Feb 17, 2019: 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Jeremiah 17:5-8

Thus says the LORD:
Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings,
who seeks his strength in flesh,
whose heart turns away from the LORD.
He is like a barren bush in the desert
that enjoys no change of season,
but stands in a lava waste,
a salt and empty earth.
Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD,
whose hope is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted beside the waters
that stretches out its roots to the stream:
it fears not the heat when it comes;
its leaves stay green;
in the year of drought it shows no distress,
but still bears fruit.

Jeremiah began his prophetic office 116 years after Isaiah began his, and about 620 years before the birth of Jesus. Jeremiah lived through one of the most troubled periods of the ancient Near East as he witnessed the fall of a great empire (Assyria) and the rising of one even greater (Babylon). In the midst of this turmoil, the kingdom of Judah, then in the hands of deplorable kings, came to its downfall by resisting this overwhelming force of history.

The last decades of Judah’s history required a continual flow of light from Yahweh’s messengers; in addition to Jeremiah, the prophets Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Nahum, and
Ezekiel delivered the word of God.

The two predominant themes of Jeremiah’s message are to precisely define true
Yahwehism, and to proclaim the imminent wars as punishments of Judah’s aberrations.
Today’s reading falls into the category of true Yahwehism and is a wisdom saying on true
justice.

Thus says the LORD:

A messenger formula that identifies the passage as a prophetic oracle.

Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD.

A contrast statement with both a blessing and a curse.

The Hebrew word translated as “one” is geber, a word with a connotation of “strong man.”  From where does a strong man draw his strength?

He is like a barren bush in the desert that enjoys no change of season, but stands in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth.

The strong man who turns away from the Lord and relies on human strength is described with jarring images of barrenness and desolation.

Note that it is a permanent state of wretchedness; there is no change of season.

Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is the LORD. He is like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream: It fears not the heat when it comes, its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.

On the other hand, the strong man who finds his strength in the Lord is described as being firmly planted near water, the source of life.

In contrasting the barren bush and the tree, note that the tree is not spared the hardship of heat and drought, but because it is near water and has stretched it roots toward that water, it is not threatened.  The one who trusts in the Lord is secure and productive.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 15:12,16-20

Brothers and sisters:
If Christ is preached as raised from the dead,
how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead?
If the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised,
and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain;
you are still in your sins.
Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ,
we are the most pitiable people of all.

But now Christ has been raised from the dead,
the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Last week, we heard Paul’s summary of the gospel, as a foundation for a defense against those who do not believe in the resurrection of the body.

Brothers and sisters: if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised,

Paul begins by outlining a logical inconsistency.  If there is no such thing as bodily resurrection, then it has not taken place even in Christ’s case.

“How grave an offense it is not to believe in the resurrection of the dead. If we do not rise again, Christ died in vain and did not rise again. For if He did not rise for us, He did not rise at all, because there is no reason why He should rise for Himself.” [Saint Ambrose (A.D. 378), The Death of His Brother Satyrus 2,103]

and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain;

If Christ had not risen, then their faith would be based on a falsehood: vain, empty, pointless. The apostles would be false witnesses and their preaching valueless.

you are still in your sins.

The consequences of this lapse of faith are grave: both forgiveness and salvation are an illusion, despite their strong convictions about both. Unless Christ is risen, their faith does not save.

Worse than having a worthless faith, they are still trapped in the bondage of sin.

Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.

The argument goes as follows: If Christ did not rise, then he is still dead; if he is dead, then he has not conquered sin and death; if he has not conquered sin, then believers are unforgiven and still in their sins; if he has not conquered death, then those who have died in Christ have really perished.

Rejection of the resurrection undoes both Paul’s christology and his teaching on salvation.

“If Christ did not rise again, neither was He slain, and if He was not slain, our sins have not been taken away. If our sins have not been taken away, we are still in them, and our entire faith is meaningless.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 392), Homilies on the First Epistle to the Corinthians 39,4]

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Paul insists that the hope believers have in Christ is not merely for this life.  Rather, it is hope in a future life, a life when they will be able to fully enjoy the fruits of the resurrection.

The passage ends with a declaration of faith, using an image from harvesting.  As certain as the firstfruits are a promise of the quality of the coming harvest, so surely does the resurrection of Christ guarantee the resurrection of believers.  As their resurrection is dependent on his, so their resurrection demonstrates the fruitfulness of his.

Gospel – Luke 6:17, 20-26

Jesus came down with the twelve
and stood on a stretch of level ground
with a great crowd of his disciples
and a large number of the people
from all Judea and Jerusalem
and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon.
And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.
For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.”

Today’s gospel reading is the Sermon on the Plain, which in Matthew’s gospel is referred to as the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus came down with the twelve and stood on a stretch of level ground with a great crowd of his disciples and a large number of the people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon.

