What comes to mind when you think of blessings? Perhaps some degree of prosperity or good health. Your musings might include something as weighty as deliverance from harm or as commonplace as victory in a high school basketball game. When circumstances seem to go the way we want, it is not uncommon for us to consider them a blessing.
And what about curses? We don’t have to turn to witches’ spells in fairy tales to find them. Cursing language is quite common in everyday speech. Even children cry out: Drop dead! Damn it! or Go to hell! We may not believe that we have been cursed when misfortune befalls us, but we certainly do think that we have somehow been handed a raw deal, and that someone other than ourselves is responsible.
People in traditional societies, like those that produced the Bible, believed that certain speech itself had extraordinary power. They were convinced that when one pronounced a blessing or curse, the words themselves began the process of bringing about the objective. Therefore, they did not throw out words of blessing or curse randomly, as we might today. They further realized that if human words could accomplish such feats, one could only imagine what God’s words might do.
Both the reading from Jeremiah and the Gospel passage speak of blessings and curses, or woes. Though the terms are not used in exactly the same way in both readings, they do give us an insight into the kind of behavior that was to be preferred, and they sketch some of the consequences of that behavior in human life. Both Jeremiah and today’s psalm use striking nature imagery to contrast the life circumstances of those who trust in God or cherish God’s law with those who do not. The former will thrive even in hard times and will be a source of life for others. The latter will have barely enough life force to live and will lack any power of fertility.
The contrast drawn by Jeremiah is not difficult to comprehend. It promotes common religious sentiments, namely trust in God and respect for God’s law. But when we turn to the Gospel, we discover a message that is quite revolutionary. Jesus seems to turn reality upside down. Those whom Jesus calls blessed live lives that we would normally consider cursed; and those threatened with woes are enjoying blessings. What does this mean? Does God really prefer the poor and needy and reject those with financial security?
There are clues in this reading that show us that this is not really the case. What makes one blessed is not simply poverty or hunger or sadness, but commitment to the Son of Man (verse 22); and like the false prophets of old, the ones condemned are those who compromised their values in order to be accepted and succeed. This closer look shows us that Jesus’ message is actually very similar to Jeremiah’s and that found in the psalm: trust God and cherish God’s law. In other words, if you choose God, you will be blessed. On the other hand, if you choose human standards, you will succumb to the woe.
We today have a very narrow understanding of law, especially the law of God. We think of it as rigid and confining. We may even consider it out of date and irrelevant. Ancient Israel believed that law set a path or direction to happiness and fulfillment. They saw it as refreshing the soul...rejoicing the heart (Ps 19:8-9). Cherishing God’s law was not a burden.
Still, trusting in God is easier said than done, because we are all so influenced by the standards of the day. We are bombarded by advertisements that assure us we have a right to a high-paying job, even without working for it; the excessively wealthy are held up as icons to be emulated; and the needy are disdained as unworthy of our attention. At every turn we are offered foodall you can eatand the only valid reason for depriving oneself is to lose weight in order to achieve the body of a model. The weeping of which Jesus speaks is probably the frustration that people on the margins experience when they are denied the opportunities that every society owes all its citizens.
These Beatitudes challenge our understanding of blessedness, but they also are sometimes difficult to interpret. Surely Jesus is not suggesting that the poor or hungry or grieving should be satisfied with their lot in life because they will eventually experience a reversal of fortune. Rather, he is saying that the values and customs of the reign of God at times seriously conflict with those of society. Today’s readings urge us to step back from the hustle and bustle of life and evaluate our values from Jesus’ point of view.