When we listen to debates about welfare or are asked to contribute to the cause of the poor, we often hear, “Just how much do the poor need?” as if their need were an undeserving bottomless well. Seldom do we hear, “How much do the rich need?” We seem to be more accepting that their needs are always right and should be endless and also met. We are reminded of the saying, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” To which Jesus might have replied, “Oh, really?”
The great scene which we find in our Gospel this weekend of the Sermon on the Mount is certainly a super deluxe movie moment. Can you imagine how a drone camera lens would show this great epic event? Think about how Jesus comes down from the high point of the mountain to an open space on a large plain. Gathered in large crowds are people murmuring that they want to see Jesus up close and perhaps even touch him. Many are desperate to hear him speak, others desperate to have him heal them. These folks understand that they need Jesus, though they do not fully understand why. They know their lives are less than they should or could be. Hunger, pain, sickness are all part of their many needs. Inside them, their hearts ache and their souls struggle. They know that they are the “less” of life and that there are the others who are the “more.” Worse, they realize that the privileged do not even value their privilege. Those with full bellies and lives only want more, and then again even more.
They are there on this mountain, awaiting words from Jesus that will fill their great void. And behold, Jesus looks at them and starts to speak radical and beautiful words to them. He speaks these words with variations four times. He says loudly to them “Blessed are you...” The people are stunned to discover that they are so blessed, even though they feel so bad about their lives.
We learn in this great passage and scene that there is certainly a hunger, a need, or a void that is much greater and destructive than the privations his listeners experience. What is heard on this mount is startling and quite radical for this crowd and in many ways it is radical and startling for us.
Following these four Blessings, Jesus utters four great Woes. These woes are about people who are to be greatly pitied and also about people never to be imitated as they are already full of themselves. To put it simply, they are engaged in great folly in their lives.
Our first reading, which is from Jeremiah, offers us, in contrast, a solid image of theblessed one—a healthy tree with roots deep in nourishing water. Bear in mind that the tree flourishes even in the unrelenting dry desert winds. And thus it symbolically says one needs to be deeply rooted in God. These deep roots are available to everyone no matter their status or condition. On the other hand, the woeful one is not so rooted and is as truly lifeless as a barren bush in the exact same desert where the other flourishes.
Jesus is not saying the way of poverty is the preferred life and wealth is morally bad. He is speaking of a different poverty, the total lack or loss of God in one’s life. This always produces a void or emptiness in one’s life. Augustine, the great theologian—and great sinner in his younger years—tells us that nothing will fill up that absence of God for we are made for God and we will be restless until we rest in God. Giant homes, expensive cars, travel, clothes, obsession over food and its sources, or whatever is the fashion of the moment will never fill that void. Stuff will never replace goodness. A legacy of stuff is merely stuff, a legacy of goodness is indeed a gift.
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