Whenever we read passages like this, it’s helpful to keep one truth in mind: Jesus always spoke from experience.
So when he said that the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, and the persecuted were blessed, he was not just presenting a fanciful or idealistic set of dreams. He was speaking out of experience about what it was like to have his life shaped by his Father and not by any philosophy of worldly success.
Jesus knew what it meant to be poor and yet have the kingdom of God as his inheritance. He had nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58)—but not because he had no other option. No, he chose a life of simplicity because his heart was set on higher riches (Matthew 6:33). He deliberately chose to pray throughout the night (Luke 6:12) and to fast for forty days and nights (Matthew 4:2) because he wanted God to fill him up.
Jesus so wanted to give people everything he had received from his Father that he openly mourned his disciples’ unbelief and Jerusalem’s rejection of him (Mark 9:19; Matthew 23:37). Finally, he knew that, like the prophets, he would be hated, reviled, and persecuted—not because he was obnoxious but because his words struck against the hardness of sin in the human heart. But again, like the prophets, he could not keep from speaking out, so greatly did God’s love for his people compel him.
Jesus didn’t come to earth to be poor, hated, and sad. He came to reveal the kingdom of God to a fallen people. Likewise, he doesn’t call us to become poor, hated, or sad. No, he offers us an experience of his Father’s love so great that everything else pales in comparison. He offers us a kingdom so magnificent that we will willingly endure hardship for the sake of embracing this kingdom and spreading its message into the world. With such promises, why would we ever fear God’s calling?
Scott Hahn comments today's readings:
The blessings and woes we hear in today’s Gospel mark the perfection of all the wisdom of the Old Testament.
That wisdom is summed up with marvelous symmetry in today’s First Reading and Psalm: Each declares that the righteous—those who hope in the Lord and delight in His Law—will prosper like a tree planted near living waters. The wicked, who put their “trust in human beings,” are cursed to wither and die.
Jesus is saying the same thing in the Gospel. The “rich” and “poor” are, for Him, more than members of literal economic classes. Their material state symbolizes their spiritual state.
The rich are “the insolent” of today’s Psalm, boasting of their self-sufficiency, the strength of their flesh, as Jeremiah says in the First Reading. The poor are the humble, who put all their hope and trust in the Lord.
We’ve already seen today’s dramatic imagery of reversal in Mary’s “Magnificat.” There, too, the rich are cast down while the hungry are filled and the lowly exalted (see Luke 1:45-55 also 16:19-31).
That’s the upside-down world of the Gospel: in poverty we gain spiritual treasure unimaginable; in suffering and even dying “on account of the Son of Man,” we find everlasting life.
The promises of the Old Testament were promises of power and prosperity—in the here and now. The promise of the New Covenant is joy and true freedom even amid the misery and toil of this life. But not only that. As Paul says in today’s Epistle, we’re to be pitied if our hope is “for this life only.”
The blessings of God mean that we’ll laugh with the thanksgiving of captives released from exile (see Psalm 126:1-2), feast at the heavenly table of the Lord (see Psalm 107:3-9), “leap for joy” as John the Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb (see Luke 6:23; 1:41,44), and rise with Christ, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”