Matthew are how to become blessed, they set out the programme to be follow. Luke tells us just who are blessed, they are more about our attitude towards the kingdom. Thus Luke’s Beatitudes are more fundamental than Matthew’s.
The Blesseds and Woes in Luke are like two sides of a coin. Poor is not the same as destitute of whom there are far too many in our world today. Whilst Jesus and his disciples were hardly wealthy, they would have been above subsistence level. Four disciples had boats and employees. Poor here is I suggest an attitude of detachment, not allowing possessions to possess. The perspective of the rich may be the key here because Luke has much to say about them. His patron Theophilus may well have been wealthy but the point is made from the Magnificat onwards: he fills the starving with good things, sends the rich away empty. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the message to the man’s brothers is that they have the word of God. And for the last encounter in his ministry before arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus meets Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus promises to use his wealth wisely for which Jesus commends him: today salvation has come to this house. Woe therefore are warnings and exhortations and not condemnations.
Whereas laughing for the beatitude is rejoicing, for the woe it is a mocking of those who are less fortunate, a false rejoicing. I think I have said before that there are signs that Jesus had a sense of humour. And the last comment about false prophets is a reminder that flattery or sycophancy gets no one anywhere.
Whether rich or poor, we are called to commit ourselves to the Beatitudes and that calls for a choice. This Sunday’s psalm is also a Beatitude: “Blessed in the one who…” This is the very first psalm, the gateway to the journey over the whole Psalter, prayers which reflect all the ups and downs of the human journey through life. We must choose to follow the way of the just knowing that the way will be rough at times and joyful at others. The way of the just is our commitment at baptism, a commitment we must renew each and every day. It is to grow fruitful by meditating day and night on the law of the Lord, the word of God in the Scriputres. Finally all the promises of God will be fulfilled at the end of the journey, with the last psalm anticipating our praise of God in our heavenly homeland and the final resurrection.
1 I prefer the strong words “Blessed” and “Woe” to the “happy” and “alas” as currently heard at Mass.