When all is said and
done, what will
things be like in
the Kingdom of
believe that at some point in the
future—only God knows when—Jesus
Christ will return and complete the
work he began 2,000 years ago, bringing
about the fullness of the Reign of
God. When that happens, time, history
and everything else will be
What will life be like for us then?
Well, we don't know exactly. God has
not revealed to us the details; he seems
to be saving that for a surprise.
The Gospel of Luke, which we will
hear continuously this year on Sundays
in Ordinary Time and Lent, assures
us that the Kingdom of God, in its fullness,
will confound all our expectations
and will overturn our experiences.
In fact, in the Kingdom of God everything
will be turned upside down.
This is especially true when it comes
to power, privilege and wealth. Luke
assures us time and again that in God's
Kingdom those who struggle in life
now—those who are at the bottom or
on the edges of human society—will
suddenly find themselves at the top
and in the center.
On the other hand, he warns those
who now enjoy the greatest human
security and social advantage that their
experience may be very different. As
Jesus tells his listeners on one occasion,
"Behold, some are last who will be
first, and some are first who will be
last"(Luke 13:30, New American Bible,
also used for other quotes). This notion
that in the end God will turn everything
we know upside down is often
called the "Great Reversal."It is a hallmark
of Luke's Gospel, where it appears
The announcement of the Great Reversal
appears early in the Gospel in the
Magnificat (1:46-55), Mary's great song
of praise. Shortly after she consents to
become the mother of Jesus, the young girl from the little town of Nazareth
hurries to visit her cousin Elizabeth
who, she has learned from the Angel
Gabriel, has conceived a child in her old
age. When the two meet, Elizabeth
bursts into a joyous welcome for "the
mother of my Lord"(1:43).
Mary responds by offering praise to
God for what he has done for her:
"My soul proclaims the greatness of
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid's
Mary represents the most powerless
and insignificant people in her society:
young, female, poor. Yet God has
chosen her—of all people—to be the
mother of the long-awaited Messiah.
Mary's lowliness, which in human eyes
would surely disqualify her from even
being considered for such an unimaginably
important role in God's plan of
salvation, is exactly what makes her so
perfect for it.
Mary is "lowly"not simply in social
status, but also in her relationship to
God. Her social vulnerability allows
her to be spiritually vulnerable as well.
She is humble, open to the call of God,
however frightening it may be, however
impossible it may seem. Because she
knows she is so dependent on God's
mercy, she is radically free and open to
put herself at the disposal of God's
Although she sings that "the Mighty
One has done great things for me"(1:49), Mary also understands that what
God has done for her as an individual
is a sign of God's concern for all the
"He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and
He has thrown down the rulers from
but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good
the rich he has sent away empty."(1:51-53)
God's action on Mary's behalf signals
an overturning of society as a
whole. Not only are the lowly lifted
up and the hungry fed well, but the rich
and the powerful have actually lost
their positions in society. What God
intends is not just that those who are
without will have, but that those who
have will be without.
This is a declaration of God's judgment
on the arrogant and the proud,
the exact opposite of the lowly and
humble. Such people are not open to
hearing the call of God and, as will
become quite evident in the rest of the
Gospel, are particularly resistant to
hearing Jesus proclaim the Kingdom
Their sense of security and well-being
prevents them from seeing how dependent
they are on God's mercy. Thus,
their social invulnerability has created
in them a similar spiritual invulnerability.
The proud and arrogant effectively
shut themselves out of the Kingdom,
resisting the call to conversion and the
acceptance of God's mercy, the two
keys to that Kingdom.
What are we to make of the fact that
Mary declares that these things have
already happened? Anyone could see
2,000 years ago that the rich and powerful
were still quite rich and quite
powerful, and that the lowly and hungry
were no better off than before.
According to some scholars, the original
Greek uses the past tense here to
indicate habitual action, so that Mary
is describing a God who routinely
upsets the rich and powerful while raising
up the lowly.
Other scholars argue that the past
tense here means what it often does
when used by biblical prophets, to indicate
a future event that has been firmly
declared by God. In that sense, it is as
good as done.
