Week OT (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great, Irving
Way back when I was a heathen grad student, one of the most damning criticisms of the Christianity that I'd ever heard was that belief in an afterlife dangerously focused the hearts and minds of the poor and oppressed on some promised “pie in the sky,” causing them to meekly accept their poverty and oppression in exchange for a better life after death. So, when my Marxist-feminist professors railed against the economic injustices of capitalism and the subjugation of women under western patriarchy, I knew that traditional Christianity was an accomplice to these crimes against humanity. The Church's promise of paradise was nothing more than a means of keeping po'folks and women in their places here on earth. And there was no better explanation of this scheme than the one found in the Sermon on the Mount. The whole thing reeks of Be Meek, Be Humble, and Be Quiet Right Now and Sometime After Death You Will Be Rewarded for Not Demanding Your Rightful Place at the Table Among Your Betters. Nietzsche was absolutely correct it seemed. Christianity is a slave's religion, a fable for sheep.
This line of criticism is not easy to dismiss. After all, Jesus says, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. . .” After you have suffered persecution, trial, and death for his name's sake. Why can't our reward in heaven be great for just being who we are, for just being really nice to our neighbors and generous to our friends? It's good to know that the grieving will be comforted and that the clean of heart will see God and that the merciful will be shown mercy. . .but doesn't all that just mean that we'll be treated with the same dignity as everyone else? And, I'm sorry, but knowing that the prophets who came before us were persecuted is not all that reassuring. Misery might love company but given the misery involved, I'd like to request a different sort of company. Given the choice, I'd prefer to hang out with the Beautiful People: the wealthy, the well-educated, the talented; those who understand that being blessed is all about enjoying those blessings while they are still alive to enjoy them. All this talk of being blessed after I'm dead makes me wonder why anyone would buy into this system called “Christianity.” Why can't my reward be great right now? Why do I have to wait until I get to heaven, assuming I get to heaven and assuming such a place exists in the first place?
Our lives here on earth aren't just about living in the spirit, living for heaven as if we have nothing to do while we're “down here.” If living in ignorance of the spiritual world is dangerous, so is living as if the material world doesn't matter. We are rational animals who thrive in both the spiritual and the material worlds. As a philosophy, only Christianity offers a way of living fully as both material beings and spiritual beings. The Sermon on the Mount isn't a sermon about suffering now so that we might rejoice later on. Jesus is teaching the crowd that suffering is a hard fact of our material lives. Living in the spirit of charity with our eyes firmly focused on the hope of the resurrection isn't an escape from suffering, it's the only way to make sense of an otherwise senseless burden. Our suffering now has a end, a divine purpose. And that purpose is to encourage us to bring encouragement to others who suffer. Misery loves company, true. But the company of Christ who suffered for us can redeem misery in this life. Redeem it, not end it. B/c suffering is how we choose to experience and use our pain, our grief, our persecution. If we choose to suffer well for others, we are redeemed and those who suffer are comforted. So, yes, blessed are the poor, the grieving, and the merciful. For their reward is great both in heaven and here on earth.