Present and Future Blessings
6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C) | Fr Oliver Keenan ponders the blessedness of the poor and the blessings still to come.
Imagine that we lived in a time of great anarchic turmoil, a time when revolutionary fervour had just overthrown an immoral tyrant but a new order of law and justice had not yet been established. In trying to bring about change for the better, we might have no choice but to act as if the longed for era of justice and peace were already here. We might find ourselves living lives that were already voluntarily patterned by the laws and ideals of an era of history that was just being born, and which might never materialise.
We Christians find ourselves in a similar set of circumstances, but for opposite reasons. To become a Christian is to be inserted into a new history; to be a Christian is to live that history out in the midst of a history that we are leaving behind. In the midst of competing values and tyrannies, the Christian life is a life lived in accordance with the values of the coming Kingdom of Heaven. That is why a Christian life is always already a life of witness: we stand out because our way of life is from the future, and is therefore both timely and timeless at the same time. Yet this is no gamble on our part. We do not have to negotiate the absence of leadership, nor are we wagering our lives on a future that is uncertain. Christ is already sovereign, he presides over our lives and has definitively inaugurated the future Kingdom that we are living from. But we are still not quite in full possession of ourselves, we continually have to receive our present identities afresh from our future, who is Christ. We are, here and now, already living a life that is not yet fully manifested, and our lives are spent constantly catching up with our futures.
As he preaches the crowds on the plain in today’s gospel, Jesus captures this dynamic by a subtle selection of verb tenses. The beatitudes directed at those who are hungry and those who weep are future-tensed: their fortunes will be reversed and their suffering will pass. These are promises, albeit utterly reliable ones on account of their divine origin. But the beatitude directed at the poor is present-tensed: theirs is the Kingdom of God. This is something that is the case here-and-now. So this beatitude, as the basis for those that follow, is one that is definitively accomplished and is announced in the mode of declaration, not of prophecy.
Actually, this present-tensed beatitude is more than just a declaration. In using the present tense, Jesus is not just revealing a doctrine or making a sociological observation. The voice we hear is the Word of God, the divine Word which always achieves that which it proclaims, unfailingly calling into being the reality that God announces. In other words, this beatitude is performative, the enactment of a new reality that is accomplished by the power of the one who announces it. Jesus doesn’t just observe, he makes it so.
This might leave us with a problem. If the beatitude to the poor is performative, then does it follow that in saying ‘woe to those who are rich’, Jesus is enacting a curse? In fact, the present tensed element is in the second-half of the beatitude, the ‘you are receiving your consolation’ here-and-now. Perhaps here Jesus is just describing what he sees, but the divine Word is nonetheless the one through whom all things are made, and thus the cause of all that is received. The divine Word cuts in both directions—in saying ‘yes’ there is a correlate ‘no’—but the full force of the ‘but’ that links the beatitudes to the curses should be sustained not only in grammatical terms but in theological logic. The curses follow the blessings, and are parasitic upon the divine ‘yes’: it is the blessings which have precedence, and the curses that follow only for those who negate the divine blessing by insisting on receiving their reward here-and-now.
The Sermon on the Plain is reminiscent, of course, of the Sermon on the Mount in St Matthew’s gospel, where the first beatitude is directed at those who are ‘poor in spirit’. St Luke does not allow the poor to be spiritualised: the Kingdom belongs to those who are materially poor and destitute. In a certain sense, then, Jesus’s words make the cry of the poor especially authoritative for the church. For the poor are not only to be the objects of our charity (though, of course, we can and must do more to alleviate poverty), but are the first citizens of the Kingdom, and their active voice in its affairs should be heard.
Last year I was on a train back from speaking at an event, feeling a little self-piteous that things had not gone as well as I had hoped. A woman asked me if I was a priest, and began to tell me a story of the most unimaginable suffering. Hers was a life of real poverty and hardship, and she was travelling to face circumstances of almost unimaginable horror. She told me of her faith, of how the sacraments supported her, of her absolute trust in the Lord. Before she got off the train she asked me for a blessing. I’m still not sure who was blessing who.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a window in the Stanford Memorial Church in California.