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The Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

The Sermon on "the Plain"

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He also gives them a list of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28.

Now, I’m not going to read it in full, and it isn’t the Old Testament reading for today (so there’s no parallel here), but I do think it’s important for us to understand the background because a lot of people are put off by Luke’s account of the beatitudes because they’re pretty harsh, especially when you add in the woes. What’s wrong with being rich? What’s wrong with eating a good meal? What’s wrong with laughing? What’s wrong with people praising you and saying good things about you? I mean, truly, there’s nothing wrong with any of these things, and yet Jesus is pronouncing a curse on all those who are rich, all those who have full bellies (So, does that apply to you? Did you have a good meal last night?), all those who laugh, and all those who have good things said about them. So, what do we make of that?

Well I think if you go back to the Old Testament you’ll see. In Deuteronomy 28, let me just run a few verses by you real quick. In the Old Testament Moses gave a list of blessings and woes as well. He gave a list of blessings for obedience, and a list of woes (or curses) for disobedience. And listen to what it says.

And if you obey the voice of the LORD your God (this is Moses speaking to the Israelites), being careful to do all his commandments which I command you this day, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your beasts, the increase of your cattle, and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading-trough. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. The LORD will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you; they shall come out against you one way, and flee before you seven ways. The LORD will command the blessing upon you in your barns, and in all that you undertake; and he will bless you in the land which the LORD your God gives you. The LORD will establish you as a people holy to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the LORD your God, and walk in his ways.

If you skip down to verse 11:

And the LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your ground, within the land which the LORD swore to your fathers to give you.

Those are the blessings. So notice, what are we describing here? If you obey, you’re going to have lots of children, you’re going to have plentiful crops, you’re going to have abundant cattle, you’re going to have lots of money, you’re going to have good weather, (it goes on to say) you’re going to have peace in the land. Your enemies will be driven out and you will have peace and prosperity. So in the Old Testament, if you obey, what you get is earthly blessings. And they’re all good things. Fertility is good. Children are good. Cattle are good. They’re all made by God. Peace is good. Peace is better than war, prosperity is better than poverty. In the sense that in poverty, people get sick, they die, they suffer; there are all kinds of natural evils associated with that. So in the Old Testament, obedience brings earthly blessings. It brings natural blessings. By contrast, disobedience brings curses. And it says here, verse 15, Deuteronomy 28:

But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command you this day, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading-trough. Cursed shall be the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your cattle, and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out. The LORD will send upon you curses, confusion, and frustration, in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly, on account of the evil of your doings, because you have forsaken me.

And then it goes on, a long chapter, it’s a very long, very grim chapter (Deuteronomy 28) to basically lay out that if Israel disobeys God, they’re going to bring down upon themselves through their sin: infertility, famine, pestilence, poverty, war, and then eventually the worst of all the curses, is exile. They will end up being cast out of the land of Israel, the promise land; which is of course, if you know the Old Testament, exactly what ends up happening. So I bring this up because I want you to get the setting right. So Jesus is speaking to his Jewish disciples, he’s speaking to Jews in Galilee; they know the Torah, they know the Law of Moses, and what does the law of Moses say? If you obey, you get lots of food, lots of children, lots of joy and peace. If you disobey, you have poverty, pestilence, hunger, famine, war and then finally exile. Now with that background in mind, look again at the beatitudes in Luke. What is Jesus saying to his disciples in Luke 6? “Blessed are you who are poor…Blessed are you who are hungry…Blessed are you who weep” and “blessed are you when men persecute you and exclude you and revile you. Rejoice on that day, for your reward is great”, where? “In Heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.”

And then he flips it and says, “Woe to you who are rich…who are full…who laugh” and “who are spoken well of.” In other words, who are at peace, who are not persecuted. So what has Jesus done? In my mind, what I think’s happening here is something very significant. In the new covenant, in the teaching of Jesus from this sermon, the blessings are the curses. That’s the thing. The blessings are the curses. We don’t think of it this way. In other words, the way you will build up treasure not on earth but in heaven, is precisely through suffering. It’s through poverty. It’s through hunger. It’s through mourning. And it’s ultimately, above all, through persecution for the sake of the gospel. It’s through persecution for the sake of the son of man. By contrast, earthly blessings in the new covenant are dangerous. They’re spiritually dangerous. So what is he saying here? “Woe to you that are rich”; think about what he says elsewhere in the gospel, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Why? Because “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. So riches have the power to drag our hearts down from heaven and focus us on earthly goods. The same thing, “Woe to you that are full now”; well what’s the problem with getting a good meal? Well, because you can get self-satisfied with earthly goods and feel all sufficient, like you don’t need God. People who are starving to death know they need God. People who are hungry know how weak they are and how dependent they are on God; but the rich and the full can get very complacent, very quickly.

The same thing about those who are laughing now. Jesus isn’t condemning all laughter, he’s talking about people, in context, whose laughter is the kind of laughter that is based and rooted in earthly joy, that distracts them from the injustice in the world, but also distracts them ultimately from the goodness of the kingdom of God. What’s he saying? “You might be laughing now, but you’re going to mourn or weep if you miss out on the kingdom of heaven.” And then finally, “when all men speak well of you, so their fathers did to the false prophets.” So the false prophets were there, they were at peace, nobody was persecuting them, but it didn’t mean that they were right with God. It actually meant that they were lying and that they were acquiring peace through their falsehood and not through the grace and the gift of God. So he’s talking about the dangers that are inherent in earthly goods, and the fact that in the new covenant now the blessings are rooted in what appear to be curses.

Now whenever I teach this to my students sometimes there’s a negative reaction. People say, “Come on, that’s a little strong Dr. Pitre, wouldn’t you say? To say that in the new covenant the blessings are the curses and the curses are the blessings.” If it’s too strong then tell me why we have a crucifix at the center of every church. How did the ultimate blessing of blessings come to the world? How did the kingdom of heaven come to earth? It’s through the cross. It’s through a man who looks like he’s cursed. It’s through a man who is poor, who has nothing, who is mourning, who’s been stripped of everything, who’s been persecuted; he is the most blessed man of all.

And, in fact, if you look at the Greek word here, I keep saying “blessed”, but the Greek word that Luke uses is makarios, which actually doesn’t mean “blessed”, it means “happy”. The precise meaning of makarios is “someone who is happy”. So where do we find real happiness in the new covenant? It’s through detachment from earthly goods, detachment from earthly blessings, and through taking up the cross and following Christ. So in the very beginning here, in Luke chapter 6, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is already preaching the way of the cross, but he’s doing it under the form of the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are not just some nice sayings about the attitudes we should have — although they do give us a window into what our attitude towards created goods and earthly goods should be. At the same time, they’re not simple, nice little phrases; they are explosive. They are a powerful challenge to every one of us about the way of the cross, and Jesus is going to talk more about that as we move through the Gospel of Luke. Unless you take up your cross daily and follow me, you can’t be my disciple. That’s the way of the cross that Jesus is laying out here...

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