SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Jer 17:5-8, 1 Cor 15:12, 16-20, Lk 6:17, 20-26, Choice of Christ’s Values over the World’s
Trust in God; Happy are They Who Hope in the Lord; Our Fundamental Option between Good and Evil; The Meaning of Jesus’ Resurrection. In the city, frequently light interference at night makes it impossible to see the stars.
Such are the beatitudes in today’s Gospel. Each of them cuts across the sky of our attention like shooting stars on a clear night. Jesus mentions four beatitudes here, and four woes, but there are many more. Each of them goes against the world’s wisdom. To the crowds that came to him from all Judea in the south and from as far north as the coast of Tyre and Sidon, and to us, Jesus contrasts two expressions of hearts. He says that the happy people are the poor, the hungry, the sad, and those who are rich, the full, the laughing, and those who have successfully curried the favour of the world.
Did you ever hear such nonsense? Our radios, our television sets, and our newspapers and magazines all scream the contrary. Advertising defines reality for us, telling us what it means to “be real” and identifying persons as – and in terms of – objects – the big, the expensive, and the showy; gourmet foods, relaxation, and social responsibility.
For them, lust replaces chastity, power replaces obedience, and money replaces poverty. Models’ faces reflect self – absorption, their individuality isolated from relationships with others. Advertising advocates that you get what you can while the getting’s good, eat in the best restaurants, and patronize the best in entertainment to keep you laughing. Jesus’ basic thought, on the other hand, is that, like those who have nothing, we must put all our trust in God.
A true story is told of an old man who moved from a quiet rural farm to the fast – moving New York City. He never really adjusted to the roads moving in all directions. One day, later in the evening, he travelled into the heart of the city to do shopping, but when walking back to catch his bus everything went pitch black. It took him a few moments to realize that there had been a power failure. There he was, surrounded by children wailing, women crying, horns blowing – a torrent of chaos. The old man stood trembling. How could he possibly cross a road safely without the help of traffic lights? How long would it be before someone attacked him?
It was then that someone took his arm and asked where he lived. The old man gave the name of the street. The other began to lead him into the chaos. They safely crossed streets, passed by all signs of danger. When at last they arrived at the old man’s quarters, the old man said: “I don’t understand. How were you able to walk through all this?” “But this is what I do every night,” the other man replied. “You see, I’m blind.”
We can apply that story to say that Jesus is the blind man, leading the despairing from their situation of chaos and fright to their home – which is a place of peace, happiness, and fulfillment in knowing him. We’re to trust, grope about in the dark, and continue to hope, even when there seems to be no hope. Following a crucified Messiah, the lowest of the low, may seem incredible – but it’s no more incredible than following a blind man.
According to G.K. Chesterton, a wise Christian, Jesus promised his people three things: that they would be absolutely fearless, greatly happy, and in constant trouble. That master of paradox added the thought, “I like getting into hot water – it keeps me clean!” that’s close to the unworldly inner peace Jesus is talking about – a happiness that can’t be destroyed by changes in fortune, or our current mood, or the circumstances that touch our lives.
There’s an inner unhappiness from denying the spiritual, the noble, and the meaningful in behalf of physical fulfillment only. This is the state of “woe” of which Jesus speaks. It describes the smug who’ve climbed to the top after all kinds of compromises, only to discover that there’s nothing there.
Jeremiah in today’s First Reading has a similar notion, setting forth the two directions for the journey of the heart, the “seat of moral personality” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2517). Like Jesus, he gives his message twice over – in the language of a curse and in the language of a blessing. And like Jesus, he states his values in the present tense, meaning now. Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, and cursed is the one whose heart turns away from the Lord. Adversity, like being poor, or hungry, or sad, while to be avoided, can, if we handle it right, be useful for our spiritual growth.
Jeremiah compares those who draw their life’s inspiration from God to a tree near the water’s edge, whose roots drink in the life – giving water, and those who trust only in humankind to a barren bush in the desert, growing in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth (v. 6). In Jeremiah’s parched, arid land, where a person was always in danger of starvation because of drought, his metaphors were meaningful. Today’s Responsorial Psalm carries the same message: “Happy are they who hope in the Lord.”
