We are blessed to have in today’s gospel Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. They are a more succinct version of the elaborate set of beatitudes that we find in Matthew, but the message is the same: blessed are you who have suffered want or sadness or pain, in any way, shape or form in this life. In the life to come, you shall be filled, you shall be satisfied. It is a wonderful promise of redemption, deliverance, salvation, call it as you will, for every manner of suffering and deprivation. It is one of the finest treasures of our Christian gospels.
In contrast with Matthew’s beatitudes, Luke’s are followed by a series of maledictions. “Woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full now, woe to you who are laughing now, woe to you when all speak well of you.” These maledictions require commentary, because they can easily be misunderstood. They seem to be saying simply that to the extent that you have known happiness and well-being in this life, you are in big trouble in the next. This is not what they are saying. They are actually a God-given “heads-up”. Wealth, abundance of food, good cheer, and the esteem of others are in and of themselves, good things. These maledictions are simply pointing to a danger that lurks for all of us: the danger that we become satisfied with the blessings we receive in this life. To the extent that we are satisfied with the happiness that this life provides, the promised consolation of Heaven loses much of its appeal for us. Indeed, our Christian gospel is essentially a gospel of salvation. A gospel for people who are in trouble, who know it, and who cannot save themselves. If you are blessed with consistent health, intelligence, education, a job which you love and which is well-remunerated, a happy conjugal relationship, a few healthy adult children as blessed as yourself, then almost inevitably, the Christian gospel loses much of its appeal. Remember Jesus’ question elsewhere in the gospel of Luke: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Lk 18,8 St. Augustine wrote: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are without rest, until they rest in you.” Perhaps this is true, but if the heart of humankind is without rest until it rests in God, there are a whole lot of people out there who don’t know that their heart is without rest. And because they ignore what they lack, they are not searching. All things being equal, those who are not searching are far less likely to find than those who are – not necessarily because they long for God, but because they lack one or more of the most basic components of happiness in this life.
Luke’s maledictions then, are not a promise of eternal misery. They are a providential warning. That we are human, and that as such, to the extent that we are blessed in this life, we tend to be satisfied with these blessings. By way of consequence, we tend to become disinterested in God, and in the things of God. In the end, we all will get the Heaven we longed for, we hoped for, we prayed for. God’s offer of deliverance, redemption, salvation are on the table, till the end of time, for everyone. All we have to do is say “yes” to the offer, a “yes” which we express in the manner in which we live our lives, in longing, in prayer. The maledictions tell us that given God’s respect for human freedom, if the offer is met with silence, with indifference, what redemption can he give?
Since this is indeed, the natural inclination of the human heart, seldom spoken, we must acknowledge the soundness of the maledictions, and give thanks to God for giving us a heads-up. And since everything is grace, we must pray, it seems to me, that the blessings that we enjoy in this life will never result in indifference to the blessings, infinitely greater, that await us in the life to come.