Hearts of Prayer- Lenten Season

"Blessed Are You Who Hunger Now, for You Will Satisfied"
3rd Lenten Sermon
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, Pontifical Household Preacher
March 25, 2007


1. The beatitudes and the historical Jesus

The research on the historical Jesus, so in fashion today -- whether it be conducted by scholars who are believers or the radical research of nonbelievers -- hides a grave danger: It can lead one to believe that only what, for this new approach, can be verified of the earthly Jesus is "authentic" while all the rest would be nonhistorical and therefore "inauthentic." This would mean unjustifiably limiting God's means for revealing himself to history alone. It would mean tacitly abandoning such a truth of faith as biblical inspiration and therefore the revealed character of Scripture.

It appears that the attempt not to narrow New Testament research to the historical approach is beginning to gain momentum among various biblical scholars. In 2005 a consultation on "Canon Criticism and Theological Interpretation" was held at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome with the participation of eminent New Testament scholars. The consultation had the purpose of promoting the aspect of biblical interpretation that takes the canonical dimension of the Scriptures into account and integrates it with historical research and the theological dimension.

From all this we conclude that the "word of God," and therefore that which is normative for the believer, is not the hypothetical "original nucleus" variously reconstructed by historians, but that which is written in the Gospels. The results of historical research must be taken seriously because they even guide the understanding of the posterior developments of the tradition; but we will continue to pronounce the exclamation "The Word of God!" at the end of the of the reading of the Gospel text, not at the end of the reading of the latest book on the historical Jesus.

These observations are particularly helpful when we deal with the use we should make of the Gospel beatitudes. It has come to be known that the beatitudes have reached us in two different versions. Matthew has eight beatitudes, Luke only four, followed by corresponding contrary "woes"; in Matthew the discourse is indirect: "Blessed are the poor ... blessed are the hungry"; in Luke the discourse is direct: "Blessed are you who are poor ... blessed are you who hunger"; Luke has "poor" and "hungry," Matthew has poor "in spirit" and hungry for "justice."

After all the critical work done to distinguish that which, in the beatitudes, comes from the historical Jesus and that which comes from Matthew and Luke,[1] the task of the believer of today is not to choose one of the versions as authentic and leave the other aside. What needs to be done rather is to gather up the message contained in both versions and -- according to the contexts and necessities of today -- give precedence, from time to time, to one or the other perspective as the two Evangelists themselves did in their time.

2. Who are the hungry and the satiated?

Following this principle, let us reflect today on the beatitude of the hungry, taking Luke's version as our point of departure: "Blessed are you who hunger, for you will be satisfied." We will see later that Matthew's version, which speaks of "hunger for justice" is not opposed to Luke's version but confirms and reinforces it.

The hungry of Luke's beatitude are not in a different category from the poor mentioned in the first beatitude. They are the same poor people considered in their most dramatic condition: the lack of food. In a parallel way the "satiated" are the rich, who in their prosperity, can satisfy not only their needs but also their wants in regard to food. It is Jesus himself who is concerned to explain who the satiated and who the hungry are. He does this with the parable of the rich man and the poor man Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). This parable also looks at poverty and prosperity under the aspect of lack of food and superabundance of food: the rich man "feasted sumptuously every day"; the poor man desired in vain "to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table."

The parable, however, explains not only who the hungry and the satiated are but also and above all why the former are called blessed and the latter are called unfortunate. "One day the poor man died and was carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried ... and was tormented in Hades." This reveals where the two roads lead: the narrow one of poverty and the broad and spacious one of thoughtlessness.

Prosperity and being satiated tend to enclose man in an earthly horizon because "where your treasure is, there is your heart" (Luke 12:34); gluttony and drunkenness weigh down the heart, suffocating the seed of the word (cf. Luke 21:34); they cause the rich man to forget that that very night he might be asked to give an account of his life (Luke 16:19-31); they make entering into the kingdom "more difficult than the passing of a camel through the eye of a needle" (Luke 18:25).

