We tend to view the world as a collection of opposites: fear and courage, love and hate, light and dark, good and evil. Many things function in opposition and can be instructive to guide us to choose a clear path. More often than not, however, what appears only as opposites work in tandem with each other. Consider the blessings and woes found in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:20-26.
Jesus teaches his followers that the poor, the hungry, the weeping and the persecuted are blessed, while woe is pronounced on those who are rich, fatted, laughing and publicly esteemed. Just reading this quick summary might cause most of us to wince. We want to be among the blessed and not among those on whom woe is pronounced. But what if being blessed is more than simply enjoying a good life, and being the object of woe is more than being condemned?
The beatitudes are rooted in the Jewish experience of God’s blessings throughout salvation history. These blessings are connected to the experience of being liberated from slavery in Egypt (the story of Exodus), being obedient and trusting in God (Psalms 1:1-2; Jeremiah 17:7), standing in awe of God (Psalm 128:6), and listening to God’s instructions (Proverbs 8:32-34; 22:9).
Being blessed, then, is not a reward related to personal character. Being blessed is, rather, a reflection of God’s character in how we live, relying on God and being obedient to God’s desires. If the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted are blessed, perhaps it is because they are open to surrendering to God in a way that many are not.
In Luke’s account, four beatitudes or blessings are accompanied by four “woes,” a word that is an expression of denunciation or judgment but also of grief and lament. When Jesus denounces those at the top of the social ladder, perhaps it is not because their wealth or status are in themselves evil, but because Jesus laments what their social status may prevent them from seeing and experiencing.
Again, a dip into the Old Testament is helpful. For example, the prophets pronounce “woe” to those who discard justice and righteousness by oppressing the poor and turning away the needy (Isiah 10:1-3; Amos 5:7). Part of living in the right relationship with God is living in the right relationship with others. And so, in the tradition of Israel’s prophets, Jesus points out the irony of seeking riches while others are poor, being filled while others go hungry, being merry in the midst of tragedy or mourning, and showing concern for social status while others are persecuted.
Jesus always offers redemption and holds out the hope of conversion. When he says, “blessed are you” and “woe to you,” he is not pronouncing a final judgment but offering a clear choice. What appears to be opposites, in reality, work in partnership to realign our priorities and guide our paths.
Catherine Upchurch is the general editor of the Little Rock Catholic Study Bible and contributes to several biblical publications. She writes from Fort Smith.
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