Gospel: Luke 6:17, 20-26

O Brother (or Sister), Who Art Thou?

When was your last act of charity? When was the last time you did some good for someone else?

In 2000, Hollywood's Coen brothers produced another of their handcrafted movies. "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is a hilarious story of three prisoners who escape the chain gang to seek a fortune. Based upon Homer's "Odyssey," the movie lightly touches upon the more serious themes of divine providence and personal moral change. The story turns on the sought goal: personal gain or the good of others. Personal gain enchains the spirit, while the good of others washes one clean of the past. (A hint for those who wish to see the movie: watch for the many baptismal references.)

In Luke's four beatitudes and woes, Jesus spoke to the same goals with a simple, but implied question. O Brother (or Sister), who art thou: poor or rich?

Popular Translation

After Jesus went up to the mountains to pray and choose his apostles,

17 he came back down with them to the level plain. He stood among many followers. A large crowd of people from Jerusalem and all over Judea gathered around him. And there were many from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, too.

20 Jesus looked directly at his followers. Then he taught them:

"The poor are blessed. God's Kingdom is yours.
21 The hungry are blessed. You will soon eat your fill.
Those crying now are blessed. You will soon laugh.

22 You are blessed whenever people hate you. They will ignore you, insult you, and treat your name as evil. They do this all because you follow the Son of Man. 23 When that happens, jump for joy! Look! You have a huge reward in heaven! For, their ancestors treated the God's true prophets the same way they treat you.

24 But, watch out, you rich people! You've already lived a comfortable life.
Watch out, you over-eaters! You will soon go hungry.
Watch out, you jokers! You will soon cry and feel miserable.

Watch out when everyone likes you! Their ancestors also liked those who claimed to be prophets."

In Luke, Jesus compared the rich and the poor in four parallels: status, possessions, entertainment, and Christian witness. The poor were blessed by God. The rich were blessed by self. Which blessing would last?

Literal Translation

Jesus went up to the hills to pray and chose his apostles.

17 Having come down with them, HE stood on level ground. And (there was) a large crowd of his followers and a great number of people from all (over) Judea, and Jerusalem and along the coast of Tyre and Sidon.

20 HE, having lifted his eyes upon his disciples, said:

"Blessed are the poor, because yours is the Kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are (those) hungering now, because you will be satisfied.
Blessed are (those) crying now, because you will laugh.

22 Blessed are you when men might hate you, when they might exclude you, when they might insult you, and when they might eject your name as evil on account of (your allegiance to) the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice on that day and jump (for joy). For, look, your reward is great in heaven. For, in the same way, their fathers did to the prophets.

24 But, woe to you rich, because you have your comfort in full.
Woe to you having (your) fill now, because you will hunger.
Woe to (those) laughing now, because you will mourn and cry.

Woe to you when all men speak well of you. For their fathers did the same for the false prophets."

6:17 "HE stood on level ground" Unlike the rocky peaks of the hills, this phrase seemed to refer to the slope of the hills or mountains where a large following could gather.

"a great number of people from all (over) Judea, and Jerusalem and along the coast of Tyre and Sidon." Luke indicated people came from the populated areas northwest and south of Galilee to hear Jesus. The reputation was more than local or regional. It reached the Gentile areas of modern-day south Lebanon and the orthodox City of David. In other words, Jesus' audience was Jew and Gentile alike.

6:22 Exclusion, public insult, and denial form the process of excommunication from the synagogue. Exclusion was physical; the person is no longer welcome to the synagogue or association with the Jewish community. Insult was public and social; there was a concerted effort to destroy the reputation of the excommunicated. The final step was denial; one's name was cast out from the rolls of the community. No one used the name of the excommunicated. At this point, the community did not even recognize the existence of person thrown out.

Luke liked to turn conventional wisdom upside down. Looking through God's eyes, he contrasted the blessed with the cursed. Before we compare these two groups, we must remember that Jesus' audience was poor; they believed that wealth was acquired at their expense through dishonest and oppressive means. We must also remember that Jesus was addressing his disciples, those who have given up the quest for riches in order to achieve something greater.

Luke differentiated the "poor" from the "rich" by the focus of their attention. The poor would inherit God's kingdom because that was where they set their sights; their hope was in the future. [20] The rich, on the other hand, were concerned with maintaining and enjoying what they already had; their focus was upon the present gratification. [24] For Luke, the "rich" were marked by their concern for money and what it could buy. Freed from the temptation of money, the "poor" were marked by their spiritual concern.

To make his point, Luke paralleled three activities: material needs ("food"), entertainment ("laughter"), and reputation. Even through the poor did not have possessions, they would be satisfied [21]; the rich had their needs fulfilled, but they would not ultimately be satisfied [25]. Even though the poor cried out for the opportunities that bring entertainment, they would be filled with contentment [21]; the rich, on the other hand, would simply crave more entertainment [25]. In the name of the kingdom, the poor would be persecuted but will be honored like the prophets of old [22-23]; concerned with present reputation, the rich would be quickly forgotten [26].

For Luke, then, the difference between rich and poor was more than money. The truly poor were those who were willing to sacrifice material need, daily entertainment, and reputation for God's kingdom. They were poor by choice, not by circumstance. The truly rich were those who craved wealth and the comforts that it could buy, even to the determent of others.

Catechism Theme: Social Justice and Solidarity (CCC 1943-1948)

One of the hallmarks of modern morality is the emphasis on the personal freedom and responsibility. The measuring stick of morality seems to be: "If my actions as an individual do not injure others, then, the actions are permissible." Of course, this ignores the broader picture. We, as individuals, form a society. We contribute to that society in one form or another. Hence, we need to take a certain responsibility for our society. Personal freedom and responsibility do not preclude a sense of social justice.

"Social justice" is the obligation of a society to create conditions that allow individuals and groups to receive what is owed them. (1943) The fundamental rights of the individual and social equality flow from the dignity of the person. Since all people have equal dignity, society should make an effort to lessen social and economic inequality. (1944, 1947)

The Christian virtue of "solidarity" is "social charity"; it is a respect and love for others based upon their dignity as people. Solidarity means a sharing of material goods, and, more important, a sharing of faith and other spiritual values. (1948)

In Luke's sense, the "poor" have a sense of solidarity, for they focus on the good of others. The "rich" in Luke's eyes, focus only on the self and the consequences of actions on the self (while ignoring others).

How have you been involved in "social justice" activities? How have they blessed you?

Who art thou: poor or rich? We can look at the difference another way. Love makes us economically poor but enriches our lives; ambition makes us economically secure but leaves us selfish and shallow. Our lives reveal our priorities. May God give us the power to choose love over ambition, his Kingdom over present riches.

Obviously, we Christians have different priorities in different at areas of life at different times. So the question of selfless (poor) vs. selfish (rich) is not so clear cut. However, a simple reflection over the past week can help you make changes for the next week. What can you do to become a little "poorer" and a little more "blessed," this coming week?