In the Gospel, all kinds of people are coming to Him with all kinds of diseases and He stops and says something startling: “Blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry, you who are weeping, blessed are you when people are speaking against you because of me ….”. Then the Lord says something even more alarming: “Woe to you who are rich, you who are satisfied, you who are joyful, woe to you when people are speaking well of you”. All of this is the opposite of what they expected and what we expect to hear.
When the Lord says ‘Blessed’ are you poor, hungry and so forth, He is not saying to those who are burdened by life that their life is ideal, far from it. The Lord is teaching that there is a truth within their circumstances, a strength they don’t realise. Within the tragedy of their lives is a hidden grace.
When the Lord says, “Woe to you who are rich, popular, healthy”, He is saying that there is a hidden danger in their lives.
A key to the Lord’s meaning is found in the First Reading from the prophet Jeremiah where Jeremiah compares the just person to a tree planted beside the water and whose roots go into the stream. It’s strong and enduring because its roots go deep beneath the surface. It survived all kinds of seasons and temperatures because its roots, its nourishment come not from the sand or surface but from the water table deep in the ground.
If we look for spiritual strength, eternal life, inner healing, full happiness in the wealth we have, we will be disappointed. Wealth does not ensure happiness, a faithful marriage or spiritual vitality. If we look for spiritual strength, eternal life, deep fulfilment in popularity, that doesn’t work.
People are fickle. When we do something contrary to what they want, or if we break from the pack so to speak and become controversial, many friendships get put on hold or evaporate. If we look for the truth about ourselves in the health and happiness of the moment, we can deceive ourselves. That bubble can be burst so easily when we get bad news or lose a loved one or receive results of a medical test.
The reason the Lord speaks of ‘woe’ to the rich, the contented, the popular is that we can deceive ourselves and not go any deeper than these things.
On the other hand, when we face poverty, need, grief and unpopularity, illusions tend to evaporate quickly. For all of us who have known grief, we know that tragedy can be like a spiritual eye opener. It opens us to the deep waters of God’s life, God’s will, God’s grace. When people lose their homes in natural disasters, their grieving over the loss is helped by the realisation that they still have their family. When people are told they must evacuate their homes, the items they usually take are small articles of remembrance about family and loved ones as they leave everything else behind.
When things break apart, we discover the truth of human life, that our real anchor hold is not material but spiritual.
Through these ‘blessings’ and ‘woes’ the Lord is teaching us to look at what really nourishes our soul. Do we draw our self-worth, our identity and our purpose in life from the surface or the stream?
It is characteristic of many adolescents that their sense of identity comes from the outside. If friends say they are a failure, they feel they are a failure. If their friends consider them a success, they feel they are a success. Only as we mature, do we acquire a stable sense of who we are and eventually don’t depend on what people say. We know our value is truly rooted in our human dignity and in Christian Baptism. We know what we are worth not from the crowd but from the Cross.
What nourishes our life? Is it the sand or stream? If we are aware of deep needs in our life, there is a blessing in that. We will not be easily fooled by surface attractions. If we have everything going well, there is a danger, ‘a woe’ in that because we can forget God.
What nourishes our life? Is it sand or the stream? Lent is around the corner. It is a good time for all of us to sink our roots into the deep, clear waters of God’s life …. Again! Fr Andrew