Readings for 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JER 17:5-8; PS 1: 1-5; I COR 15: 12, 16-20; LK 6: 17, 20-21;
There’s a plot going on to neutralize Pope Francis. Even worse, it’s about neutralizing Jesus and his “preferential option for the poor” that has dominated our liturgical readings for the past several weeks.
This week’s readings are no exception. In fact, in today’s Gospel selection, that option for the poor receives its starkest expression so far. There, Luke the evangelist has Jesus say clearly that the poor are the object of God’s special favor, while the rich are not. In Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks frankly: “You poor are blessed.” He tells the rich just as clearly, “you are cursed.” And he does so for no other apparent reason than that the objects of Jesus’ blessing and cursing are poor and rich respectively.
Before I get to that, let me say a word about the plot I just mentioned.
What I’m talking about was reported in January’s Sojourner’s Magazine – the progressive Christian Evangelical monthly published by Jim Wallis. It all appeared there in a piece authored by Tom Roberts, the executive editor of the National Catholic Reporter. The article was entitled “How Right-Wing Billionaires Are Attempting a Hostile Takeover of the Catholic Church.”
There, Roberts described an aggressive project to establish what I would call an ecclesiastical “shadow administration” bent on usurping the authority of the church’s U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The undertaking is “financed by the Koch brothers, by Domino Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan, and a slew of other billionaires linked to the Knights of Columbus and conservative Catholic Cardinals – all of whom enjoy favor with Breitbart’s Steve Bannon and the Trump administration.
Seeking to replicate the rise of the Evangelical right in the 1980s, the group advocates a Catholic version of the prosperity gospel described by Roberts as “a hybrid of traditional pieties wrapped in American-style excess and positioned most conspicuously in service of free-market capitalism.” It is “. . . ‘in your face Catholicism’ . . . often expressed amid multi-course meals followed by wine and cigar receptions, private cocktail parties for the especially privileged, traditional Catholic devotionals, Mass said in Latin for those so inclined, ‘patriotic rosary’ sessions that include readings from George Washington and Robert E. Lee, and the occasional break for a round of golf.”
Doctrinally, the goal is to bury more deeply than ever what many have called “the best kept secret of the Catholic Church,” viz. its progressive social teachings. Since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, those teachings have repeatedly criticized the abuses of both capitalism and socialism while advocating workers’ rights, labor unions, fair wages, social security, and (especially with Pope Francis) care for the earth in the face of human-caused climate chaos.
The billionaire cabal in question finds especially offensive not just Francis’ emphasis on social justice themes, but the 1983 pastoral by the USCCB questioning the morality of modern warfare and of nuclear weapons. They resent above all the bishops’ 1986 letter entitled “Economic Justice for All” which disagreed specifically with the economic policies of the group’s great hero, Ronald Reagan.
In place of such teachings, the billionaires in question think that the Catholic social narrative should focus exclusively on sexual issues: abortion, contraception, gay rights, and the rights of divorced and remarried people within the Catholic Church. They want the church to be more celebratory of individualism, entrepreneurship, and of free market fixes for society’s problems. Their goal is to shrink government in general and diminish its services to the poor and marginalized in particular.
Doesn’t that sound completely like the Republican agenda?
And with the Catholic Church currently weakened and reeling from its sex-abuse scandals, the billionaire conspirators are convinced that the time is completely ripe for their hostile takeover.
But could anything be further from the teachings of Jesus which a few weeks ago, our Gospel reading summarized as “good news to the poor?”
There, Jesus announced his program with the following words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”
This was a proclamation of a new order (what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God”) directed towards improving the lot of the poor, the imprisoned, the ill and oppressed. It was the proclamation of the Jewish “Jubilee Year,” where debts would be forgiven, slaves freed, and wealth redistributed.
Now in today’s Gospel reading, the Master expresses the same sentiment, only this time in even a more in-your-face manner. Here, it’s worth quoting the words Luke attributes to Jesus.
“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.”
Shocking words – all of them, don’t you agree? They are part of the great reversal in the new order proclaimed by Jesus. There, the values of the world will be turned on their heads. The poor will be in charge. They will have food to eat. Laughter will replace their tears.
But the rich will experience great misery (woe). That’s because they have been led astray by false prophets like those cardinals participating in the billionaire hostile takeover of the Catholic Church. Those fake prophets console the super-rich with honeyed words about their specialness
But according to Luke’s Jesus, the rich may be enjoying those multi-course meals, private cocktail parties, cigar receptions and rounds of golf now. But when the Kingdom’s new order comes, they will find themselves hungry. They may be laughing now, but then they will weep and cry. Their false prophets may praise them now but come the new order, the wealthy will be cursed as the most wretched of men.
Obviously, Jesus’ teaching contradicts our culture’s worship of the rich. We think of the rich as heroic entrepreneurs. Jesus sees them as worthless wretches. We see the poor as losers. Jesus sees them as objects of God’s special favor.
In other words, Jesus turns our thinking upside down. As Marianne Williamson puts it: Jesus’ truth (God’s truth) is 180 degrees opposed to what our culture values and teaches.
That realization should be Christians’ fundamental guide in reading the news and thinking about world events. It should be the confident guide of our activist efforts.
Everything is the opposite of what our culture claims!