We have, for years, connected All Saints’ Day with a reading of the Beatitudes — often the Matthean version. In year C, we get the Lukan version, which includes a mirror-image set of woes, as well as blessings. I think we tend to connect saints and the beatitudes as if to say, “It is these people who are holy.” But the woes challenge us, because if the above is true, then we are not particularly holy. We are full now; we are rich now. Should we be worried?
The other readings seem to suggest that God’s holy people, in the world to come, are going to rule over the kingdom. Psalm 149 in particular, suggests that it will be our vocation to wreak on the nations the punishment decreed. In the Daniel reading, we leave out the whole business of the four beasts (the four kings of Alexander’s divided Empire?) and the one like the son of man assuming the throne to judge the nations. Even the Ephesians passage suggests that God’s power will work in us by virtue of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, for the subjection of every power, and rule, and authority to Christ.
But then Luke’s beatitudes turn the whole business upside down. I think we should translate makarios (which the NRSV translates ‘blessed’) as “How honorable.” A makarism is a form of speech holding up a benefactor as honorable, and worthy of praise and emulation. “How honorable the benevolent Caesar, who has brought peace to the world.”
How odd to be told that we poor are honorable; that we who mourn are honorable; that we who are hungry are honorable. These are not benefactors to anybody. Likewise the word ouai, which the NRSV translates as ‘woe to’ is probably more accurately translated ‘shame on’ (the Scholars’ Version translates it ‘damn you’). Shame on you who are rich now; shame on you who are full now.
Luke frames the beatitudes in the second person plural, rather than the third person plural: you, rather than they. Jesus is speaking directly to us. Imagine this sermon being preached on a street corner in the inner city to a congregation of ragged street people and well-dressed lawyers and financiers. Who is honored?
If, by virtue of baptism and Christ’s resurrection, we are destined to rule over the coming kingdom, it will be a kingdom of ragged street-people, of the hungry, the rural poor, and not a kingdom of wealth and power. Imagined the disciples, whom Jesus sent out two-by-two arriving in the small village of people being taxed off their land, and proclaiming this new kingdom. If you decided to buy into this new kingdom, it would require a complete shift in how you saw the world, and your place in it.
So, who are the saints? Not necessarily those whose holiness is obvious to all, but the insignificant whose faithfulness in simple things sustains the world. It is those who keep their dignity despite painful and dehumanizing circumstances. Luke’s Jesus holds them up for honor and emulation. We should hope to be like them.