Paul Brian Campbell, S.J.
Today the USCCB [the US Conference of Catholic Bishops] asks us to pray for peace in our communities. As well as that, we mark the feast of Peter Claver, S.J. These two intentions go together very well.
Peter Claver was born near Barcelona in 1580. While studying at the university, Peter wrote in his journal, “I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death, on the understanding that I am like a slave.” He remained true to this pledge until his death. He joined the Jesuits at age 20 and volunteered to go to Cartagena in [modern day] Colombia. During his studies there, he became increasingly distressed at the bad treatment of the many thousands of slaves being brought in from West Africa.
During 40 years of ministry, it’s estimated that he baptized more than 300,000 slaves. He saw them as fellow Christians and urged the authorities to grant them their civil rights. He would visit them on their plantations and sleep in their quarters rather than accept the hospitality of the slave owners. He died in 1654 after a long and debilitating illness.
Peter Claver worked his entire life for the poorest and most vulnerable in his society. On this day of Prayer for Peace in our Communities, we’d do well to remember that we must not overlook those amongst us who are suffering the most in these turbulent days.
Our Gospel from Luke fits perfectly with today’s themes. His ‘Sermon on the Plain’ more or less parallels Matthew’s ‘Sermon on the Mount.’ Like Matthew, Luke begins with the Beatitudes. But there are striking differences: Matthew has eight Beatitudes, while Luke has four “Blesseds” and four contrasting “Woes.” Luke’s version is more direct and hard-hitting, and scholars think that it may well be closer to what Jesus actually said.
Luke speaks of material conditions in this life that will be overturned. Later in this Gospel, this will be graphically illustrated in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Luke has Jesus speak in the second person: “Blessed are you” and “Woe to you” rather than in the third person as Matthew does (“Blessed are those who…”) He doesn’t speak of the “poor in spirit” but of “you who are poor” and he certainly means the materially deprived. Luke’s is a gospel for the markedly poor and distressed. That’s why he has Jesus born in poverty and dying naked and destitute (without even his friends.)
Jesus tells those who are poor and hungry and abused to rejoice and to “dance for joy.” There are two reasons: because their reward will be “great in heaven” and because that is the way the prophets in the past were treated (and the way Jesus the Prophet will also be treated…)
His “woes” (e.g., “But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry”) turn our worldview upside down. They have to be seen in the light of the Kingdom, in the kind of society that Jesus came to set up, a society based on mutual love, sharing and support. It’s a Kingdom for this world and not just for the next. The coming of such a society could only be good news for the poor and destitute, for those suffering from hunger, for those depressed by deep sorrow and for those abused and rejected for their commitment to Jesus and his Way.
On the other hand, it wouldn’t be good news for those who amass material wealth at the expense of others, who indulge in excessive consumption of the world’s goods, who live centered on hedonism and pleasure, and who feed off the envy and adulation of those around them. There’s really no place for such people in the Kingdom. To enter fully into the Kingdom, they have to unload all these concerns and obsessions and let go.
May God give us the grace to let go of any wealth that gets in the way of our embracing the Kingdom.