Compared to the majority of people in the world, most of us who are reading this are relatively rich. We rarely, if ever, experience involuntary hunger or serious maltreatment by others. Hearing Jesus’s “woes” for the rich, full, and respected, then, may be a little unnerving. It should be! His stark words are meant to get our attention and make us reflect deeply on what we assume makes up a “good life” in the eyes of God.
From Jesus’s point of view, a truly good life is just as available to the poor and oppressed as to the rich and secure. That is because it has nothing to do with one’s economic status or one’s apparent success, as judged by one’s culture. Rather, all that is required to flourish as abundantly as a tree planted beside the stream is to sink one’s roots deeply into God. Even in times of drought or poverty, such a tree “shows no distress, but still bears fruit.” The one who relies only on the nourishment of worldly wealth and security, on the other hand, is as barren as a tree growing in a lava waste.
Some have tried to make Jesus’s message into an overtly political one by asserting that by calling the poor “blessed,” he counsels them to be content with their lowly status and not to protest injustice. Others read into his “woes” the opposite message: the rich are rejected by God, who therefore endorses violent uprising against them. Both of these, however, miss the central point. The one thing that matters is making trust in God utterly central in all aspects of one’s life. This alone is the source of joy, righteous living, and true discernment.
The reading from First Corinthians goes deeper into why this is so, and what difference it makes. While what our eyes can see in ordinary earthly terms is that Jesus has died, the deeper reality is that Christ has been raised from the dead. While we do not fully understand what a resurrected life is like, we know it means that Jesus still lives among us. This faith changes everything. When we are rooted in relationship with the risen one, the living water of the Spirit is a fount within our hearts. Staying in touch with this fount is what can make our life joyful, fruitful, and holy.
The resurrection of Christ, moreover, has profound implications for every aspect of our lives, because it is an affirmation that the embodied and social dimensions of our lives matter to God. The people Paul was arguing against when he wrote First Corinthians didn’t think the body mattered in the spiritual life. For them, connection with God was sheerly spiritual. That Jesus was raised, and tells us that we will be as well, is an affirmation that embodiment is fully embraced by God. A few verses later in First Corinthians, Paul compares the body we now experience to a “seed” that will blossom into the resurrection body (1 Cor 15:35-49). Thus, the resurrection body will not be the same as our present embodiment, but it is in some way in continuity with it.
This means that making political choices about matters that have an impact on people’s bodily and social lives — that is, whether they are hungry or marginalized or maltreated — is an essential part of our Christian vocation. While we must be cautious about overly simplistic attempts to politicize Jesus’s message, we must be equally wary of the idea that rooting our lives in prayer permits us to float above the fray. Everything about Jesus’s life shows that he was absolutely committed to embodied compassion for the poor, the sick, the rejected, and those caught up in sin. Sincere Christians may make different choices about the best means to achieve a more just and compassionate society, but our criteria of discernment must surely be the same as his.