While one does not have to choose
either of these options, the Magnificat
clearly refers to an eschatological reversal,
that is, to one that will occur in the
coming age. We recognize this as
already inaugurated by God's making
Mary the mother of the Messiah.
God's Great Reversal will become a significant,
and disturbing, feature of the
teaching of Jesus. In his Sermon on the
Plain (6:20-49), Jesus proclaims these
four blessings (or beatitudes):
"Blessed are you who are poor,
for the Kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in
Poor, hungry, mourning and hated
people receive from Jesus a great consolation:
One day things will be different.
The poor and hungry of the
world are not blessed because they are
poor and hungry—poverty is not held
up here as a good thing—but because
what they do not have now, they will
one day have in the Kingdom of God,
which is already theirs!
Even those who experience rejection
because of Jesus should consider themselves
fortunate, not because being
hated is a good thing but because their
fidelity to the Son of Man in the face of
opposition assures them a place in
Hatred, poverty, mourning and
hunger are social evils that are not
acceptable to God, and never have
been, as the prophets relentlessly
insisted. Blessing lies not in being poor
or in being hated, but in the fact that
in the world to come, the poor and the
hated know that their fortunes will be
What is a consolation to the lowly in
this world is disturbing news for the
comfortable, whom Jesus informs what
they can expect:
"But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
But woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way."(6:24-26)
Each of the earlier blessings has been
matched by a corresponding woe. The
rich will have no need of consolation
in the coming age; they have it now.The well-fed, the carefree and even the
socially admired of this world will not
experience consolation in the coming
Like his mother before him, Jesus
makes the disturbing announcement
that the fullness of the Kingdom of
God might be less than enjoyable for
At this point, we might ask: What is
wrong with being wealthy, well-fed or
highly thought of? Doesn't God want
these things for all of us? It is easy to see
why Jesus would assure the poor and
hungry that one day their situation
will be remedied, but why should the
rich and well-fed be punished in the
coming age for their current prosperity?
Is there something wrong with being
prosperous or with enjoying the good
things in life? The answer is no; there
is not. But social and economic security
can blind us to certain realities and
make us deaf to others, making us
unable to respond to the ethical and the
spiritual demands of the Kingdom of
Later in the Gospel, Jesus tells a story
demonstrating that social invulnerability
can be spiritually dangerous.
There once was a rich man, Jesus tells
his disciples (16:19-31), who used to
dress in expensive clothes and dine
well every day. At his gate there was a
very poor man named Lazarus, who
instead of being covered with fine linen
was covered with sores. Instead of dining
sumptuously every day, Lazarus
longed for even the smallest scrap from
the rich man's table. After both men
die, the rich man finds himself in fiery
torment in the netherworld, while
Lazarus is comfortably beside Abraham
and all the righteous.
On seeing this, the rich man orders
Abraham to send Lazarus with water to
quench his thirst. Abraham refuses,
noting that the rich man had been very
comfortable in life.
Then the rich man begs Abraham to
send Lazarus to the rich man's brothers
to warn them, so that they can avoid
his fate. Still refusing, Abraham reminds
the man that his brothers have all the
warnings they need in the teachings of
Moses and the prophets.
Once again, we have the Great Reversal,
this time written in the lives of two
individuals. Their situations in this life
and the next can perhaps be understood
to represent those of the poor
and the rich in general. We can be quite
happy for Lazarus, who surely deserved
to receive great comfort with Abraham
after such a miserable life.
But what of the rich man? What was
his crime that he should deserve such
torment? Jesus makes it clear that it
was not his wealth that was the problem.
He is not condemned simply for
being rich and well-fed; he is condemned
because his good fortune
blinded him to the moral responsibility
he had toward Lazarus. The rich
man failed to take care of the poor, a
religious obligation made abundantly
clear in the teachings of Moses and the
prophets (see, for example, Deuteronomy
15:7-11, Amos 6:1-14 and Isaiah
Because the rich man addresses
Lazarus by name and obviously knew him in life, he does not even have the
excuse that he didn't know there was a
poor beggar suffering at his door. To
make matters worse, the rich man
seems to feel that even in death Lazarus
should serve him, first, by bringing
him some water and, then, by being a
messenger to his brothers.
