Let the Scriptures Speak
Flesh or God?
Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings,
who seeks his strength in flesh,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.
A colleague reports the following exchange with a New York cabby. When the driver asked my friend the reason for his visit, he told of attending a convention in which they analyzed ethical dilemmas illustrated by case histories. “Yeah,” mused the cabby. “Sometimes you just gotta forget your principles and do what's right.”
By “poor” Jesus means not a social class but those who know their need for God.
Why is that so funny? I submit that the humor comes lies in the absurdity of knowing “what's right” apart from some principles. At the same time, the comment recognizes that our sense of what is right springs from something deeper than our articulated principles can express. This Sunday's readings point in that direction. The images of the bush and the tree in Jeremiah 17 illustrate two basic orientations possible in the living of a human life-no matter what one's career or lifestyle. One can either “seek ... strength in flesh”—that is, put one's trust in one's own power or the merely human, ignoring the divine source of one's being—or one can trust and hope in the Lord. The former, or “flesh,” orientation will lead to a life of sterility with “no change of season,” whereas the latter orientation (trusting the Lord) will lead to a life of fearlessness and fruitfulness. (St. Paul names those two orientations “walking in the flesh” and “walking in the spirit.”)
Jeremiah's powerfully imaged set of alternatives provide a perfect preparation for hearing Luke's version of the Beatitudes. Notice that Luke's Beatitudes differ from the more familiar eight (nine, really) Beatiudes in Matthew in that the Third Gospel presents them in a set of our blessings paralleled by a contrasting set of four woes. In Luke's version, Jesus first congratulates those who are poor, hungry, weeping and excluded, and he issues woes to those “who are rich, full, laughing , and well thought of.”
When Jesus blesses the poor and curses the rich, is he congratulating the economically deprived and condemning those with ample possessions? Although many argue that Matthew's “poor in spirit” dilutes Luke's “poor,” there is a growing consensus that by “poor” Jesus means not a social class but those who know their need for God. Of course, it frequently happens that those who feel the pinch of poverty have a lively sense of their need for God, whereas the affluent, with needs well provided for, often become numb to their need for God. Hearing Luke's blessings and woes after Jeremiah's picture of the sterile bush and the fertile tree can help us see that Jesus' pointed contrast presents not two situations but two orientations—Jeremiah's “flesh [self] or God.”
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University