The Gospel passages chosen for these last couple of Sundays before Lent comprise the substance of what we traditionally know as Luke's "Sermon on the Plain" - the counterpart to the "Sermon on the Mount" found in the Gospel of Matthew. These words of Jesus as recounted by Luke make up the heart of the Gospel message, the substance of the "Good News." At the core of the sermon is Jesus' teaching on the love of one's enemies, that has as its core God's graciousness and compassion for all humanity and Jesus' teaching on the love of one's neighbor that is characterized by forgiveness and generosity.
Today, we listen to the beginning of the sermon consisting of blessings and woes that address the real economic and social conditions of humanity (the poor - the rich; the hungry - the satisfied; those grieving - those laughing; the outcast - the socially acceptable). By contrast, the Sermon found in Matthew emphasizes the religious and spiritual values of disciples called to the kingdom by Jesus ("poor in spirit,"; "hunger and thirst for righteousness,"). Luke deals with real people in their real-life, day-to-day experiences.
The quality or value of any sermon is only measured by the effect it has on the lives of those who hear it, and on the community of the human family. Keeping the commandments of God, and living according to the Gospel of Jesus is not just a matter of personal holiness or of intellectual or spiritual values. If the gift of faith enables us to hear the Word of God and live by it, then we are expected to share that gift with real people - every day and in every circumstance. If we are redeemed and sanctified by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, then we, too, are sent by Him to redeem and sanctify our world in His name.
Immediately after listing the "beatitudes" - characteristics that identify His followers - Jesus spells out their mission in the world. Continuing the sermon in next week's Gospel, Jesus says: "To you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." Once again, we are reminded of our baptismal challenge - not only to follow the Gospel in our own lives, but also to be living witnesses of the Good News for all we encounter on life's journey.
Jesus shows us - by word and deed - just exactly how we are to live the "good news:" share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked... stop condemning and you will not be condemned... forgive and you will be forgiven... give, and gifts will be given to you."
The Christian Gospel, the beatitudes, the example of Jesus - all of these are for living not just listening. We don't just memorize these words; we don't just keep them handy in a notebook that we can occasionally refer to; we don't just give them lip-service; we don't just preach them to our children and to our neighbors.
Christian living requires work, lots of sacrifice, discipline and love. It takes heroic love to make the Beatitudes real. It's not easy to be poor, to be merciful, to be meek, to be peacemakers, to hunger and thirst for justice. It takes a lot of courage to be persecuted and ridiculed and mocked for being authentic Christians, for being Christ-like. It takes faith and trust in God to admit our own weaknesses and dependence upon one another - rather than looking at each other's faults.
At the heart of the Gospel is the insistence of Jesus that our love be "inclusive" - all-inclusive, with no exception. And that is probably the most difficult thing about being an authentic Christian. Almost naturally, instinctively, our love and our concern tend to be exclusive. We are comfortable with people who are like us, in color, ethnicity, religion, and economic status. We find it easy to be good to those who like us, those who are attentive to us, those who understand us.
If we listen carefully to the words of Jesus, it is very clear that he wants us to exclude no one from our love - not the beggar, the borrower, the adulteress, the leper, the widow, the poor, the orphan, the enemy. Each of us can make our own list of the "most unwanted", those whom we find most difficult to forgive, to feel sympathy for, to offer compassion to.
Jesus tells us it makes no difference. Every single person is entitled to a fundamental respect and concern. Everyone is called to salvation and holiness. Everyone should find in us the same compassionate, all-inclusive love that they would find in Jesus.
Living the Gospel is a constant challenge. It makes us reexamine our mental attitudes, our actions, our speech, and many of the prejudices we grow up with. Hopefully, as we prepare for the Season of Lent, we will continue to be more sensitive to the ways that we exclude certain people from the embrace of our affection. We will constantly try to resist deep-rooted suspicions we nurture against persons who, in some way, are "different" from us. Hopefully, we can grow into becoming more fully authentic disciples.
The gentle voice of Jesus proclaiming peace, forgiveness and love cannot and will not be silenced. His simple outline for holiness - the Eight Beatitudes - speaks just as loudly and as clearly now as it did when He first preached it. Being an authentic Christian is not easy. The good news is that He not only shows us how to do it, but offers each one of us the grace and the power to do it.