Woe to you who evade suffering and the works of charity
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

These are very interesting readings today, and they are all about hope in the true and biblical sense of the word. In the first reading, the Lord says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh... But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is in the Lord.”

If we live by the theological virtue of hope, we place our hope in the Lord. But if we do not have the theological virtue of hope—and since hope is a basic need that provides life with meaning and direction—, we end up placing our hope in certain people, we seek our strength in the power of this world’s institutions, perhaps the corporation that employs us, or the people with whom we work, or our friends, or the institutions that hold our money. If our hope is not rooted in God’s promises, we inevitably live our life for this world. Everything we do is ultimately ordered towards making our existence in this world secure. And then our greatest fear is not the loss of eternal life, not the loss of our soul or the souls of others. Rather, our greatest fear will be suffering in this life, and our life will be driven by the desire to escape suffering, which will include Christ and his cross. We will set our hearts on the peace, promises, and goods of this world.

The choice of the gospel reading is a very interesting one. We can always get insight into the mind of the Church through her liturgy and the choice of readings. All together the readings proclaim one point, one message that is often difficult to unpack in 10 minutes. It’s the same for these readings. Notice that instead of the Beatitudes in the gospel of Matthew, today we have the Beatitudes from the gospel of Luke, and they read very differently. They are much simpler, and more literal. In Matthew the first Beatitude is “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, yours is the kingdom of heaven.” Here, in Luke, we have: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.” In Matthew, we read “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for what is right, …” but in this gospel we simply have: “Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. And Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh.”

And then our Lord turns to those who are not weeping, who are not hungry, who are not poor, and he says: “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.”

A false prophet is one who speaks not what God wants him to say, but what others want to hear. The false prophet often speaks consoling words, very positive words, making others feel good about themselves, at least for a time. But they sow the seeds of a false hope.

Now Luke was fully aware of the gospel of Matthew. Why does he simplify the Beatitudes in Matthew, giving them a more literal meaning? The reason is that Matthew and Luke were writing for two different communities. Matthew was writing for Jews, but Luke was writing for Gentiles. To fully appreciate Matthew, we need to know something about Judaism. The gospel of Luke is less Jewish, if you will, and it carries a tone that is antithetical towards the wealthy. Luke was writing for a community of people who were neglecting their obligation to the poor and the suffering, a community of people who, although they were believers, were living for this world. Their hope was not in the kingdom of heaven, but in the kingdom of this world.

That is why there are a number of parables that we find in Luke, but are not found in Matthew, such as the parable of the rich fool. In that parable, Christ says: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Then he told them a parable. “There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build bigger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!” But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your soul will be demanded of you; and the things you have stored, to whom will they belong?’ Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.”

His mind was all focused on this world. He counselled himself to rest, to eat, drink, be merry. And God called him a fool. He lost sight of the shortness of his life, and the purpose of his life. He forgot that we’re only passing through this world. He failed to realize that ultimately we are born for one moment, and that moment is the moment of death. We are born to die. Our life here is a preparation for that moment, it is about learning to die well, and it takes a lifetime to learn how to die well, to die in the Lord.

But there is a basic magnetism at the heart of our nature that pulls us to think of ourselves first: it is one of the wounds of original sin, traditionally called concupiscence. It is an inclination to sin and self-seeking. It constantly tugs at us to make this life our kingdom of heaven, as if we are going to live forever, as if we are not going to die and stand in judgment before God. It is that magnetic pull towards the self that we have to be very aware of in ourselves and we have to declare war on it. For the rest of our lives, our battle must be fought on that ground. It draws us on very subtly, inclining us to seek our rest here, in this world.

I’ve heard so many stories over the years of people who have worked all their lives all for the sake of their retirement years, they saved and slaved, all their efforts directed towards making a comfortable life for themselves after retirement, and then they die within a week after retiring.

I remember years ago visiting the Salesian Sisters in downtown Toronto, and these nuns are devoted to working with the young. They were living in this rather nice house not far from where I lived, all renovated on the inside. I asked one of them whether they did all this beautiful work. They said no, what happened was that the owner renovated it for himself, and when he finally finished his labour, he died, and the house had to be sold quickly, and the sisters got it for a good price.

The Sisters took Christ seriously when he said “Do not worry about what you are to eat, or drink, or where you are going to live, etc., seek the kingdom of God first and all else will be provided”.

Our life is not for this world, anymore than the life of a fetus is ultimately for the womb. The womb is temporary, it is a preparation for another world. What Christ is saying today is woe to you who spend your life evading suffering and the works of charity, evading the long and difficult work of preparing your soul for the moment of death, woe to you who sell your soul for the sake of pleasing your employer or your peers, so that they speak well of you, so that they like you and laugh with you, eat and drink with you. There will come a time when you will hunger, when you will weep and will grieve, because you will see that you have wasted your life on what is vain and fleeting.

The blessing that is upon the poor, many of whom do not realize it, is that they are not able to relax, eat, drink, and be merry. They can’t focus their minds and hearts on building their kingdom of heaven on earth, they don’t have the means to do that. That is why there tends to be greater religious devotion among those who are poor.

One of the saddest things I’ve come to witness as a deacon is people who are at the end of their lives and who cannot pray, because they’ve never prayed in their lives, they believe they never needed to, and they can’t seem to start, because they can’t remember to pray. It is not a habit for them. This is especially sad for those who suffer from dementia at the end of their lives. Generally speaking, people die as they live. If they live their entire lives without having developed the habit of prayer, lives not centered around Christ in the Eucharist, if they never developed a hunger for the Eucharist, never tasted the joy that comes from spending hours in the presence of God praying for others and growing in charity and the love of others, but instead have filled their lives with passing amusements, entertainment, good food and wine, travel, etc., they will die in real emptiness—if that’s all they lived for, as so many do. Habits take years to develop, and faith, hope, and charity, are habits, for they are virtues. We die as we live.

But if we have habitually lived in the joy of the Lord and lived for him, and if everything we did was done ultimately for the love of the Lord, we will die in the Lord, and that is the one moment that matters, because it is that moment that determines our eternal destiny, whether we have achieved it, or missed it. And what a horrible thought to consider what it means to have missed that destiny for all eternity. But what joy will be in store for those whose death has become a fragrant offering to God, one that praises him and glorifies him. That alone is a successful life.