By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
First Reading: Jeremiah 17:5-8; Response: Psalm 1:1-2, 3-4, 6; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-20; Gospel: Luke 6:17, 20-26
In the first reading the liturgy returns to the prophet Jeremiah whom we met two Sundays ago at his call to be the Lord’s prophet in the year 626 B.C. There is a literary form in the Old Testament called “Blessings and Curses.” Deuteronomy 27-29 is a prime example. Should anyone be curious enough to read them, the curses in that speech are attributed to Moses and the Levitical priests. This form of literature also made its way into the New Testament as we shall see in this Sunday’s gospel reading. Some scholars suggest that today’s selection from Jeremiah may not come from the prophet himself but was inserted from other sources by editors of the Book of Jeremiah. Nevertheless, Jeremiah was quite capable of cursing, as was noted two Sundays ago in this column. That happened when Jeremiah visited his hometown Anathoth to proclaim the word of the Lord. His fellow townsmen threatened to kill him. Jeremiah responded with curses, “Your young men shall die by the sword. Their sons and daughters shall die by famine, and none of them shall be left.” See Jeremiah 11:22-23. Jeremiah was not acquainted with Matthew’s Sermon on the Mountain!
Today’s reading is introduced by a standard prophetic formula, “Thus, says the Lord.” This is followed by a lengthy curse. We do not like to think of the Lord cursing, especially since cursing is forbidden to us. Nevertheless, the grande finale of the Paradise story of Genesis 2:5 to 3:19 ends with the Lord pronouncing some serious curses. How can we understand such an activity attributed to the Lord God? Here is one way. In primitive times, curses and blessings were thought to have magical powers to bring about the good or bad expressed. The Israelites were influenced by such a belief but adapted it to their religious experience. They attributed belief in blessings and curses not to magic but to the power of God. Since humans can only speak of God in human terminology, God is depicted expressing himself in a manner contemporary to their own culture. We would prefer blessings first in Jeremiah’s oracle, but he begins with a curse and ends with a blessing.
Psalm 1, our Responsorial Psalm, is another example of a modified form of blessings and curses.
The Psalmist begins with an extended blessing on a good man and ends with a metaphor about an evil man. The good man is expressed negatively and positively. He does not follow wicked advice, does not walk in the way of sinners, nor keep company with the insolent. He delights in the Lord’s Torah (law), and meditates on it day and night. Then, a metaphor: the good man is like a tree planted near running water, yielding fruit and always green. He knows only prosperity. Not so the wicked. The wicked are like chaff (hulls separated from grain), so useless that the wind blows it away.
The second reading continues a series of readings from 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s chapter on the resurrection beginning with Jesus’ resurrection. In today’s selection, Paul notes how foundational is the Christian belief in the resurrection. “If the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is empty.” Paul does not leave us dangling, as he adds, “But Christ really has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep,” (a metaphor for death). Meaning: Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee of our own resurrection.
Jesus had just spent a whole night in prayer on a mountain. At daybreak he called his disciples together and chose twelve of them. These he called “apostles.” Together with them he came down from the heights “and stood on a level place” with a big crowd of disciples and people from every-where. He healed many and all tried to touch him. Such is the setting for the great “Sermon on the Plain.” It is called that because “he stood on a level place.” The contents of the sermon are similar to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mountain. Matthew wants to depict Jesus as a new Moses who delivers the Torah (law) from a mountain. Luke wants to depict Jesus as the divine presence delivering the new Torah (law) among his people. Unlike Moses on a mountain, Jesus is among his people, getting “the smell of the sheep,” a phrase made famous by Pope Francis. Both Matthew and Luke describe Jesus beginning the sermon with a series of blessings called “Beatitudes.” Matthew has nine, Luke four. Matthew’s version is more impersonal, as in “Blessed are the . . . .” Luke’s version is more personal, as in “Blessed are you . . . .” Luke’s four beatitudes correspond to some degree with the objects of the nine beatitudes of Matthew. Both are concerned with the down-trodden, the suffering, those on the bottom of the social-economic order.
Luke has a corresponding curse (woe) to each of his blessings. Matthew does not. He saves his curses for chapter 23, the seven “woes.” The curses are as ill-fitting in the mouth of Jesus as are the Old Testament curses in the mouth of the Lord God. Luke’s version is our concern here. The blessing on “you poor” generates a curse on “you rich.” The blessing on “you who are hungry now” generates a curse on “you who are well fed now.” The blessing on “you who weep now” generates a curse on “you who laugh now.” The blessing on “you who are persecuted (bullied) now” generates a curse on “you of whom all speak well now.” Luke’s gospel is preeminently the Good News to, or the gospel of, the poor, the handicapped, the excluded from society socially and physically — tax collectors, widows, bereaved, neglected, outcasts, anyone not included in the predominant religious community. We may ask what is wrong with “laughing now, eating well now, to be spoken of well now, being wealthy now.” Does Luke want to take all fun out of life? No way! Luke was surely aware of such an objection. He has an answer in chapter 19 of his gospel — the story of Zacchaeus, a very rich tax collector. Whether that wealth was unjustly accumulated or not, we are not told. Here is what Luke does tell us. Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house because the man said, “I give half my goods to the poor. If I have defrauded anyone, I will pay them back fourfold.” Having is not wrong. Not sharing with the needy is wrong.