We are blessed to live in the United States. Even with all the dis-function of our political system and our inability to work together, it is still the greatest country to live in today. We sometimes forget that when we listen to the news. The freedoms and culture we enjoy also make it difficult for us to understand the background in today’s Gospel.
We are taught to get a good education, work hard, and enjoy the rewards of wealth that comes with the hard work. Those with wealth obtain power over others. Because of their wealth, they pretty much get what they want, even to the detriment of others, as evidenced in our society today. Our system is based on the economic principle that wealth will bring power.
In Jesus’ day it was the exact opposite. John Pilch explains that power came first in Jesus’ time. Wealth was obtained by those who had power. The powerful could take whatever they wanted. It was the reverse of now; it was a principle of social standing or power versus an economic accomplishment.
The cultural differences between Middle Eastern culture and our Western culture are significant. Middle Eastern culture has changed very little in the past two thousand years. Any means necessary to preserve honor or to retaliate when shamed were considered acceptable. This included lying, bribing someone to lie, cheating, destroying someone’s reputation and, if necessary, killing a person to save honor.
This is appalling for Catholics who respect the dignity of the human person from conception to natural death. But it is a reality in many parts of the world. Once we understand these differences in culture, we can better understand today’s readings.
Jeremiah, who lived six hundred years before Christ wrote “Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is the LORD.” While Jeremiah warned of a curse for those who turned from God and trusted in human strength to overcome obstacles, he gave hope for the person who trusts in the Lord to survive the hardships and difficulties of life. Even the Psalmist tells us “Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.”
Jesus gave that same hope of a blessing in heaven for those who suffer at the hands of others.
When Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.” we think of someone who is homeless and hungry. However, the poor in that culture consisted of those who were socially disadvantaged; the widow, the orphan and the immigrant.
When a woman lost her husband, it was custom for one of their sons to take her into his home to care and provide for her as part of his family. Jesus followed this custom when he was dying on the cross. He asked John to take, Mary, his mother into his home to care for her as his own mother. A widow could have several million dollars but is still considered “a poor widow” even today without a son to look out for her, to protect her.
The orphan had no one to look out for them so the powerful took advantage of them. The orphan would work for a powerful person for little if any wages. The immigrant had the same disadvantage; they didn’t speak the language nor understand the laws and customs.
Jesus said Blessed are those who are hungry for you will be satisfied and Blessed are those who weep for you will laugh. Then Jesus gave warnings to the rich who seemed to have everything, especially in the eyes of the poor that Jesus was talking with that day. These blessings for the poor and warnings to the rich provided hope to a downtrodden and discouraged people. It gave them hope in a world of oppression and suffering. Though it seemed hopeless now, they would receive their reward in heaven.
Jesus was providing hope to the socially disadvantaged of his time. The good news is that he provides us with that same hope today. When we are discouraged and see no end to the misery in our life, it is easy for us to revert to the principles of Middle Eastern culture of saving face, preserving honor. Many of our public figures are a prime example. They criticize and belittle anyone who disagrees with them. It’s so easy for us to criticize the public figures for their actions and demeaning behavior, but how often do those same attitudes and acts infiltrate into our lives?
We belittle and lash out at someone, a family member or friend, who has hurt us, disagreed with us or failed to support our view in a critical matter. There are family members who don’t speak to each other because they are on different sides of the political issues or because of hurt feelings from an event that happened decades ago.
When we try to save face, to preserve honor; we always end up hurting someone when we lash out at or ignore the person we think caused us the pain we feel right now.
We too can find the hope that Jesus gave the multitude that day. Will we trust in ourselves to make others feel the pain that we feel? Or will we be satisfied knowing that one day we will laugh?
Will we trust in our ability to make it happen on our own? Or will we trust in God to sustain us when our life is coming apart at the seams? Will we blame others for the disasters in our life or will we pray that God will sustain us; will feed us, will give us his peace with the hope of our reward in heaven?