Today’s reflection is by Bondings 2.0 contributor Michael Sennett, whose brief bio can be found by clicking here.
Today’s liturgical readings for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time can be found here.
Normally when I think of the Beatitudes, I think of their proclamation as part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:1-12. Reflecting on today’s gospel according to St. Luke, which also recounts the Beatitudes, I was struck by the stark contrast to Matthew’s telling. In today’s reading, called the Sermon on the Plain, not the Mount, Jesus preaches blessings, but also adds woes as parallels. Rather than proclaiming them from on high, on a mountain, he speaks to his disciples and the crowd gathered around them on level ground. God is among Her people!
Meditating on Jesus’ sermon, I imagine a hush falling over the crowd. The bluntness with which Jesus speaks is jarring. Blessed are the poor? Surely Jesus is mistaken. The rich, satisfied, happy, and admired are the blessed, aren’t they? Aren’t their earthly rewards a sign of favor in the eyes of the Lord? Yet, the Beatitudes Jesus proclaims are radically contrary to the status quo. God is not impressed by wealth and good fortune, but by faith, compassion, kindness, and love.
Growing up, I was always told to “count my blessings.” Usually this was following an encounter with someone who was houseless, disabled, or struggling in some regard. I’ve come to the realization this is not a spiritually healthy concept. Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely should give thanks and express our gratitude to God. The problem is doing so at the expense of the vulnerable and marginalized. Counting our blessings often emphasizes what we have and what others lack. But, as Jesus teaches us, people on the margins are blessed. He challenges our comfortable adaptation to injustice and invites us to accept the grace to journey with the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the disliked.
The last blessing Jesus delivers in today’s reading focuses on those who invoke God’s name to justify malice. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.” As a trans Catholic, I found this Beatitude extremely relatable. On many occasions the authenticity of my faith has been questioned and the journey of my transition mocked and condemned.
Prior to my undergraduate years, I struggled to find a sense of belonging within the Catholic Church. I had a poor relationship with God, hungered for community, mourned what I considered the loss of my spirituality, and dealt with exclusion. Encountering the woes from the world, and more specifically the Church, I believed there was no space for me with God.
A turning point came during my junior year of college, when my name was finally legally changed. To celebrate, my friends threw me a surprise party and everyone wore nametags that said “his name is Michael.” All of the compassion, kindness, and love they had ever given me mingled in this one moment. I felt the presence of God in each of them that night. For the first time in my life, I recognized my existence and experience as blessed, despite the pain I had faced and knew I would face in the future.
Jesus proclaiming the Beatitudes in the parallel of blessings and woes is not meant to discourage but to encourage. By naming the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the hated, he is shining light on how we may refocus our lives. Perhaps we need to open our ears and hearts to the cries of the poor and the earth, or weep with our siblings who experience racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, or transphobia—just to name a few obstacles.
Are we hungering for justice and community? And, like Jesus, do we choose to love, even if it means we are unpopular? If we recognize woes within ourselves, let us pray for the grace to accompany and serve vulnerable communities. Let us personify the presence of God among Her people.
—Michael Sennett (he/him), February 13, 2022