This Sunday's responsorial psalm (Ps 1) reminds Christians that trust in God is the only ultimate security: "Happy are they who hope in the Lord." In a society that idolizes independence and self-fulfillment, today's readings challenge us to acknowledge our dependence upon God and to live lives of grateful service.
The reading from Jeremiah is a wisdom saying affirming trust in the Lord as the only source of lasting happiness. Using graphic imagery drawn from life in the desert, Jeremiah contrasts the curse-ridden life of the godless person with the blessed life of one who trusts in God. The one "whose heart turns away from the Lord" and trusts in mere "flesh" is cursed "like a barren bush in the desert," standing "in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth." In contrast, the one "who trusts in the Lord" is blessed "like a tree planted beside the waters" that remains green through the heat of summer and will produce fruit even in "the year of drought." Notice that those who trust in God are not free from the ravages of "heat" and "drought," but they are still able to bear fruit because of the strength that their "hope" in the Lord gives them.
Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, /Whose hope is the Lord. /He is like a tree planted beside the waters/ That stretches out its roots to the stream. It fears not the heat when it comes;/ Its leaves stay green;/ in the year of drought it shows no distress,/ but still bears fruit.
The epistle continues from last Sunday's reading about Paul's defense of the resurrection to the Corinthians. In this week's selection, Paul begins by supposing that there is no resurrection from the dead and examines what happens to the Gospel in that case. Without the resurrection, Christ has not been raised; Christian faith is vain; and the Corinthians are still in their sins, because Christ has not triumphed over sin and death. Paul concludes by bluntly asserting, "If our hopes in Christ are limited to this life only, we are the most pitiable of men." Having explored what denying the resurrection does to the Gospel, Paul then reaffirms that indeed "Christ has been raised from the dead" and speaks of him as the first fruits of a harvest which will include all believers at the final resurrection.
The Gospel reading is the beginning of Luke's great Sermon on the Plain. It shares the beatitudes with Matthew's more famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 7), but adds curses for those who trust in riches and power. Luke's Gentile audience probably included wealthy people who, unlike the Jews, had no tradition of almsgiving and care for the poor. They especially need to hear Jesus' blessings for the poor and persecuted and his woes cursing the rich and contented.
These two groups are the same ones described in Jeremiah's wisdom saying. The blessed are those who acknowledge their dependence upon God: the poor, the hungry, the weeping, those hated, insulted and denounced as evil on account of Jesus, the Son of Man. They are the ones Jesus is gathering in his ministry (see Lk 4:18-19). He assures them: "rejoice and exult, for your reward shall be great in heaven." In sharp contrast to these dependent ones, the cursed are those whose contentment with wealth, physical comforts, and worldly renown has caused them to settle for the kingdom of this world. They have their consolation now, but at the judgment they "will grieve and weep."
Luke's blessings and curses are worded in the second person plural: "Blest are you poor.... But woe to you rich...." We need to ask ourselves, "to which group do we belong?" If we are in physical and spiritual need and are suffering for the cause of the Gospel, Jesus' words give us hope for ultimate happiness in heaven. If we are wealthy, content, and well-received by the powers of this world, we have already received our reward.
(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)