To come to that stalwart position requires daily effort, constant struggle, and patience. The tree by running waters had to grow little by little, while the bush in the desert, being shallow, gave up. The righteous person is wise enough to seek good models for his life, smart enough to avoid what will likely lead him to spiritual death, and insightful enough to use the opportunities of grace. The person whose hope is anywhere but in the Lord is insolent, unconcerned about occasions of sin, and reckless of his company. Most people are a combination of both the good and the bad.
Why should we look for happiness in Christ’s way rather than in the world’s? We get part of the answer in today’s portion of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which he speaks of immortality, eternal life, and resurrection. Paul says that if our hopes in Christ are limited to this life only, we’re the most pitiable (v. 19)
People have pondered the meaning of life and death since prehistoric days, from the unlit cave to the palatial desks of contemporary philosophers and the cells of mystics. The preponderant belief is that people don’t die, that there’s life after life, and that our souls will live on in some form. The greatest minds through the centuries have believed that we’re immortal –Socrates, Plato, Kant, Spinoza, Goethe, Darwin, Schweitzer, William James, and hundreds more.
Blaise Pascal asks, “Which is the more difficult – to be born or to rise again. That what has never been, should be, or that what has been, should be again? Is it more difficult to come into being than to return to it?” When Thomas A. Edison, one of the greatest intuitive geniuses, was dying, his doctor leaned over to hear him whisper, “It is very beautiful over there.” Rabindranath Tagore, renowned Indian philosopher and poet, said, “Death is not extinguishing the light, it is putting out the lamb because the dawn has come.” William James, the eminent Harvard psychologist, declared that as he grew older his belief in immortality increased. Why? “Because as I get older I am just getting fit to live.”
Our true existence is beyond both space and time. The resurrection of Jesus is the guarantee of our own resurrection and is what puts sense into choosing Christ’s way. The fact that Jesus rose from death proves that truth is stranger than fiction, that love is stronger than hatred, that good is stronger than death. Paul calls Jesus’ resurrection from the death “the first – fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (v. 20). Every Jew in Paul’s audience would understand that the “first – fruits” referred to that part of the harvest which was the first and the best to ripen, a sign of the harvest to come. They were brought to the temple to be offered to God. Jesus’ resurrection, too, was a sign of the harvest of resurrections of all believers to come. The resurrection is so fundamental to Christian belief that it, along with the cross, stands at the centre of our teaching.
In our search for happiness and inner peace, we can’t live schizophrenic lives with one foot in this world and the other foot in the next. Even though ours is an era in which there’s little concept of personal morality, we can’t avoid making a choice between the two ways: the way to heaven or the way to hell.
Is there a hell? At its simplest, hell is the inevitable outcome of a failure to choose and live by the values of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of heaven is the place into which Jesus says his followers are welcomed by his heavenly Father; hell is living with the consequences of ultimate evil. Images of hell in the New Testament are fire (Mt 13:50), outer darkness, loss, and remorse (Mt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30); none of these is absolutely adequate to capture the sense of hell. The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon persons to make use of their freedom in view of their eternal destiny (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1036).
And yet we can’t make heaven and hell the sole motivation for our lives. An old Irish tale tells of Paddy walking along a country road and meeting an angel. The angel had a firebrand in one hand a pail of water in the other. In answer to Paddy’s question about the angel’s baggage, the angel answered, “With the pail of water I’m going to put out the fires of hell, and with the firebrand I’m going to set fire to all the mansions of heaven. Then we’ll see whose life motivations are proper!”
We can’t be blind to all of the stars and the spectacular displays in the heavens. But, as C.S. Lewis said (The Four Loves [New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1960]), to follow the stars that challenge us to love means that we shall be vulnerable. Love anything, says Lewis, and your heart will be tugged, and may be broken. If you want to avoid that, you should give your heart to no one, not even a pet. You shall have to wrap it up with luxuries, avoid entanglements, and lock it up safe in the coffin of your selfishness. But in that coffin – dark, motionless, silent, airless – your heart will change. It won’t be broken; indeed, it will become unbreakable – and impenetrable, and irredeemable. And you’ll find that the only place outside heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of love is hell. We don’t know if stars shine there, but if they do, it will be too late for them to do any good.