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Hope and healing on level ground | Word Alive

Paul Jarzembowski

Friday, February 11, 2022

Detail of Sermon on the Mountain by Károly Ferenczy (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
 

Hope and healing on level ground

A reflection for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

by Paul Jarzembowski

 
Growing up, my most beloved biblical epic was King of Kings (1961) starring Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus, and my favourite part was the Sermon on the Mount. This grand biblical scene featured 7,000 extras spread out on a rocky mountainside in Spain (standing in for Galilee) who looked up awestruck as Hunter’s Jesus proclaimed excerpts from the Sermon according to Matthew.
Yet this is not the image we find in this Sunday’s Gospel, taken from Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Plain (6:20-49). The two accounts of the Sermon are similar in that they both occur relatively early in Jesus’ public ministry, both feature a large crowd, and both begin with a series of blessings. However, what is dramatically distinct is the setting, which Luke describes like this:
“Jesus came down with the Twelve and stood on a stretch of level ground…” (Luke 6:17a)
Compared to the mountaintop of Matthew’s Gospel, the “stretch of level ground” in Luke’s re-telling of the story can initially seem underwhelming. One might even wonder about the logistics, as it can be a real challenge addressing a large crowd without good acoustics. Yet this is not Luke’s concern.
Rather, he positions Jesus as a Messiah in the midst of his people. In this setting, Jesus commands relational authority. He seems to know the women and men who surround him on this level plain and is deeply empathetic to their pains and struggles.
The Gospel writer’s choice of words is also revealing. We read that Jesus was “raising his eyes towards his disciples”, implying the Lord was elevating the people in his midst to a higher level. Jesus is also fully aware of the present and crippling circumstances affecting their lives, yet he does not let these current realities define who they are.
Consider how he addresses them: “Blessed are you who are poor… Blessed are you who are now hungry... Blessed are you who are now weeping… Blessed are you when people hate you” (Luke 6:20,21,22). In using these words, Jesus is being very clear that the person, created in the image and likeness of God, matters more than the way society sees or categorizes them. And yet he is not blind to the ways that social injustices like impoverished living conditions, food disparity, marginalization, and exclusion can severely impact individuals and make them feel insignificant.
In response, Jesus offers hope and healing. He lifts them up and reveals a just and equitable future where all are filled and love is generously given. By standing on a level ground with this community, he can look them in the eyes, hear their voices, and enter the realities of their lives.
Even though the specific circumstances have changed over the centuries, we are now challenged to echo Jesus’ words from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain within our own social situations in the twenty-first century. In our local communities and around the world, men and women continue to be beaten down by impoverished living conditions, food disparity, marginalization, and societal exclusion.
However, if we stop at the first half of Jesus’ blessings (“Blessed are you who are…”) then we are just conducting a passive social analysis of these unjust systems. The second half of these statements (“…for the kingdom of God is yours” and so on) is where we come in and where Gospel action can begin.
If we are to claim the word Christian, we must be challenged and compelled to provide the hope and healing Jesus promises to marginalized communities. We ask ourselves:
  • How can we work towards eradicating poverty and standing against unjust working conditions?
  • How can we provide food, shelter, and provisions so that all in our community can live well?
  • How can we provide mental health resources and intentional care and support to individuals in our lives who are experiencing depression, anxiety, or loneliness?
  • How can we be more inclusive, less polarizing, and unconditionally compassionate towards all those who are different from us in language, culture, politics, spirituality, or lifestyle?
To carry out these acts of hope and healing, we begin by engaging with others eye to eye. We cannot place ourselves high on a mountain, simply providing charity to those below. Rather, we must stand with others on a level plain as Jesus did, close enough to truly know and encounter them.
Only when we are immersed in the real lives of others can we truly be the hope and healing that Jesus demands that his disciples carry out. This is the wondrous beauty of Luke’s Sermon: that it can be realized in every generation, if only we stand on a level plain with all God’s people. And even more: that you and I are the ones who God now entrusts to make his blessings a reality.

The readings for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, are
Jeremiah 17:5-8
1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-20
Luke 6:17, 20-26


Paul Jarzembowski has worked for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) since 2013, serving as the Associate Director for the Laity within the USCCB Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. In this role he oversees the bishops’ engagement with the laity, lay ecclesial ministry, and lay movements, as well as with youth and young adults, and in a particular way, the United States’ engagement in World Youth Day. Originally from the Chicago area, Paul received his M.A. from Loyola University Chicago, where he also served as adjunct faculty in the Institute of Pastoral Studies, and his B.A. from Valparaiso University. Paul has consulted with, spoken to, and accompanied pastoral leaders in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Europe, including the Holy See. Paul and his wife, Sarah, live in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., USA. Paul is also the author of the new book, Hope from the Ashes: Insights and Resources for Welcoming Lenten Visitors (Paulist Press, 2022).
 

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