Woe to you when all speak well of you.
During the Great Depression, radicals popped up all across the United States spouting denunciations of the capitalist system, the government, and institutions in general. Religious organizations, among them the Catholic Church, did not escape their whiplashes.
Monsignor John Rogers had long been pastor of St. Patrick’s, a downtown church in San Francisco. One day he stopped on the fringe of a crowd that was listening to a soapbox demagogue. Much to Father Roger’s dismay, the speaker was accusing the Church of ignoring the needs of the poor. “What has the Catholic Church ever done for you?” he asked the audience bitterly, “except to say ‘Bring your brat and we’ll baptize it and you pay $10.00.’ ”
It was a brutal, unfair accusation. The priest wanted to shout out a denial, but he decided it would not help. As he walked back home, he tried to sort out his feelings. If he had opened his mouth in defense of the Church’s interest in the poor, he would have to point out some examples of Catholic charity there in San Francisco. But he couldn’t think of any!
So Msgr. Rogers created an example. He established at his parish St. Patrick’s Shelter – a temporary residence for homeless men. It grew into so large an enterprise that at peak it could take care of 200 guests. Even after the death of its founder in 1935, the Shelter continued, and gave good service throughout the lean years. During and after WWII it was less needed, so the parish transferred the operation to the local St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Praise can often talk us into thinking that we can rest on our oars. But “woe to you” said Christ, “when all speak well of you”. It is good for us to keep in the back of our minds the old German proverb: “My friend is dear to me. He shows me what I can do. But my enemy is also useful. He shows me what I should do.”
Never turn a deaf ear to a critic! God may be using him to tell us something.
-Father Robert F. McNamara
Q254: Jesus doesn’t seem to leave any “gray areas” today: either you are rich and cursed, or poor and blessed (Lk 6:17, 20-26). Is it that simple?
Did you ever wonder how much of the actual discourse was left unsaid in Luke’s final writing? Is the following scene the one that you picture? Everyone in the “great crowd” is seated. Jesus starts out by saying, “Will all of you who are rich and want to be cursed, please stand up… Okay, Woe to you guys…” Then he says, “Will all of you who are poor and want to be blessed, please stand up… Okay, Blessed are you guys…” No, I don’t think it was like that at all!
One of the keys to understanding is to find out what the gospel story tells us about God, and what that means for us now and in our future. There is no question that poverty and oppression – real, physical poverty, and real hatred and persecution of Christians – was a daily reality for Luke’s community. Since that is true, the only way they could be called “Blessed” is because their loving God is right there in their midst, sharing in their suffering, no matter what their ordeal! If they keep their trust and dependence on Him, then their future is assured: eternal life with God, as well as peace of mind and heart in this life flowing from that dependent relationship. This is what gave martyrs their inner strength, as part of the fledgling community of Christians.
On the other hand, those who trust only in their own wealth and power and social status are already engaged in self-condemnation. They have chosen to be dependent on “things”, the false idols upon which wayward individuals and entire cultures self-destruct. The “Woes” of which Jesus speaks are of their own making, because they have chosen to break the covenant of love with God and with His family.
KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! Everything in moderation; and love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use (CCC #2445). The Lord grieves over the rich who find their consolation in their “things” rather than in Him (CCC #2547). This trust in God is a preparation for the blessedness of the poor (ibid). It is our attachment to things that can cause our self-destruction, not the ownership of those things.
Q410: Jesus comes down hard on the rich in today’s gospel (Lk 6:17,20-26). Why is it so bad to be rich?
Jesus is not saying that it is “always bad” to be rich. He is simply observing what the acquisition of riches has done to the wealthy people of his own generation, and also to previous generations. Elsewhere he will talk about the difficulty of such people getting into the kingdom of heaven, like a camel trying to squeeze through a needle’s eye.
Our God has always been concerned about social justice – about seeing that everyone, especially the poor and marginalized, receives fair treatment, equal opportunities, and a reasonable share in the prosperity of a nation. Prophets sent by God have come down hard on those who had riches but neglected the needs of the poor. In the First Reading (Jer 17:5-8), God’s prophet reveals the hearts of the selfish-rich. They have planted their roots in a barren desert, unable to yield good fruit – another way of saying they are trusting in their riches, and not in their stewardship of the providence of God.
The poor and marginalized, on the other hand, plant their roots in a trusting relationship with God. They are the ones who are called “blessed,” because they have their priorities in order. A great reward is promised to them, because of their faithfulness to the Covenant, their faithfulness to Yahweh. Their hearts are open in love, not closed in selfish greed.
“Equality” does not mean that everyone has the “right” to be a president of a corporation, or a top executive somewhere in society. Rather, it means the “right” to receive equal treatment, and to receive the basic necessities of life. This is what social justice is all about.
KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! Are you willing to stand with those on the “bottom of the heap”? If not, which do you think pertains to you: the blessings or the woes? The Church’s (our) love for the poor extends not only to material poverty but also to the many forms of cultural and religious poverty (CCC #2444).
Q567: It is difficult to believe that being hated, poor, hungry, and crying can be good things, as the Gospel implies (Luke 6:17,20-26).
One of the things we need to keep in mind is the cultural attitude that was prevalent in Jesus’ time, all caused by an incomplete understanding of God’s will. It was for the purpose of correcting these misunderstandings that Jesus spent so much time educating his disciples, and anyone else in the crowds who would really listen and ponder his words..
For example, if a person was sick or poor in that culture, they were judged by everyone to be sinners who were being punished by God. After all, everything came from God—or so they believed (cf. the Book of Job). If you were healthy and filthy rich, then surely it must be a result of God’s favor and blessings to reward you for your good life. One exception to that train of thought seemed to be the greedy and brutal tyrant or foreign invader, who simply took what he wanted without any regard to God’s desires or God’s covenant people. But even those actions were usually construed to be a result of the nation’s sinfulness.
Jesus teaches us in today’s Gospel that things such as accidental death, illness, and poverty are not directly willed by God. Instead, those very folks who seem to be condemned by God are actually esteemed and held in favor by Him if they have faith. In fact, just the opposite applies to the self-serving rich: they are really the ones whose actions are not held in high esteem by God.
The message is simple, and both Jeremiah (First Reading: Jer 17:5-8) and Jesus are speaking prophetically. If your first preferential trust is in your wealth (possessions) or other humans, then you are really cursed (Jeremiah), not blessed. On the other hand, if you are a true disciple of Jesus and believe in the kingdom he came to proclaim, then your faith in the eternal future will transform your current hardships into a trusting anticipation of future joy.
KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! Love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use (CCC #2445).