The powerful and wealthy media mogul Ted Turner, speaking before the American Humanist Society, made this memorable pronouncement: “Christians are bozos and Christianity is a religion for losers.”
Maybe that’s why we sometimes feel like Ziggy, the bald, roly-poly comic strip character who prayed to God: “I just want you to know that the meek are still getting clobbered down here!”
Judging by the values of our culture, Ted Turner may not be far off the mark. Wealth, success, power and prestige are obvious signs of God’s blessings. In biblical times the same held true, as did the signs of God’s curses like poverty, disease and weakness.
But in today’s gospel, Jesus shocks us. He turns our values upside down. His words fall like bombshells exploding around the crowd, us included. What we call blessings are in fact curses. And what we call curses, Jesus calls blessings! Blessed are the poor and hungry and woe to the rich.
Luke’s beatitudes differ somewhat from Matthew’s. In Matthew, Jesus delivers his Sermon on the Mount. He uses the third person “Blessed are they…” And the beatitudes speak to the spiritual: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Not so with Luke. His sermon is on the plain. Jesus speaks to us at level ground, face-to-face, eyeball to eyeball. He speaks bluntly about material and economic conditions: “Blessed are the poor…”
As for the rich, Jesus says: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” The word “have” in the Greek is “apechete,” meaning “to have in full.” It was commonly used on business receipts to mean “paid in full.” No payment or service was expected to follow the close of the transaction. In other words, what the rich wanted and received on earth is all they will ever get. This indeed is a chilling curse.
So what are we to do with this unsettling Good News? Megan McKenna, in her book, “Blessings and Woes,” says it challenges us to conversion. It’s “about seeing as God sees, not through rose-colored glasses but in the light of God’s kingdom that emerges in the world as a vibrant force to be reckoned with in the person of Jesus…”
These are kingdom values designed to shatter earthly values. They call us, as Paul does in his letter to the Colossians, to “think of what is above, not of what is on earth.”
This may not feel like Good News. The world will ridicule us as bozos and losers. Nevertheless, Jesus is looking at you and me eyeball to eyeball and challenging us with his words: I’m about to bless you. Get ready for one of my bombshells.
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.