“The Sermon on the Plain”

February 22, 2022 | By Most Reverend Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, February 13, 2022,
St. Teresa Parish, Belleville

His Excellency, The Most Reverend Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
Diocese of Belleville

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ:
What’s wrong with this morning’s gospel? The casual reader knows that Jesus gave this
famous sermon on a mount and that he proclaimed 9 beatitudes. So why is Jesus speaking on a plain and giving only 4 beatitudes and then adding 4 woes? The simple answer is: the most famous version of this story, which we all know, is in the gospel of Matthew. This morning’s less well-known version is in gospel of Luke. The two versions are similar and yet they are very different. Are the differences because Jesus, as an itinerant street preacher, gave two different versions of this sermon, one on a mount ant the other on a plain? That’s a possibility. But it may be more likely that each gospel writer changed the story to suit his audience.

Let me remind you that Matthew and Luke are the only gospel writers who tell the story
of the birth of Jesus. But their stories could not be more different. Matthew’s infancy narrative tells the story of the exotic Maji who come from the far away “east,” the non-Jewish world, following a mysterious star to the home where the child Jesus in living with Mary and Joseph.

They bring symbolic gifts of gold, frank-incense, and Myrrh, foreshadowing Jesus as the royal, divine, king who will suffer and die for the sins of the world.

Luke’s infancy narrative tells of Mary giving birth to Jesus in the poverty of an animal
barn. She has no choice but to wrap her new baby boy in swaddling clothes (prefiguring His burial shroud) and placing Him in the food basket from which the animals ate. No exotic Maji visit the Holy Family. Instead, shepherds tending their flocks by night experience a heavenly vision telling them: “Behold, I proclaim to you glad tidings of great joy. Today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” It is important for you to keep in mind that shepherds were considered almost social outcast. They were poor, undesirable, and dangerous. Their clothing was dirty and their bodies unclean. They lacked all social graces. They had NO gifts to bring to Jesus other that their wide eyed faith. They were what the Old Testament and St. Luke called God’s lowly ones, the rejected, the anawim. The entire thrust of Luke’s gospel is a unique concern for the poorest of the poor. This is why for Luke, the poor shepherds are the first to see Jesus. It should not be surprising that in Matthew’s beatitudes, Jesus says, blessed are the POOR
IN SPIRIT. But in today’s beatitudes from Luke, Jesus says simply “Blessed are the POOR!” There are no qualifiers, simply the poor.

In today’s proclamation from Luke, Jesus has come down from a mountain to deliver His
“sermon on a level plain.” For Luke the phrase “level plain” suggests the everyday world in which the Jewish people lived. The world of idolatry, suffering, misery, hunger, death, and mourning. Jesus teaches that the coming Kingdom of Heaven should be hoped for and anticipated in everyday life. Luke is asking us, “How are we living by the attitudes of God’s Kingdom in our ordinary lives on the level plain of life.” In contrast, the Gospel of Matthew places a very similar sermon on a mountain to emphasize that Jesus is the new Moses on Mount Sinai, receiving His teachings on the Jewish law from God.

Luke tells us Jesus has attracted a large crowd — people all the way from Judea and
Jerusalem in the south, as well as hearers from the Gentile lands along the coasts of Tyre and Sidon in the north, present-day Lebanon. Jesus heals many sick people with great power. Only after showing His power does Jesus begin to teach the Twelve, His disciples and the large crowd that has gathered. He teaches with great authority as if He is looking each person in the eye and saying: “Now listen to me! I have something important to say that you need to understand!”

He is saying, You need to know that there is a radical difference between the kind of life
you must live as My followers and the secular life most people around you are living. The two ways of living are almost polar opposites. If you want to be a part of My Father’s Kingdom you need to know and understand what God desires from each one of you. You must give up many of the worldly values around you and embrace God-centered values. As a member of a Godcentered family, you must trust Me and live differently from many people around you, including some of your relatives and friends. I am calling you to try to live from this day forward looking at the world as My Father and I do. This will not be easy. But I will help you by My word and My example. If you follow Me, you will realize that God has different priorities than the world does. It may take your entire lifetime to live as My Father wishes.

