Christ and the Rich Young Ruler, Heinrich Hoffman (1824–1911), 1889; Rockefeller Collection; Riverside Church, New York

Fr Neil’s homily for Septuagesima, 13 February 2022

Cursed is the man who trusts in man … whose heart turns away from the Lord.¹

Jeremiah the prophet is forerunner of Christ in the sense that he suffered and was rejected for speaking the unwelcome words of the Lord. It should not be a surprise then that Jeremiah’s words of blessing and curses find their parallel in the words of Christ in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes².

Christ begins with four statements about the blessed being those who are the poor, those who hunger, those who weep and those who are persecuted on account of the Son of man. He then goes on to give a dire warning to those who are in the opposite state. Woe to you who are rich, full, laugh and are spoken well of.

Ironically, the Latin word for blessed³ carries the meaning to speak well or truthfully of the person or thing. The English translation can imply an action, an act of blessing done to the poor, but the Greek⁴ is much more of a exclamation of being, a statement of reality: the poor are blessed.

This version of the Beatitudes comes directly after the calling of Peter, James and John. Their encounter with Christ at the Sea of Galilee was a turning point that saw them leave everything and follow him. This was not an insignificant action on their behalf. They left everything that the world might imagine to be important materially, and became poor for the sake of Christ.

Material poverty, hunger and sorrow are inescapable in these statements, but there is more than one type of poverty expressed in these beatitudes. The first is a poverty that is due to circumstances of life caused by factors such as drought, recession, exploitation, disability, age, addiction, mental capacity and trauma. Any of these can lead a person into a life of poverty. God’s preference for the poor is certainly expressed by our Lord in setting priorities for his disciples in Matthew 25. In that passage, the separating of the sheep and goats makes clear the responsibility of God’s people to the poor. Anything that degrades the dignity of humanity, created in the image and likeness of God, is a moral evil. Fr Peter, who spoke last week, talked about his work with the street children of Columbia. This is a clear example of the Church’s ongoing desire to fulfil Christ’s command.

There is a second kind of material poverty that adds another layer to Christ’s statements about those who are blessed. This is the type of material poverty that is actively chosen. We see this poverty in the disciples when they leave all material security to follow Christ, trusting that there is a greater wealth, that isn’t material, to be gained. This is expressed in the development of the monastic traditions of the Church based on the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. To free oneself from the material cares of the world and entrust oneself to following Christ in simplicity has created many holy men and women and great saints of the Church.

Rooted in this choice of poverty is an awareness of how material goods can become a trap to the people of God and can lead them into error. Moses in Deuteronomy warns the people before they enter the rich, promised land, flowing with milk and honey, to “Take heed lest you forget the Lord your God: lest, when you have eaten and are full, and have built excellent houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”⁵

It is not insignificant that the disciplines of Lent are based on three main principles: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. They are given not in the first instance as a hardship to be borne, although we might struggle in applying them, but as a gift to free us from worldly concerns alone. It is a gift of time with and for the Lord, which is a greater state of blessedness.

A third layer of poverty, hunger and sorrow that we should not miss is spiritual. To know one’s spiritual poverty is to be blessed as it means we know our need of God and are open to receive his gifts of grace, healing and conversion. Without this acknowledgement of our spiritual poverty we run the risk of wallowing in our own delusions of self-reliance and often asserting our needs as greater than other people’s — it is the way of self-destruction.

In his statement on the ‘blessed’ and ‘woes’, Christ inverts so much of what the world would have us believe. In doing so he fulfils those beautiful prophetic words spoken by his Mother Mary: “All generations shall call me blessed. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek.”⁶ So often we automatically believe that those who are materially wealthy are the blessed and the ‘poor’ are sad miserable individuals. In his teaching, Christ raises the dignity of the poor, and where in particular that poverty is caused by oppression and exploitation, assures them that there will be a day of reckoning. Heaven has a special place for those who are marginalised and exploited. Christ’s story of Lazarus the beggar being taken to the bosom of Abraham⁷ is sufficient to make the point.

This however isn’t about the condemnation of material world and its wealth — that is an old heresy⁸. Christ after all is God incarnate. He became flesh to redeem the fallen material world that it might be resurrected and re-created into the new kingdom of God.

Rather, Christ is offering a warning about what we put our trust, hope and security in. Far too often we might find ourselves making material wealth and security our first priority. The education system often tells our children that the goals of riches, honour and pride are at the heart of success; Christ points to spiritual poverty, obedience to the teaching of God, and rejection by the world, as being the means to fullness of life in God.

Here’s a test. If your material wealth were to disappear tomorrow would your faith and world fall apart?

¹ Jeremiah 17:5
² Luke 6:20–26
³ benedictus, lit., “well-spoken of”
⁴ μακαριοι makarioi, a state of being often translated as “happy”
⁵ Deuteronomy 8:11–14
⁶ Luke 2:46 foll
⁷ Luke 16:19–30
⁸ Manichaeism, condemned in 382