Insensitivity to the plight of the poor
man is aggravated by arrogance and a
sense of entitlement. Despite the insistence
of his religious tradition that the
well-off must have compassion for the
poor, the rich man's comfort and satisfaction
with life made him deaf to
God's word. And so his fate is sealed
and his fortunes reversed.
Such a message must have been particularly
compelling, and probably not a
little challenging, for the Christians
who first received Luke's Gospel. It
seems clear that the evangelist himself
came from a privileged level of society
(his Greek is very sophisticated, indicating
a good education), and he most
likely was writing for other educated
and affluent Christians.
The question of wealth and possessions
comes up time and again both in
the Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles,
also written by Luke as a companion
piece to the Gospel. Acts also
emphasizes God's enduring love for
The relationship of material wellbeing
to discipleship must have been a
particularly critical issue for Luke's audience.
The question was: How should
Christians who are socially secure relate
to their own well-being and to the
needs of others?
Contemporary Christians, particularly
those of us who live in relatively
prosperous societies, are certainly called
to ask the same question. To those of us
who are able to enjoy material and
social prosperity, the Great Reversal
may seem like very Bad News indeed.
What are we to make of it? What does
Jesus want us to know?
One thing that is very clear about the
Great Reversal is that it is the work of
God, the God who acts to set things
right, to bring healing and liberation in
this world and in the next. It is not
something that humans can accomplish,
and so the announcement of the
Great Reversal is not a call for humanly
orchestrated social upheaval.
At the same time, it is not a call for
maintaining the status quo by assuring
poor people that their poverty is
a blessing. The call of Moses and the
prophets—and Jesus and the saints—is
not only to care for the disadvantaged
but also to work actively to bring about
economic justice for all people. This
charge remains our religious obligation,
just as it was for the rich man.
The Great Reversal assures us that
the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized—all those who count for nothing
in this world—count very much in the
Kingdom of God. The future holds great
promise for them because God cares
deeply for them.
For those who find this life easy and
satisfying, the Great Reversal serves as
a warning. While they are not evil in
themselves, wealth and power are spiritually
dangerous, always threatening to
lull us into complacency and insensitivity
to the needs of others.
They can also make us proud, relying
on our own resources and failing to
recognize our ultimate dependency on
God. Only when we recognize this
dependency can we, like Mary, open
ourselves to hear the call of God. Only
when we recognize our dependence on
God can we be humble enough to hear
Jesus' invitation into the Kingdom of
God, where the last in this world will
be first and the first in this world—the
proud, the arrogant, the satisfied—will
The Gospel of Luke: Cycle C
On the first Sunday of Advent every new liturgical year, we start continuous
readings from the Gospel of Matthew (Cycle A), Mark (B) or
Luke (C). We began Cycle C on November 29, 2009.
After we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord (January 10 in 2010),
we will have five Sundays in Ordinary Time before Lent begins (February
17). We continue reading from Luke during Lent, hear passages
from the Gospel of John during the Easter season, and then return
to Luke from the Feast of Corpus Christi (June 6) through the Feast
of Christ the King (November 21).
The Great Reversal in various forms is central to the following stories
found only in the Gospel of Luke and proclaimed during Cycle
C: Jesus reading from Isaiah in the synagogue and the ensuing controversy
over that, the raising of the son of the widow of Nain,
Martha's complaint about her sister Mary, ten lepers who were
cleansed, Zacchaeus the tax collector and, finally, the repentant
criminal crucified with Jesus.
Also unique to Luke and read in Cycle C are the parables of the
prodigal son, the Good Samaritan, the lost coin, the dishonest steward,
the unjust judge, the rich fool who tore down his barns, Lazarus
and the rich man, and also the Pharisee and the tax collector praying
in the Temple.
Scholars have quipped that there is a reversal around every corner
in Luke. Some people have called this "the upside-down Gospel."Luke
might respond that only Jesus enables us to see ourselves and our