The rich man and the other rich people of the Gospel are not condemned just because they are rich but for the use they make or do not make of their riches. In the parable of the rich man Jesus makes it clear that there is a way out for the rich man: He could think of Lazarus at his door and share his sumptuous feast with him.

The remedy, in other words, is for the rich to make friends with the poor (cf. Luke 16:9); the unfaithful steward is praised for doing this but in the wrong way (Luke 16:1-8). Satiety, however, drains the spirit and makes it very difficult for one to follow the road to assisting the poor; the story of Zaccheus shows how it is possible but also how rare it is. Thus we can understand the reason for the "woe" directed to the rich and satiated; but it is a "woe" that is more of a "Look out!" than a "Be accursed!"

3. He has filled the hungry with good things

From this point of view the best commentary on the beatitudes of the hungry and the poor is that pronounced by Mary in the Magnificat.

"He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones, he has exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, he has sent the rich away empty-handed" (Luke 1:51-53).

With a series of strong aorist verbs, Mary describes a reversal and a radical change of places among men: "He has cast down -- he has exalted"; "he has filled -- he has sent away empty-handed." Something has already happened or typically happens in God's acting. Looking at history, it does not seem that that there has been a social revolution in which the rich, by a stroke, have been impoverished and the hungry have had their fill. If therefore what we expected was a social and visible change, history suggests that a lie has been told.

The reversal has happened, but in faith! The kingdom of God has been revealed and this has provoked a silent but radical revolution. The rich man is like a person who has set aside a large sum of money; during the night there is a coup d'Útat and the value of the money has dropped 100%; the rich man wakes up the next morning but he does not know that he has been reduced to poverty. The poor and the hungry, on the contrary, have gained an advantage because they are better prepared to accept the new reality, they do not fear the change; they have a ready heart.

St. James, addressing the rich, said: "Weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted" (James 5:1-2). Even here there is no report from the time of St. James that the wealth of the rich rotted in the granaries. What the apostle is saying rather is that something has come which has made the wealth of the rich lose all its value; a new wealth has been revealed. "God," St. James writes, "chose the poor of the world to make them rich with faith and heirs of the kingdom" (James 2:5).

More than an "incitement to cast down the mighty from their thrones and exalt the lowly," as it has sometimes been written, the Magnificat is a salutary admonition addressed to the rich and powerful about the tremendous danger they are courting; it is just like the "woes" Jesus pronounces in the parable of the rich man.

4. A parable with contemporary relevance

It is not enough for a reflection on the beatitude of the hungry and the satiated to stop at an explanation of their exegetical significance; it must also help us to read the situation around us with evangelical eyes and to act in accord with the meaning of the beatitude.

The parable of the rich man and the poor man Lazarus repeats itself today in our midst on a global scale. The two characters stand precisely for two hemispheres: The rich man represents the Northern Hemisphere (Western Europe, America, Japan); Lazarus is, with a few exceptions, the Southern Hemisphere. Two characters, two worlds: the "First World" and the "Third World." Two worlds of unequal greatness: What we call the "Third World" in fact represents "Two Thirds of the World." (The usage of this new term is growing.)

Someone has compared the earth to a spaceship on a voyage through the cosmos. In the spaceship one of the three astronauts consumes 85% of the resources present and takes it upon himself to try to grab the remaining 15%. Waste is normal in the rich countries. Years ago research conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that of 161 billion kilos (354.9 billion pounds) of food products, 43 billion -- that is, a fourth -- end up in the garbage. If we wanted to, we could easily recover about 2 billion kilos (4.4 billion pounds) of this food that has been thrown away, a quantity that would be sufficient to feed 4 million people for one year.

Indifference -- pretending not to see, "passing to the other side of the road" (cf. Luke 10:31) -- is perhaps the greatest sin committed against the poor and hungry. Ignoring the great multitude of hungry, beggars, homeless, those without medical care, and above all those without hope for a better future -- Pope John Paul II wrote in the encyclical "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis" -- "means becoming like the rich man who pretended not to know the beggar Lazarus laying at his gate."[2]

We tend to put between ourselves and the poor double glass panes. Double panes -- much in use today -- prevent cold and noise from entering; whatever reaches us gets muffled and weakened. And in fact we see the poor move about, get upset, and cry out behind the television screen, on the pages of the newspaper and missionary magazines, but their cry reaches us from far away. It does not reach the heart or only touches it for a moment.

