By: Fr. James Gross
We’ve just heard one of the most popular and discussed passages in the whole Bible. As we look more closely at what’s come to be called the Beatitudes, let’s explore how our ancestors in faith grappled with the issues of material blessings and God’s distribution of punishments and rewards.
In the centuries prior to the birth of Christ, belief in an afterlife was largely undeveloped compared to today. Many of the Israelites had a sense that a part of us carried on after death, but were uncertain as to what exactly that meant. They were certain, though, that God is all-powerful and perfectly just: nothing we do, either for good or for ill, escapes His notice. It follows, then, in this line of thinking, that God metes out justice in this life either by rewards or punishments.
Here’s the conclusion that they reached: those who are healthy, wealthy, or respected have conducted themselves virtuously, and God is rewarding the interior convictions of their hearts by granting exterior gifts. On the other hand, the vagrants and destitute among us have preferred sin over virtue, and God is letting them have it. Yes, there are crooks and thieves who become rich because of their crimes, but they are the exception to the rule. This philosophy of life leaves no room for the claim that material goods are corrupting influences. All that God created is good, and He appointed us to be stewards of His many gifts. However, both the haves and the have-nots are ultimately responsible for their lot in life.
It doesn’t take a sophisticated person to see how deficient this world view is. In fact, the Bible denounces it in several cases. The Book of Job, for example, is a classic study of this very question. Job is an unquestionably faith-filled man. But his holiness does not spare him from a series of tragic events: bandits overtake his hired men and steal his livestock, he develops painful sores over his whole body, and his children die in a violent storm. Soon after all this occurs, three of Job’s friends come to console him, but eventually they can’t restrain themselves. They tell him: “What did you do, Job? You must have gotten yourself into this mess somehow. Just ask for forgiveness from God, and He’ll make things right again.” In vain Job tries to persuade them that sometimes bad things do happen to good people.
In recent times, certain Christian communities have fallen prey to what’s being commonly called the “Prosperity Gospel.” Join our church, play your cards right, and God will bless you with tangible rewards. Taken to its extreme, this movement reduces life to a simple formula by attaching positive, concrete results to one’s expression of faith in God; it essentially seeks to confine the workings of God.
Real life is more complex. Lacking what the world considers blessings—the right house, the right car, the right job—doesn’t automatically plunge us into the depths of despair. Today Jesus reminds us that one who is without God is the most wretched person of all. He boldly proclaims that the Kingdom of Heaven is already here, although it is not yet fully realized.
To a worldly person, the Beatitudes are nonsense. But they ring true from the perspective that Jesus, as God’s Son, has the power to make real what he proclaims. To be a peacemaker, to be clean of heart, or to be merciful means that we look the world’s trivial and petty pursuits in the eye and reject them. To hunger and thirst for righteousness and to receive mistreatment for the sake of our Catholic faith require that we suffer with Christ. But when we do all these things, God is very near to us. And in His perfect justice, God will give us in His time reason to rejoice, no matter the size of our bank account or the amount of praise our peers heap onto us.
Remember the Gospel parable from St. Luke of Lazarus and the rich man. When the rich man sees Lazarus in heaven, as he himself is in torment, he finally sees that the blessings of the self-made man cannot last. He learns too late that luxury and comfort do not equal salvation, while Lazarus shows us that faith in God is the one true path to being someone special.
Every single year we hear this Gospel reading on All Saints’ Day. This reading is the answer to the question of “How do we live lives of holiness?”