One of the most familiar and important passages in all of scripture is the famous Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew’s Gospel, which begins with the Beatitudes. But that’s not what we just heard today.
Today is the first of four consecutive Sundays in which we hear Gospel readings, not from the Sermon on the Mount, but from a much shorter parallel passage in St. Luke’s Gospel: the so-called Sermon on the Plain, since Luke tells us that Jesus came down and stood on a level place.
Most of Jesus’ teaching in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain mirrors Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, but there are differences. The biggest is that instead of eight beatitudes, like the Sermon on the Mount, here there are four beatitudes and four anti-beatitudes, four woes.
“Blessed are you poor, you who are hungry or weeping” — but also “Woe to you who are rich, who are filled now, who laugh now.”
Jesus brings bad news as well as good news. He comes to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. He sets before us two ways, two paths. The way of beatitude — of blessedness, of God’s favor and supreme happiness, culminating in heaven. And the way of woe, of misery and doom, culminating in hell.
If You Aren’t a Tree Planted By the Water, What Are You?
Each of us, every day of our lives, is on one of these two paths: the easy way that leads to destruction, as we read in the Sermon on the Mount, or the hard way that leads to life. There’s no third way, no in-between.
That same stark divide runs through our Old Testament texts: the first reading from the prophet Jeremiah and the responsorial psalm, Psalm 1. Both the prophet and the psalmist tell us that some people — those who trust in the Lord, who delight in his law and meditate on it day and night — are like trees planted beside water, roots stretching out to the stream, leaves never fading, yielding fruit in due season.
Remember, the land of Israel is a Middle-eastern, Mediterranean country, with a subtropical climate: There’s a short rainy season and a long, hot dry season with no rain. A tree planted by the water will be all right during the dry season. Someone who’s not like that tree planted by the water, Jeremiah says, is like a barren bush in the desert, in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth.
The psalmist is even harsher: If someone isn’t planted by the water, trusting in the Lord, they’re like worthless chaff, dried-up bits of seed husks or straw, that just blows away. We’re either planted by the water, or we’re a barren bush in an empty desert lava waste, worthless chaff blowing in the wind.
Turning Around, Not Turning Aside
What’s the difference between these two ways, the way of destruction and the way of life? When we think of two paths, maybe we think of a fork in the road, a choice that sets us on the right road or the wrong one.
I want to suggest a different image. It’s not a fork in the road. In fact, there aren’t two roads. The way to destruction and the way to life are the same road. The difference is not which road we’re on, but which direction we’re facing: toward God or away from him.
“Unless you convert and become like little children,” Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel, “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The word Jesus uses for “convert” or “change” is literally “turn around.” To convert is to turn around, to face the other way, to turn away from sin toward God.
The Old Testament warns God’s people over and over to follow the Lord’s commandments without turning aside either to the right or to the left. Turning away from following God’s commandments can be fatal. Lot’s wife discovered that when she turned to look back at Sodom and Gomorrah, disobeying the warnings of the angels, and became a pillar of salt “standing as a monument to an unbelieving soul,” as the Book of Wisdom says.
Lot’s wife is mentioned only one other time in the Bible — in Luke, where our Lord warns us, “Remember Lot’s wife.” Don’t look back! Turn away from sin; be converted; become like little children, humble and trusting; put your trust in the Lord, not in human beings; and don’t look back! Follow the Lord, delight in his law, without turning away either to the right or to the left.
Then you’ll be like the tree planted beside the water, not the barren bush in the lava waste, the chaff blowing in the wind.
McCarrick and the Larger Crisis in the Church
This week we saw the downfall of a man that many had spoken well of, like the false prophets. Theodore McCarrick was laicized; he’s no longer Cardinal McCarrick or Archbishop McCarrick, just Mr. McCarrick. This judgment is final and without recourse, though it’s nothing compared to another judgment McCarrick will face — as will we all, some sooner than others, also final. So far McCarrick has made no public statement accepting responsibility or expressing repentance, turning away from his abusive pattern of life. God help him.
“Woe to you who are rich, who are now full, who now laugh!” Woe to high-rolling clergymen who raise millions of dollars in public while abusing the vulnerable in private, taking pleasure while causing pain. But blessed are those who weep, innocent souls who have suffered abuse or wept with those who have. God sees.
Woe, too, to all those, whomever they may be, who have faced no accusation or punishment but who knew what was happening, or who should have known, should have taken action — who enabled McCarrick in any way. This is all much bigger than one cardinal, and we’re still so far from where we should be.
Later this week the Vatican is holding a three-day summit, a meeting of the leaders of the Catholic bishops’ conferences from around the world, to discuss the protection of minors. Let’s pray this week for the summit, for the Church’s leaders, and especially for survivors of abuse who have waited so long for the justice they deserve.
The problems we still face will not be solved once and for all in three days, or in three years. Progress has been made, with hopefully more to come. Our time of weeping is not over.
But whatever comes, as we weep, we are blessed as long as our trust is not in human beings, but in the Lord who promises those who weep that they will laugh. He will wipe every tear from our eyes. He tells those who suffer to rejoice and be glad, not just in heaven but even now.
May all of us who weep, whatever pain or wounds or burdens we carry, know the Lord’s joy and peace every day of our lives.