Listening to today’s gospel passage, we hear familiar words, yet we know this isn’t quite what we remember: It’s the Beatitudes, but then it’s not. At least not the Beatitudes we know, which come from the gospel of Matthew. No, not only is this a shorter list of “blesseds” that Luke’s gospel gives us (there are four beatitudes versus the eight in Matthew) there is this dark offering of “woes.” They are warnings of future grief to those who take comfort in wealth, in their self-sufficiency, in their superiority that has them laugh at others as they rest ensconced in a bubble of privilege where there is no one to say “woe to you” but rather many who heap empty praise on their heads. It is a warning to the powerful, and there are comforting words for the powerless.
One might wonder about this “Sermon of the Plain” as it has been known within the Church for some two millennia. As it resembles the Sermon on the Mount, one might question which one is the correct version. That’s a false choice, and don’t let anyone tell you it’s evidence of the Church having a garbled memory about what Jesus taught.
That we have two versions of his teaching is actually testimony to the fact that Jesus did indeed conduct preaching and teaching tours of the region we know as the Holy Land – he was an itinerant preacher and healer.
What the Sermon on the Plain tells us in its resemblance to the Sermon on the Mount, what this variation on the beatitudes indicates, is that what we hear today was the core of a message he shared wherever he went.
It’s central to his Messianic program; this is the first thing he has to say following his baptism and forty days retreat in the desert. He has emerged, is gathering disciples, and this is the message that draws them. It’s a message to us today. These words laid the foundation upon which the gospel was built; upon them the gospel is lived even today.
There are blessings and consolation for those who are oppressed; and for those who hold earthly power, some of whom are the oppressors, others just those who live comfortably while people suffer, he has words of warning. Matthew’s report of the teaching has a more positive expression. So, where Matthew says blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus is encouraging those who can influence events toward a peaceful end to do so. That’s aimed at you and me as ordinary folks, but is also a message for the powerful to work toward reconciliation. However, in Luke, what Jesus teaches is more pointed in the direction of negative consequences for those who use their power selfishly, for their own benefit, for their own safety and security instead of in service of others toward the general welfare of all.
Jesus in the Sermon on the Plain makes plain that faith in earthly power is foolish; faith in divine providence is wisdom. Trust in princes, in money, in celebrity, whatever manifestation we can imagine of power in this world is as nothing to God’s power at work in us and through us, the faithful who trust in him and no other.
The Old Testament is well chosen to pair with our gospel. It shows us how firmly Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition. How the Word of God spoken in the prophets is incarnate in him.
A huge part of the prophetic tradition focuses on just this foolish impulse toward power as the solution to our problems. The prophet Jeremiah speaks against this in no uncertain terms:
“Cursed is the one who trusts in mere mortals and makes mere flesh their strength…”
The kings of Judah not only refuse to listen to him, but they persecute him. When much of what he prophesied comes true, when the army of Babylon are coming to lay waste to the nation, Zedekiah, who will be the last king of Judah, the last true Israelite king as a descendent of David, doesn’t look to Jeremiah for advice. He looks to have the prophet killed. As everything falls apart, as the kingdom crumbles, as what Jeremiah foretold comes to pass, the impulse here is not to recognize that among all of Judah, and the larger Israelite community, here is the one man who can be trusted.
Pained by the prophet’s words, embarrassed by his own ineptitude, ignoring his responsibility for bad decisions, for listening to the wrong people, the king seeks Jeremiah’s life because Jeremiah’s message is, to his mind, so discouraging. Therefore, Jeremiah is the problem: the nation is despairing because Jeremiah is telling the king to repent of his ways; and it’s not the massive Babylonian army headed their way that’s got them down.
Israel’s story is one of misplaced faith with brief intervals of recognition of where faith ought to rest: in God.
Scripture tells us that in ancient days monarchy was a concession to the people. That failing to live with God as their king, they could have a king, but that king would then be obligated to put his faith in God on behalf of the people; to set an example for the people so that they might learn and grow to be a holy people under his guidance and the guidance of the priests of the temple, the prophets and other teachers of the faith.
Prophet after prophet comes to Israel to remind them that this is the deal.
When Jesus arrives on the scene, there really are no proper kings, no descendants of David in power. Herod wasn’t an Israelite. He and his family were foreigners who insinuated themselves into the politics of Israel, and effectively took over through a coup.
