How many of you have, as a goal, to be poor? Don’t raise your hands; just think about how absurd of a question that is. How about a little starvation? How many of you want to weep, not just cry but that uncontrollable mournful, dead-pet type of weeping? And should it be the goal of Christianity to be hated? I mean, if that is the pinnacle of expression of Christianity, isn’t Kansas’ minister Fred Phelps the model each of us should follow? Shouldn’t we all be willing to do something like protesting the funerals of soldiers because this country is becoming too accepting of homosexuality?
I think it’s clear to all of us that this just can’t be what Jesus was intending in his sermon on the plain, as scripture scholars call this passage. They point out that there is a connection between each of these statements in the classical notion of evil, or privation. In other words, each of the four statements and antitheses that Jesus posits today deal with a metaphorical hole that must be filled. Someone who is poor needs money. Someone who is starving needs to be fed. Someone who is mourning needs to be comforted. And someone who is being persecuted needs to have rights. So how do we understand that these are the ones that are really blessed? Is Jesus just off his rocker? Or is this a kind of exaggeration in order to highlight the plight of individuals in those states of life like some scripture scholars suggest, as though Jesus were, by calling them blessed, calling his believers to reach out to them.
I think in order to understand this passage, once again, we have to know what precedes it. Immediately prior to sitting down to teach, Jesus calls the 12 apostles around him to a particular kind of servant-leadership. He looked out at his growing number of followers from all over the Middle East, “Judea and Jerusalem and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon,” and chose 12 men to be leaders in this new community. They couldn’t have known at the time that Jesus was really beginning the first church, the first diocese, with himself as bishop, the apostles as priests, and a growing group of laity. What they did know, however, was that there was danger in following Jesus. Not only did you have to neglect you family in your commitment to follow, but you, in effect, became an enemy of the state and synagogue. The Romans would view you as being an insurrectionist and the Jewish leadership would see you as following a rogue rabbi, just as they had viewed John the Baptist and his followers. So, these men, now rightly filled with fear and trepidation, as well as the congregation surrounding them, are hearing their bishop warn them about what to expect if they believe in him. Don’t expect to be rich, well fed, happy, or admired. In fact, if you do expect that treatment, you aren’t following Christ. Instead, expect to be poor, hungry, mournful, and hated because of the fidelity you feel to Christ, If you do, you are probably following in the ways of the prophets and following in the way of Christ.
Jesus ultimate message, then, is not that there is innate value in these characteristics, as though we were saved by being poor, hungry, or hated. Instead, he is saying that those who are satisfied with what they have and where they are already have what they need. There’s no hole inside them that needs to be filled, or at least not one that they are willing to acknowledge. But, we who do feel the hole inside of us have, basically two choices. We can fill it with the stuff of this world, which our world loves to try and offer. It offers things like television, consequence free intercourse, guilt free excesses, hedonism, and other things intent on filling the hole in our lives. Unfortunately, the majority of what our culture offers is very temporary and leaves us desiring an even greater high. The alcoholic is constantly searching for an even more potent source of alcohol in order to get drunk, the sex addict an even more explicit web page, and so on.
We who are Christians recognize the arid nature of these responses, to use the imagery of the first reading and responsorial psalm. Those answers only leave us feeling even more empty. We need to recognize that the holes we feel are opportunities to connect up with the biggest hole in history, the cross. This evil torture device on which hung the savior of the world, is the ultimate hole that was filled by the God-Man who alone satisfies our hungers, makes us rich, and shows us a way out of morning to the comfort of eternal life. The only thing, the only person that can fill the holes in our hearts is Christ.