The first thing to do in regard to the poor, therefore, is to break the "double panes," overcome indifference and insensitivity, throw down the defenses, and allow ourselves to be invaded by a healthy unease on account of the frightening misery that there is in the world. We are called to share the sigh of Christ: "I feel compassion for this crowd that has nothing to eat": "Misereor super turba" (cf. Mark 8:2). When we have the occasion to see what misery and hunger is with our own eyes, visiting the villages in the rural interior or on the outskirts of great cities in certain African countries (this happened to me some months ago in Rwanda), we are choked up by compassion and left without words.

The elimination or reduction of the unjust and scandalous abyss that exists between the satiated and the hungry of the world is the most urgent and most enormous task that humanity has left undone as we enter the new millennium. It is a task in which the religions above all must distinguish themselves and cooperate beyond all rivalry. Such a momentous undertaking cannot be promoted by any political leader or power influenced by the interests of their own nation and often by powerful economic forces. The Holy Father Benedict XVI gave an example with the forceful appeal he directed to the members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See: "Among the key issues, how can we not think of the millions of people, especially women and children, who lack water, food, or shelter? The worsening scandal of hunger is unacceptable in a world which has the resources, the knowledge, and the means available to bring it to an end."[3]

6. "Blessed are they who hunger for justice"

I said at the beginning that the two versions of the beatitude of the hungry, that of Luke and that of Mark, do not pose alternatives but go together. Matthew does not speak of material hunger but of hunger and thirst for "justice." There have been two basic interpretations of these words.

One, in line with Lutheran theology, interprets Matthew's beatitude in light of what St. Paul will later say about justification through faith. To have hunger and thirst for justice means being aware of one's own need for justice and the impossibility of attaining it on one's own and therefore the need humbly to wait for it from God. The other interpretation sees in this justice "not that which God himself does or that which he grants but rather that which he demands from man";[4] in other words, the works of justice.

Following this interpretation, which has for quite some time been the more common and the more plausible exegetically, the material hunger of Luke and the spiritual hunger of Matthew are no longer unconnected. Helping the hungry and the poor is among the works of justice and, indeed, according to Matthew it will be the criterion for the separation of the just and the reprobate at the end (cf. Matthew 25).

All the justice that God asks of man is summarized in the double precept of love of God and neighbor (cf. Matthew 22:40). It is the love of neighbor that should move those who hunger for justice to concern themselves with those who hunger for bread. It is from this great principle that the Gospel acts in the social realm. Liberal theology understood this principle well.

"In no part of the Gospel," writes one of the most illustrious representatives of liberal theology, Adolph von Harnack, "do we find it taught that we should be indifferent to our brothers. Evangelical indifference (not worrying about food, clothing, the concerns of tomorrow) more than anything else expresses that which each soul should feel in regard to the world, in regard to its goods and enticements. However, when it is a question of our neighbor, the Gospel does not want to hear about indifference, but imposes love and piety. In other words, the Gospel considers the spiritual and temporal needs of our brothers as inseparable."[5]

The Gospel does not incite the hungry to seek justice on their own, to rise up. In the time of Jesus, unlike today, the poor had no theoretical or practical instrument to do this; so the Gospel does not ask of them the useless sacrifice of losing their lives following some zealot, some Spartacus. Jesus himself will confront the wrath and sarcasm of the rich with his "woes" (cf. Luke 16:14); he does not leave this job to the victims.

To try to find at all costs in the Gospel models and explicit invitations addressed to the poor and the hungry to rise up and change their situation on their own is foolish and anachronistic and loses sight of the true contribution that the Gospel can make to their cause. In this connection Rudolph Bultmann is right when he writes that "Christianity ignores every project for transforming the world and it does not have proposals to present for the reform of political and social conditions,"[6] even if this claim is in need of some qualification.

