The Gospel text is the Beatitudes ("Blessed are you who...") and the "Curses" ("But woe to you who...") in Luke.
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Text: Jeremiah 17:5-8; 1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-20; Luke 6:17, 20-26
Picture this with me for a moment. You’ve been invited to a high-society wedding reception. It came as rather as a surprise to you, as you barely know the families, but you would hardly pass up the opportunity to attend such a lavish occasion, and to celebrate their wedding. It’s now just after dinner, and fed on rich food, you and the other guests look forward to toasting the newlyweds’ happiness. But there’s a delay! There’s a lot of rushing about and whispering among the caterers and the wedding party, and things seem to be getting a bit bogged down. And, you’re thirsty. Maybe it was the veal osso bucco, which was excellent, but a tad salty, but you could really use something to drink, and the efficient staff has cleaned away your wineglass and coffee cup, leaving only a fingerbowl and a tall empty glass awaiting the champagne for the toast. The catering staff is still in a hushed frenzy, and your mouth is parched. Your tablemates have turned away from you for a moment, and so you quietly slip your fingerbowl and champagne flute under the tablecloth, pour the lemon-scented water into the glass, and smoothly return both to the table without any of them noticing a thing! You taste the water; it’s warm, of course, but not totally unpleasant, and your mouth is grateful for the liquid. Just then, the best man stands and addresses the assembly, obviously beginning the toast! The staff is sliding between the tables with champagne bottles, the good stuff, a prestige cuvée. You gulp at the lukewarm water, but can’t choke down more than a little at a time, and when the waiter with the bottle reaches you, he sees your glass still half-full of water, hesitates, and moves on. The toast comes, and all the guests raise their glasses, streams of bubbles gliding upwards in their golden liquid... but not in your glass.
God wants to give us something finer than any champagne. She gives it freely and willingly, wanting us to share in his immense, all-encompassing joy. We cannot receive God’s gift, however, when we stuff ourselves with other things.
When I’m content, when I’m satisfied, then I’m often complacent. If I’m not hungry, thirsty, or weeping, I can too easily deceive myself and think that I don’t need God. After all, I seem to be doing fine on my own, right? And if there’s anything that seems to be falling short, I can just add more of what I’ve already got, and that should silence that nagging little voice that says that it’s not enough! It’s even worse if everybody is pouring approbation out on me; if so many people look up to me, then I must be doing everything right! Jeremiah’s words make it clear that he knows that this will never be enough; that we are meant to receive something greater than what we can seize for ourselves from the world or from each other.
Woe to us who are filled indeed, for God, out of respect for our free will, will not fill what is already full. It’s not out of malice that Jesus says these words, which are often given the misleading heading “the curses.” Jesus is saying this in hope that we will see the approaching waiter, and toss out of our glass the stale water that we have so that he can give us “champagne”—what Christ calls “ ‘living water … that will turn into a spring inside [us], welling up to eternal life.’ ”1 Jesus is speaking in profound compassion, not unfeeling judgment. God does not want us to be hungry, or poor, or sad, or reviled; I don’t want it for those I love, and neither, I’m sure, do you, and God’s love is incomparably greater than mine, at least! God wants us to open ourselves to her gift, and to make as much room as we can so that he can fill us up with love!
So why, why is it so difficult? Why do I so often forget completely about God’s offer?
Maybe the biggest difference that we have to contend with between God’s gift and the bottle with the fancy label and astronomical price tag is that we can only see God’s gift through faith, and the waiter comes with a scythe. Paul certainly recognized the challenge of this, and did his best to reassure the people of the truth of God’s gift. In dying and coming back to life, Christ gives us the sign we need to trust in God. Paul doesn’t beat around the bush: if it’s not so, he readily admits, then we’re the biggest fools of all, for not abandoning ourselves to the world when it’s all there is. It’s his own profound faith which gives him the courage to confront this squarely, and in doing so, provide a model for us. His mindfulness and conscious adherence to belief is a beacon, as we ourselves can be when we express that faith with him.
The season of Lent is approaching, and with it comes an opportunity to focus ourselves anew on God. Prayer and fasting are the traditional duties during these forty days, but if we are mindful of this reading, the fasting is a natural outgrowth of faith nurtured in prayer. So also, the purification, the emptying-out, that fasting gives, deepens our prayer, and provides an occasion for God to fill us more completely than before, though we may not always be truly conscious of it.
Blessed are we: poor, hungry, weeping, reviled. Not because we should cling to our poverty, our hunger, our weeping, our defamation, for their own sake, but because they make it easier for us to turn towards God. They are reminders for us that the world is not enough. They are our sharing with Christ the temptations in the wilderness, the agony in the garden, the passion on the cross. They are the empty cup, the vessel yearning and available for God’s gift, not knowing, but trusting. And God will not disappoint us. We will inherit the kingdom of God, where we will be filled and we will laugh. Our reward will be great in heaven, if we only dare to receive it, because it is the gift beyond all gifts: it is the gift of God’s total, inexhaustible love.
1: John 4:10, 14