This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 6:17, 20–26:

Jesus came down with the Twelve and stood on a stretch of level ground with a great crowd of his disciples and a large number of the people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon. And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said: “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. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way. But 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.”

Yesterday we went out to run some errands, one of which was supposed to be going to confession. Although I love the sacrament of reconciliation, I’d have to say I love it much more afterward rather than in its anticipation, so I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic in my approach to it. I tried to fill the day with other errands, to the point where my wise wife brought me up short and announced that we would be going to confession, period.

It’s not that the tasks were themselves unimportant. All of them, save one fun thing we’d planned all along, were important and will need to get accomplished soon. However, getting right with the Lord should have been at the top of that list rather than somewhere between pharmacy runs and a trip to the candy store. (For belated Valentine’s Day shopping for family, of course …)

The Bible is filled with the Lord’s people making bad value decisions about their priorities, candy stores or no. Today’s Gospel reading comes from Luke’s telling of the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the defining statement of Christian life, in which Jesus seems to set common human understanding on its ear. Not only does Jesus call poverty, sorrow, and persecution “blessed” or “happy,” He then goes on to call wealth, comfort, and joy misery.

How can this be? Everything in this world points us toward material comfort. Throughout biblical history and right up to the present, preachers tell us that material comfort is not just a blessing but a sign of the Lord’s approval. We hoard wealth as a wise bulwark against misfortune, we make sure we don’t go hungry, and we celebrate that good fortune in laughter and merriment. Is this not what God ordained? How can happiness be misery, and misery happiness?

The problem for us is how we define both states, and on whose values those definitions rest. Too often we look at only the present circumstance and our acute choices as our concerns, rather than the eternal and the character we wish to have for our lives as our top priorities. We put off God and proceed to do whatever works out best for us in the long run, trusting our own impulses over the teachings of Christ.

We certainly wouldn’t be the first to make that mistake, nor were the people of Jesus’ time when the Sermon on the Mount took place. Jeremiah makes the distinction in our first reading of the day, writing at a time when Jerusalem would soon be sacked by the Babylonians. “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD,” Jeremiah prophesies. Judea had long lost its priority of serving the Lord, preferring to act as a worldly power and put its trust in a long line of unworthy kings. It had fallen into idolatry and wickedness, seeing material gain as the highest priority rather than serving as a nation of priests to teach the Law to the world. In the end, the Judeans even treated the temple as an idol of sorts, believing that the Lord would never allow it to be sacked no matter how much His people abandoned Him.

They literally preferred to trust themselves more than the Lord. Eventually, the temple fell and those who had clung to material wealth rather than God were likely the most miserable of all those who were forced into exile. Jeremiah’s prophecies could not deflect the Judeans from their fate, but they laid out a critical path for their return and a renewed appreciation for putting the Lord as their top priority.

In Jesus’ central sermon, He is reminding us of the lesson of the very first psalm: Blessed are they who hope in the Lord. This is the dividing line between Jesus’ blesseds and woes in the sermon. The wealthy are not condemned merely because of their wealth, nor are the poor automatically saved because of their poverty. It is those who hope in the Lord and make Him their priority and guiding light who will come to salvation. Those who put their trust in material wealth and other fallen humans will be forced into as bitter an exile as those of Jeremiah’s time — a point which would not have been missed by those present at the sermon.

Jesus calls us to change our priorities and look beyond the present moment. We are here now, but we will shortly be in eternity and all of the concerns we have now will be pointless. When that time comes, we will long for an opportunity to go back and reset our priorities — so why not start now?

The front page image is “Sermon on the Mount” by Cosimo Roselli, 1481-2. Fresco in the Sistine Chapel.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.