"Cursed” be the one who trusts in human beings; “the wicked” are like chaff that the wind drives away, and “Woe” to you who are rich and filled now. Harsh words for a Sunday in grey February. In Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, in contrast to Matthew, while the poor, the hungry, those who weep and those who are persecuted are blessed; the rich, the satiated, the scoffers and the admired are berated. Jesus here continues that theme of reversal anticipated in Mary’s hymn that God would put the mighty down from their thrones, exalt those of low degree, send the rich away empty and fill the hungry with good things.
Luke’s Gospel is often called the Gospel for the poor, since Jesus blesses those who are literally poor rather than the poor in spirit (as does Matthew). Yet his blessing of the poor does not romanticize poverty, and the Gospel is more concerned to point out the dangers of wealth than to praise the virtues of the poor. The rich will be sent away empty; they have already received their consolation. Worldly cares, riches and pleasures will choke the growth of God’s word (8:16-20); the rich are motivated by greed and lack of concern for others so they will be suddenly struck down while most self-satisfied (12:16-20).
A rich man is a parade example of conspicuous consumption, dressed in royal purple and imported linen, for whom every day was a banquet, while he did not even see the poor, starving and sick Lazarus lying by his gate. When he finally sees him, the roles have been reversed; the rich man was in Hades and Lazarus in heaven. Religious leaders are lovers of money; a would-be disciple cannot follow Jesus because he is “very rich”; Acts attributes Judas’s betrayal of Jesus to his desire for possessions (1:18); Annas and Saphira are struck down because their desire for money leads them to deceive the community (5:5:1-11); and Simon of Samaria is castigated by Peter because he tries to buy spiritual gifts (8:14-24).
It may be tempting to write off this harsh picture as a bit of first-century ressentiment or a touch of dour apocalyptic thinking by Luke’s Jesus, but Luke’s picture spoke to his community and still challenges the church today. Luke’s picture is not one-sided. Though Jesus in the Gospel fulminates against the rich, in Acts the nascent church shares goods instead of leaving them; almsgiving is stressed (understood as an obligation to help the poor, not as an optional good deed); people of some means welcome Paul and share their resources (Acts 16:11-15; 17:12). In his final, moving speech to the Ephesians, Paul tells them to work to support the poor and weak (20:32-35).
Why this ambivalence? In his Gospel Luke tells a story of “roots.” The Christian community, now led by the Holy Spirit, owes its origin to those who heard Jesus’ word and followed in simplicity and poverty. They experienced the power and love of Jesus, which sustained them. By the time of the final composition of the Gospel and Acts, Luke’s community seems to have included more and more people of some means. The voice of the Gospel warns them against the evil that springs from having and desiring great wealth. Luke offers the rich the good news that their salvation lies in concern for the poor and in using their goods for others.
Today’s church includes many people who leave everything to follow Christ, live in actual solidarity with poor people and are insulted, hated and persecuted for this. At the same time, the church depends on the generosity of people of means to further its mission. The rich in the Gospel are by no means hard-working middle- or upper-middle-class people, but the arrogant and blind super-wealthy of imperial societies, reflected today in the super-rich or in global corporations. American Catholics, however, must never forget their roots and the danger that escalating upward mobility poses to faith. Great-grandchildren of subway workers are C.E.O.’s of construction companies, often upset by those very unions for which their forebears fought; descendants of immigrants resent the large waves of “those people” moving into neighborhoods. When the church proclaims the option for the poor, this must be combined with critical reflection and prophetic witness about the dangers of the immense wealth that washes over sections of our country while the poor, mostly ignored in the recent election, struggle to remain afloat. In his powerful novel The Sea Remains, the priest-novelist Jean Sulivan lamented a church that lived by “consoling the poor and reassuring the rich”—hardly a paraphrase of today’s Gospel.