Three groups of attendees are identified: the twelve apostles, who with Jesus have just come down from the mountain; a group of disciples (followers) of Jesus; and a large crowd of interested people who have come from as far south as Jerusalem and as far north as Tyre and Sidon in Syria.

Luke seems to be pointing out that Jesus had piqued the interest of people from far and wide.

And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said:

With all these people hanging on his every word, Jesus addresses his disciples with both macarisms and woes.  This type of teaching is associated with the Wisdom tradition: certain behavior results in blessedness; misfortune is brought on by its opposite.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.

The poor (ptōchoi) were the economically impoverished and marginalized.  They were frequently reduced to begging and were almost totally dependent on the generosity of others for sustenance.  The existence of an entire social class of poor is evidence the community as a whole had not taken seriously its covenant responsibility to care for the needy.

Unfairly deprived now, these poor will enjoy the reign of God.

Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. 

The reign of God will upend the standards of society.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.

The followers of Jesus will be hated and marginalized and scorned simply because they are his followers.  When this happens, they will be like the prophets, who, because of their call for repentance and renewal, were rejected by the ancestors.

Note that Luke’s gospel gives four beatitudes, whereas Matthew’s gospel (chapter 5) contains eight.  Unlike Matthew, Luke goes on to provide four woes (curses), one to contrast each beatitude, giving a perfect balance to the message.

These woes cast Jesus as a prophet because the prophet’s job was to pronounce the blessings and curses as he reminded the people of God’s covenant and the obligations involved in keeping it.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

The rich who ignored their covenant responsibility to address the needs of the poor will not enjoy the reign of God.  They have had their solace already.

But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep.

Jesus has overturned the standards of this age and established new standards, those of the reign of God.

Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.

Disciples of Jesus should be wary when they are accepted and esteemed in this world.  This could mean that, like the false prophets of old, they enjoy approval because they deliver a message that unfaithful or disengaged people want to hear, a message that contains no call to conversion.

Note the connection with the second reading:  We were called last week to witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and this week we are instructed as to the meaning of that death and resurrection and the implications of this mystery in our lives.  The death of Christ, which at first seemed like a curse, has been conquered in the resurrection.

The curse has become the blessing.

Connections and Themes

A transformed life. Paul teaches us that united to Christ through faith and in baptism, we are united in his death and resurrection.  Without Christ we die to sin; with him, we rise to a new life.  Once again the ambiguities of human life may cloud our understanding of this mystery.  We may be inclined to live our lives as if nothing transformative has occurred; this would be tragic.  Our lives would be empty, our faith would be in vain, and we would be people to be pitied.

On the other hand, there is a way in which we can live ourselves into a new way of understanding.  This happens when actions performed in deep faith change the way we perceive the workings of God in our lives.  If we live our lives as if we have really died to sin and have been raised to a new and transformed life, we may not only begin to believe we actually have died and been raised, but our lives will manifest the fact of this mystery.  We cannot wait to see proof of our transformation before we change our actions.  The proof is in the lives we live in faith.  To deny that we have died and been raised is to deny the resurrection of Christ.  Paul insists that they cannot be separated.  The challenge is to live in and out of this faith.

Both Jeremiah and Jesus introduce us to such a way of living.  It is a way of paradox, a way that moves us beyond the self-centered standards of the world.  In the everyday give-and-take of living, the implications of faith work themselves out in blessing if we are faithful, in curse if we are not.  The Wisdom form, which both men use, suggests that their teaching springs from the way life itself has been fashioned.  In other words, the consequences of our behavior are not arbitrary; they flow directly from the behavior itself.  However, dying with Christ and rising with him transport us into a new mode of being with consequences that are paradoxical.  We are called to trust in God and the ways of God, which we cannot always see or understand, rather than in what is human, which we can grasp.  Dying and rising turns the standards of living upside down.

A paradoxical life. In today’s readings the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are persecuted are really the ones who are blessed.  The victims of our social and economic systems, those who have been ravaged by war or have been made vulnerable by life itself are the ones who, if they place their trust in God, will be blessed in the end.  They may appear to be the outcasts of this world, but if they are filled with faith, they will inherit heaven.  They are blessed because they trust not in themselves, but in the Lord, refusing to be discouraged by their own fragility, limitations, and needs.

The wealth of this world and its pleasures are not the blessings we might think they are: they can blind us to the real values of life and prevent us from dying to the world and living resurrected lives in Christ.  It is neither poverty nor wealth that promises blessing or curse, but commitment to Christ despite the poverty or wealth — and therein lies the paradox.  The life of the tree is subject to the water that nourishes it; the life of the Christian feeds on faith in the death and resurrection of Christ.

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