Jesus, as we know is a “son of David.” But he has returned to the original call of God to everyone to seek holiness through God’s reigning in their lives; yet he will also be that king who serves as the example. The sanctity of the nation is the collective work of the whole nation, just as today the work of holiness is not the task of bishops, priests, monks and nuns, but rather the whole people of God striving together, each with their own part of this great work of sanctification.
It’s very hard to look at the destruction and division going on around us. But we can’t deny reality. What we need to do is ask of ourselves how are we to be as Christians in this trying hour?
I want to be careful in what I say here; I want it understood that our vocation is to be witnesses to Christ and evangelists of the Gospel, and to be careful not to fall into the trap of relying upon power or advocating for the use of power to solve our problems.
It is recognized that charter rights have been suspended without following the prescribed constitutional and legislative processes. If you need that explained I refer you to former Newfoundland premier Brian Peckford, the last living signatory of the Charter for a good explanation of how our political system failed to follow the rules.
The consequence of this is that we are now relying on the exercise of power and the legality of things is now questionable. This is not a good place to be because it undermines our confidence in our parliamentary processes, our policing, our courts, our civil service, in our institutions. And those institutions don’t work based on power, but on trust, confidence, sense of community. A world of power is a frightening thing.
The trucker convoy is a reaction to this. But it is frankly a blunt instrument of protest. Yes, it is doing damage, damage to an already damaged economy, politics and society. How can we be happy about this?
Protests at border crossings in recent days are affecting major manufacturers, and this is leading to shutdowns. An official emergency has been declared. I know of parishioners who’ve lost jobs, seen their small businesses pushed to the brink by two years of emergency measures. All of this is significant, quite real, and will have lasting effect the longer we persist in our current course.
I am discouraged by our leadership; but to be clear, it’s not just government, but the opposition too; the whole of our political establishment and the legacy media. Looking at them, this all seems to be about politics, scoring points, avoiding loss of face, calculations being made with regard to the next elections.
It’s now that I have a greater sense as to what it must have felt like to have been in the crowd at one of Jesus’ stops, when he found a good open place to stand and preach; what it was like to hear what he had to say, and then reflect on the reality of that time of worry and uncertainty about where the nation of Israel was headed.
I’ve described that before: Herodian princes ruling over the mini-states that Israel had been fragmented into; the Romans effectively ruling it all; and the opposition of the Pharisees and others to the situation being at best ineffectual, but really wholly irrelevant.
We remember what was a key issue: the Law. Jesus spars with the Pharisees constantly over this. If Israel returned to keeping the Law, then their problems would be solved. God would smile on them again.
Problem: the rulers, the sons of evil King Herod, didn’t keep the law. Herod Antipas, ruler of the Galilee, to take one example, was an adulterer and a murderer. They’ve got to go; and the Pharisees imagined themselves as the best to take over with a king of their choosing.
The Herodian princes rightly pointed out that the Romans were an even bigger problem and the effective obstacle to autonomy; and they were best placed to look after things. That is, the status quo was the best that could be hoped for. The whole of that is about power, and whose got it.
Listen to Jesus carefully, and you will hear that he concedes there are legitimate concerns and observations about the predicament, but he rejects all the conventional solutions. “Don’t make me king.” Well, not in the sense that a king at that time was understood. Yes, keeping the law is key to this; he repeatedly affirmed that. But then explained to people that, “you can’t keep the law; not the way you are.”
You need to be free. Once free you can follow the law, and not just Jews following the Law of Moses; but all humanity following the God’s law of love written on our hearts. You must be free of fear; fear of death. You must be freed from sin, the road to spiritual death.
Today, what I hear from politicians is appeals to freedom, tediously understood in economic terms: free enterprise championed by one side; a free living for all advocated by the other; others preach of the freedom technology will bring – freedom from having to make decisions for ourselves in a new corporatist world where government and major corporations use high tech, artificial intelligence, to anticipate our wants and desires and deliver the goods via our phones and devices and freed delivery to our doorsteps.
We’ve got to get back to the freedom Jesus called us to; and life formed by the virtues we hear expressed in the Beatitudes; life lived wary of the “woes” of the Sermon on the Plain and not look to solve our problems through the exercise of power, but to trust in God and what he has taught us through Jesus Christ. In that is the key to a joyful life lived in anticipation of the rewards of Heaven.