Darkness and light

Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures, describes in a way understandable to the people of the time how the earth and men and women came to be.

The opening words describe a stark contrast between darkness and light, night and day.  “Darkness covered the face of the deep … and God said, ‘let there be light!’” This original and physical description of the planet we inhabit – that it is one of darkness and light – is as indisputable as that we are made up of flesh and blood.  And this stark contrast extends beyond our physical to our moral make-up.

When Jesus announced the good news in different venues of Galilee he was saying a second time, ‘let there be light!’ This was bad news for the land owners who had dispossessed the poor and all who had enriched themselves at the expense of others. ‘Woe to you who have your fill now, you will be hungry.’  This warning was for those drawn by darkness into easy money and who locked away their conscience in their bottom drawer, while they enjoyed the sweetness of power and wealth.  This warning was for those enticed and seduced by what obscures the light.

But that is not where Jesus begins.  His first words are for the poor.  He tells them they are blessed. This must be one of the most misunderstood sayings of Jesus.  It was interpreted by Karl Marx, for example, as a soporific, a drug to ease the pain of being poor: ‘You are poor and suffering now.  But one day you will be happy in heaven.  Meanwhile bear your suffering patiently.’  We have to admit the Church has often preached patience and she has had an instinctive horror of change.  In the nineteenth century she refused to admit there was anything positive in the French Revolution with its struggle for the rights of men and women.

But by the mid-twentieth century the Church had come to value the affirmation of human dignity embedded in the struggles for freedom in every part of the world. The Vatican Council (1962-65) recognised that secular society had much to teach the followers of Jesus.  The Church reflected deeply and saw that poverty and oppression were not ‘the will of God’ but perversions of God’s plan from the beginning.  And she began to encourage a search for development and a struggle for justice that would give flesh to this teaching.

So what are we to make of Jesus’ words to the poor: ‘You are blessed’?  Matthew helps us out when he adds ‘in spirit’.  ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ and the teaching here is about freedom and detachment from wealth, power and status.  You may have these things but you don’t lose a night’s sleep if you lose them. They are not part of who you are so, if you fall on bad times, you remain peaceful and joyful.

But Luke sticks to his blunt saying: ‘Blessed are the poor’.  There is a quality about being poor that puts you on a fast track to God.  Think of Bartimaeus, the blind man of Jericho, or the widow who made her tiny offering at the temple.  Jesus heaped praise on her.  These two knew their complete dependence on God and it freed them to do amazing things.  They were ‘lights in the encircling gloom’.

Our age pushes us to be ever more ‘independent’ and self-reliant. We can see the positive side of these.  But, if we reflect, we may conclude that it is sometimes hard to see what is ‘light’ and what is ‘darkness’.  Perhaps that is why Pope Francis is so keen to teach us discernment.

17 February 2019        Sunday 6C

Jeremiah 17:5-8          1 Corinthians 15:12 … 20        Luke 6: 17… 26

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