In today’s gospel reading, we begin with what has been called “The Sermon of the Plain”. But, this sermon given on “level ground”, certainly, finds it’s parallel with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”. And both Matthew’s version as well as Luke’s evokes comparisons to Moses. If Moses was the Law-giver of the Old Testament, Jesus now in these discourses presents himself as the Law-giver of a New Testament.
Jesus, of course, was an itinerant preacher – moving from place to place. So, it should not surprise us that – much like we ourselves do – Jesus gave the same sermon in different places and at different times. And while the sermon remains essentially the same, the details and emphasis might vary according to time and place.
But, what might be surprising is how different the Jesus of the gospel – the Jesus who puts himself in Moses’ place whether he speaks from the Mount or from the Plain – how different this Jesus is from the image of Christ that prevails in our culture today. The “popular” image of Jesus today is of a Jesus who demands nothing, who never scolds, who accepts everyone and everything – a Jesus who no longer does anything but affirm us.
And, of course, this image of Jesus – in the view of many of our contemporaries – is the exact opposite of the Church – at least in as much as the Church still dares to make demands and regulations. I am sure that all of you have heard at one time or another: Why do I have to get an annulment? Why can’t I receive communion? Jesus wouldn’t care about these things, would he? And, so the Church – according to this popular mindset – is equated with prejudice and intolerance. The Church is seen as an obstacle, a barrier keeping people away from Jesus.
Pope Benedict– when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, said: “The Jesus that makes everything okay for everybody is a phantom, a dream, and not a real figure”. The Jesus we meet in today’s gospel – who is the same yesterday, today and forever – is demanding and bold. And, therefore, he is not always convenient for us in his boldness and in his demands. And, the Church, if she is to be the effective presence of Christ in the world today, cannot be ashamed or afraid of the very real demands of discipleship that Jesus boldly makes on those who would be his followers.
It is precisely in this way that Jesus – the real Jesus of the gospels – answers the deepest questions of our existence. Despite the secularism of our age, people are still asking those questions. In his latest encyclical, Charity in Truth, Pope Benedict wrote: “All people feel the interior impulse to love authentically. Love and Truth never abandoned them completely, because these are the vocations planted by God in the heart and mind of every human being”. And Pope John Paul II wrote in – Novo Milenio Ineunte: “Young people, whatever their possible ambiguities, have a profound longing for those genuine values which find their fullness in Christ. Is not Christ, “he continues, “the secret of true freedom and profound joy of heart? Is not Christ the supreme friend and the teacher of all genuine friendship?” Then, he adds: “If Christ is presented to young people as he really is, they experience him as an answer that is convincing and they can accept his message, even when it is demanding and bears the mark of the Cross.”
Jesus contrasts in his “beatitudes” and their parallel “woes” the difference between a life lived by God and for God and life lived for oneself and by oneself. “Beatitude” is the outcome of a life dedicated to God. In this sense, the best commentary on the beatitudes is the life of Jesus himself. Poverty, hunger, tears, exclusion, scorn describe what happens when the Kingdom arrives in a broken world. In accepting his message and its demands, we will bear the mark of the Cross.
Jesus spoke his words to all the people assembled before him – whether he spoke from the Mount or on the plain. The gospel with its message is universal – all are called to holiness. That the moral demands of the gospel are for everyone is perhaps the reason why “when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching.” What Christ commands, he commands in order to have us do what he says. Remember, these sermons put forth, for a New Testament, a series of commandments just as Moses brought down from Sinai a series of commandments for the Old Testament. But with the commandment comes the grace to enable us to fulfill it.
Yes, Jesus spoke these words to all – but as he spoke, the verse immediately before the one with which we began the today’s gospel was: And raising his eyes towards his disciples, he said….
This year, of course, the Church celebrates the 150th Anniversary of the entry into Eternal Life of the Cure d’Ars, St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, and now all priests. In making this anniversary year a “Year for Priests”, Pope Benedict wrote in a letter addressed to all the priests of the world that this is meant to be “a year to deepen the commitment of all priests to interior renewal for the sake of a stronger and more incisive witness to the gospel in today’s world.”
The Pope points out in this letter that in Jesus, person and mission tend to coincide, and as priests we must aim for a similar identification. St. John Vianney exemplified this complete identification of the priest with his ministry. And many of us could also point to individual priests that we know or have known that have being truly for us “other Christs”
The best way we can do this is to preach the Word of Jesus authentically – in our persona life, in our liturgical sacramental life, and in our pastoral life. In this way, through us, our people will find an answer to their deepest questions, an answer that is convincing. And as we share the Word of Jesus to our people, let us do so in the conviction that what we do, we do under the gaze of Christ, who while speaking to the crowds first raised his eyes towards the disciples.
- September 9, 2009