While St. Matthew begins the Sermon on the Mount with nine beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-
12), Luke 6:20-26 begins the Sermon on the Plain with four beatitudes and four woes. The word beatus — “blessed” — should never be translated as “happy” as it is in some contemporary versions of the gospel. Here beatus means to live in the present with the inner joy of knowing you are moving toward the Kingdom of God. “How fortunate is such a man, or such a woman as that.” To be “blessed” does not mean the absence of problems and struggles. Paradoxically to be blessed, to be living in anticipation of God’s Kingdom on earth, means we should expect hatred, exclusion, being reviled, and being lied about, especially by people who reject the moral teachings of God’s kingdom. To be blessed is to live through such opposition aware that the struggle is temporary and that “your reward is great in heaven,” that is, that God will ultimately gather the beatus, the blessed into the kingdom of His Father.

Jesus begins by proclaiming his radical view of the world saying people who are poor,
hungry, weeping, and hated are beatus, blessed. He is aware that most people would not consider these people blessed. They are cursed. By the world’s standard, the rich, the well fed, the happy and those who enjoy high social standing are the ones who are blessed.

To make sure we get the point, Jesus says the same thing in a negative way. He declares
woes, which are the opposite of blessed, on the ones who are rich, well fed, happy, and popular.

We know from other teachings of Jesus that he is not saying that simply by being poor,
hungry, sorrowful and disliked, we will be numbered among the blessed. He is not saying God only loves us when we are miserable. He knows well that poor people can be sinners, forfeiting God’s blessing. Still, Luke suggests God has a preferential option for those who are suffering. Nor is Jesus saying that people who are financially secure, with comfortable homes, plenty to eat, with an active social life will necessarily be banished — woe to them! He knows well that all such people are not sinners, that many are good people, faithfully living according to the Jewish Torah (law). They, too, can be among the blessed.

But in Luke’s gospel there is a warning in Jesus words to those who have abundance that
they have a responsibility to be generous to and deeply concerned about their neighbors and all who are poor and in need. After all it is in Luke’s gospel that Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan. Who is my neighbor? Go and do likewise. For every Christian, including each one of us, there is a call to prayerfully discern how to live by Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. This may be different for each of us. One Christian may be called to give a significant amount of his/her wealth to care for the poor. Another Christian may feel called to give less. However, Luke’s gospel confronts the true conscience of every Christian with Jesus’ message that we cannot live by selfish indifference to those in need, hoarding our resources exclusively for ourselves.

Therefore, the woes of Jesus must be taken seriously. They imply God’s condemnation
and judgment. The woeful may not experience discomfort or suffering during this life. But those who focus exclusively on excessive wealth, overflowing tables, and indulgent good times, while ignoring the desperately needy and God’s higher purposes, are, according to Jesus, not pleasing to God. Luke is warning all who claim to be disciples of Jesus to reject the path that leads to woes to choose the one that leads to blessings. Jesus clearly wants those who are prosperous to avoid God’s judgment by overcoming selfishness, by repenting and become a part of the community of those striving to live by the moral principles of God’s kingdom. Luke’s Jesus hopes to wake people up and move their hearts to putting their material resources at the service of those in need in the community.

Luke presents Jesus as the greatest of the prophet who announces the Kingdom of
Heaven is in our midst, and at the same time, it is in the distant future when Christ comes in glory. There is a tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” Luke implies that he is aware that Christ will not return in the lifetime of his listeners. He does not affirm with St. Paul and other early Christians that Jesus would return soon. Now that 2,000 years have passed, it would be interesting to know how many Christians today literally believe Christ will return one day to earth in glory.

Luke’s gospel teaches the followers of Jesus to live in the present by the high moral
principles of those expecting Christ’s eventual return relying on the power of the Holy Spirit. This morning’s reading is a great challenge to each of us. Are we living each day as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ so as to be numbered among the beatus, the blessed, the fortunate men and women of God?

After you receive the body and blood of Christ, spend some time today and throughout
this week reflecting on these words of Jesus:

“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.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who have plenty to eat, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who
laugh now, for on that day you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when you speak well of you, for your ancestors treated the false
prophets the same way.”

Praise be Jesus Christ! Both now and forever! AMEN!

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