I remember an experience when we were doing missions in a far-flung barrio in Bicol, Philippines. In that barrio, people did not just experience extreme poverty but also were caught in a constant crossfire in a never ending war between the NPA and the military. One day we gathered the kids for some group activities. In the course of the activity we ask the kids: What do you want to be when you grow up? You know kids, they are always eager to share what they want to become when they grow up. These kids, however, were not so eager to tell their dreams. Some were staring at us with blank faces and some were looking away into some distant place. We felt so sorry for these kids because even though they are still kids it seems that they have already tired of dreaming. They have lost their energies to hope because of the constant life and death situation they have to endure every day.
Not far from that barrio we saw a group of born again Christian preachers who gathered some adults, leading them in singing several lively action songs. Then I heard their leader preaching about God’s blessings, promising the group of adults that as a sign of their acceptance and faith in Jesus as personal Lord and saviour they are assured of God’s bountiful blessings—siksik, liglig at umaapaw (pressed down, shaken together, running over cf. Luke 6: 37).
I easily saw the contrast between these two experiences. On the one hand, our experience with the kids implied that God is too far away from their reality of poverty and violence that it seems that God’s blessings is beyond their reach. Poverty is their fate, they just have to learn to accept it and live with it. On the other hand, the experience of the born again Christians implied that God’s bountiful blessings is assured for anyone who personally accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior. God will improve their lives and even attain wealth. It promotes so-called prosperity gospel where abundance and wealth are signs of God’s blessings.
I realize, though, that there is a similarity in both experiences’ understanding of God’s blessings. I thought that they were looking at God’s blessings from our human categories and experiences in our world. For in today’s world to be blessed is to be full of money, plenty of material things, full of power and authority. Blessings in today’s world is measured in wealth, power, honor and position in life. On the other hand, misfortune and curse in today’s world is measured in terms of poverty, suffering, powerlessness, absence of honor and position in life.
In today’s gospel of 6th Sunday in ordinary time, Jesus proclaimed a reversal of blessing and curse.
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
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.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.”
This is a hard saying. Jesus’ proclamation about blessings and curses, also called the beatitudes, is contrary to common sense and to all expectations and wisdom about how the world works. How can the poor be blessed and the rich cursed? How can we say that you are blessed to the people who have suffered so much in life? How can we say this to the people who lost lives and experienced great devastation from calamities? How can we proclaim that you are blessed to people who have experienced violence, war, depression, loneliness and despair?
Our difficulty in accepting the beatitudes lies in the fact that the beatitudes declares a situation that is a result of God’s action. In other words, it not based on human action but God’s action. For if it will be based on human action, the reverse is the result, as what we see is happening now (despite all the assurance from those who benefit from the existing system that global capitalism has reduced poverty and has improved the plight of millions of people, the blessed in this world are the select few who continue to be rich and the cursed are the multitudes who remain poor). The beatitudes declares the kind of life within the context of God’s gracious act. This is impossible through human efforts. The kind of a life under God’s gracious act, therefore, can only be a gift–unmerited, free and unconditional gift offered by God to everyone.
Furthermore, God talks about blessings as the qualities of the future community that God will gather in the end. In the Second Reading, St. Paul says that if Christ is not raised, our faith is in vain. The truth of Christ’s resurrection is the key to hope, the key to the belief of the coming of the future kingdom of God where God’s blessings will benefit all especially the poor, oppressed and powerless in the world. The community who is called blessed by God does not remain passive, but acts in accord with the coming kingdom.
The Beatitudes are, therefore, not so much about what we should do but about what we should be; it is about thinking, willing, and feeling, that is, about a new way of living and being Christian. The beatitude does not mean that God wants the poor to remain poor and thus, we do nothing about the situation of the poor. Nor does it mean that we sell all our belongings and not utilize any benefit from material things (although some Christians have done this. Think of St. Francis of Assisi and the founder of the Redemptorists, St. Alphonsus who left a life of wealth to care for the poor and the most abandoned).
Indeed, the beatitudes have been subjected to various insidious misinterpretations and manipulations. For instance, the beatitudes was utilized in the past to subjugate the poor. Civil and religious authorities have told the poor that they need not struggle and aspire to improve their lot as their sufferings and poverty on earth will be rewarded in heaven. On the other hand, the beatitudes was utilized to justify the prosperity of the rich. Wealth is a blessing from God and it is a sign of God’s reward for those who lived with integrity and hard work. On the other hand, poverty is God’s curse and it is a sign of God’s punishment for those who are irresponsible and lazy.
Ultimately, the beatitudes calls us to conversion, a change of thinking, or as we often hear today, a paradigm shift. We need to adopt a beatitude paradigm shift in this world. We need to be guided by the values of the beatitudes in our our life together as a community of discipleship. We need to look at the real blessings and curse in this world from God’s perspective. The beatitudes challenges us to experience God’s blessings in our concrete situation of “joys and the hopes, grief and anxieties.” God’s blessings is not the physical pain, poverty, suffering and hunger but God’s endowed grace of solidarity, purity of heart, meekness, peacemaking, for the coming of the kingdom already here and now but will be fully realized in the end. The experience of God’s blessings will allow us to see beyond our world despite all its sufferings, hardships, hopelessness, injustice, violence and enslavements and journey towards the reign of God. The reign of God has already began in the resurrection of Jesus.
Today, God calls us: You are blessed, be a blessing to others.