The way of the beatitudes is not the only way for confronting the problem of wealth and poverty, hunger and content; there are others, made possible by the progress of social consciousness, to which Christians rightly give their support and the Church guidance with its social teachings.

The great message of the beatitudes is that, regardless of what the rich and satiated do or do not do for them, even so, in the actual state of things, the situation of the poor and the hungry for justice is preferable to that of the former.

There are structures and aspects of reality that cannot be observed with the naked eye but only with the help of a special light, with infrared or ultraviolet rays. Much use is made of these in satellite photos. The image obtained with this light is very different and surprising for those who are used to seeing the same panorama in natural light. The beatitudes are like infrared rays: They give us a different image of reality, in fact the only true one because it shows what will remain after the "figure of this world" has passed.

7. Eucharist and sharing

Jesus has left us the perfect antithesis of the rich man's feast, namely, the Eucharist. It is the daily celebration of the great feast to which the master will invite "the poor, the deformed, the blind, and the lame" (Luke 16:21), that is, all the poor Lazaruses who are wandering about. In the Eucharist perfect "table fellowship" is realized: There is the same food and the same drink, and in the same amount for all, for the one who presides, for the one who arrives last, for the wealthiest and the poorest of the poor.

The link between material bread and spiritual bread was quite visible in the early Church, when the Lord's Supper, which was called "agape," took place in the context of a fraternal meal in which common bread and Eucharistic bread were shared.

To the Corinthians who were divided on this point St. Paul wrote: "When you meet together it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk" (1 Corinthians 11:20-22). This is a grave accusation; it intends to say: "Your gathering is no longer a Eucharist!"

Today the Eucharist is no longer celebrated in the context of a common meal, but the contrast between those who have more than enough and those who lack necessities has assumed a global dimension. If we project what Paul describes in the local church of Corinth onto the universal Church, we are disturbed by the realization that this (objectively but not always as a matter of guilt) is what is happening today. Among the millions of Christians on the various continents who will be participating in Mass next Sunday there will be those (such as ourselves) who will return to homes where they have every good from God at their disposition and there will be others who have nothing to give their children to eat.

The recent postsynodal exhortation on the Eucharist forcefully reminds us: "The food of truth demands that we denounce inhumane situations in which people starve to death because of injustice and exploitation, and it gives us renewed strength and courage to work tirelessly in the service of the civilization of love."[7]

The money which the Church designates for this purpose -- for the sustaining of the various national and diocesan charities, soup kitchens for the poor, initiatives for providing food in developing countries -- this is the best-spent money. One of the signs of the vitality of our traditional religious communities are the soup kitchens that exist in almost every city, which distribute thousands of meals every day in a respectful and hospitable climate. It is a drop in the ocean but even the ocean, Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, is made up of many small drops.

I would like to end with the prayer that we say every day before meals in my community: "Bless, O Lord, this food that from your bounty we are about to take, help us to provide also for those who have no food and grant that we may participate one day in your heavenly meal. Through Christ our Lord."

[1] Cf. J. Dupont, "Le beatitudini," 2 vol. Edizioni Paoline, 1992.
[2] John Paul II, "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis," No. 42.
[3] "Address of Benedict XVI delivered in the Vatican Apostolic Palace to members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See," Monday, January 8, 2007.

[4] Cf. Dupont, vol. 2, pp. 554 ff.
[5] A. von Harnack, "Il cristianesimo e la societÓ," Mendrisio, Cultura Moderna, 1911, pp. 12 ff.
[6] R. Bultmann, "Il cristianesimo primitivo," Milano, Garzanti, 1964, p. 203.

[7] "Sacramentum Caritatis," No. 90.


Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa
is a Franciscan Capuchin Catholic Priest. Born in Ascoli Piceno, Italy, 22 July 1934, ordained priest in 1958. Divinity Doctor and Doctor in classical literature. In 1980 he was appointed by Pope John Paul II Preacher to the Papal Household in which capacity he still serves, preaching a weekly sermon in Advent and Lent.

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