by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Blessed are you who are poor; the kingdom of God is yours!…But woe to you who are rich; you have had your consolation!” Luke 6, 17, 20-26
Once again, context plays a significant role in our coming to appreciate the point of today’s gospel-reading. The community to whom Luke directed his Gospel was a multi-layered one, made up of the wealthy, the comfortable and the desperately poor. As a medical practitioner, Luke himself was, at the very least, educated and comfortable. It comes, then, as a bit of a surprise that he puts in the mouth of Jesus words like: “Woe to you who are well-off, you have received your consolation.” However, woven into Luke’s Gospel are themes that highlight Jesus’ concern for those whom society was (and still is) inclined to disregard and even scorn.
Found only in Luke are the parables of the widow and the unjust judge (18, 1-8), the prodigal son (15, 11-31) and the good Samaritan, all dealing with people discarded by society because of their gender, ethnic origin or personal weakness. The widow, who eventually bested the judge, was destined to be treated with injustice simply because of her gender. Like all the women of her day, she had no voice, and was regarded as unreliable and untrustworthy. All were destined to be used. Yet Luke champions their cause, listing them as faithful and generous disciples of Jesus and noting that they were the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. He presents a detested Samaritan as the ultimate example of human compassion, generosity and selfless love, and a father rejected by an ungrateful and insensitive son as the epitome of parental forgiveness and love, and his son worthy of forgiveness and restoration. Moreover, he repeatedly presented Jesus urging those who were well-off to provide places at their banquet tables for the destitute, the lame, the crippled and the blind. As a way of shaking the wealthy out of their insensitivity, he has Jesus declaring: “Woe to you who are rich; you have already had your consolation” (Luke 6, 24). But, let’s not miss that he had already held out a life-line to the rich by asserting that hope for them lay in their learning the way of compassion (Luke 6, 21).
As we try to come to terms with how today’s gospel-reading applies to us, the one thing of which we can be sure is that Jesus is not proclaiming that there is virtue in living in destitution and struggling to eke out a minimal existence. There is certainly nothing to be recommended about living in conditions that are dehumanising. If, however, we can learn to weep for our sisters and brothers in pain and reach out to them in compassion, we will be on the way to transformation of mind and heart. To highlight the need for us all to soften with compassion any hard-heartedness in us, Luke gives us examples of people who had learned to weep for those whose lives had been touched by pain and grief. He tells of Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem that had rejected him and his message of God’s love (Luke 19, 41). What’s more, he stemmed the tears of others in grief – those weeping for Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8, 52) and the widow of Nain (Luke 7, 13).
Complementing and, indeed, reinforcing the message of today’s gospel-reading is Luke’s story of Lazarus, starving and covered with sores, who lay at the door-step of the rich man who lived in luxury without even noticing the poor fellow. Both today’s gospel-reading and the story of Lazarus confront us with the issue of our insensitivity to the needy people of our time and place. Do we notice them, do we ignore them, do we pass them by, do we reach out to them? Do we weep for the millions of our sisters and brothers displaced by war and the threat of violence, and forced to beg for food and shelter? And are we deaf to the plight of our planet, to the cry of our common home ravaged by greed, exploitation and neglect?
While Luke’s Jesus may well startle or puzzle us with his assertion: “Blessed are you who weep now” (Luke 6, 21), our response has to be more than hand-wringing or crocodile tears or words of lament. Surely, we are called to take up the cry of those standing at closed borders and crying out for admission, for shelter, for dignity, for recognition. Hearts moved by compassion have to be complemented by voices raised in protest, by minds and bodies dedicated to constructive and effective action. Presence beside them, lobbying on their behalf authorities keeping them locked out are worth more than lamentations. There is no longer any excuse for insensitivity of heart and failure to act. We are all capable of compassionate action, we all have more than we need, we are all aware of the cry of the earth and of the pleas of sisters and brothers in need. All that is missing is the courage and will to act. But act we must!
Pope Francis in his exhortation to the people of God, Evangelii Gaudium speaks of the plight of a world that has lost its ability to weep, of a world that needs to be wakened, of Christians who have allowed themselves to be paralysed by fear. He describes those of us who cannot bring ourselves to respond in words that echo the message of today’s gospel-reading:
“Almost without being aware of it, we end up incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own” (#54).
The irony in all this is that, so long as the greed of the few keeps the majority locked in deprivation, our common home will continue to be ravaged as the majority struggle to survive.
Are we so short-sighted as to want our consolation now?