29 Jan., 2017. 4th Sunday, Year A

Theme: The beatitudes are the basic Christian ideals for living, not a set of rules to avoid God’s punishment. They aim to raise our vision above the limits of self-interest and gain.

1st Reading: Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13

I will leave among you a people humble and lowly

Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s wrath.

For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord – the remnant of Israel; they shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.

2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:26-31

God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong

For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let whoever boasts, boast of the Lord.”

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

The spirit of the Kingdom: the Beatitudes

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


A Church in tune with the Gospel (J A Pagola)

When he wrote his version of the Beatitudes, Matthew takes a different tack than Luke as he tries to trace the qualities that should characterize the followers of Jesus. What do those qualities mean for us, as a community, in these times when our Church needs to find its best way of living in the midst of a secularized society?

In the style of Pope Francis, José Antonio Pagola offers this paraphrase of the Beatitudes, applying them to the life and ideals of Christ’s Church, today:

“Blessed the Church that is «poor in spirit» and has a simple heart, who acts without dominance or arrogance, without wealth or splendor, only sustained by Jesus’ humble authority. There, God can truly reign.

Blessed the Church who «mourns» with those who mourn and suffers as she is stripped of privileges and power, since she can better share the fate of those who lose all, thereby sharing Jesus’ destiny. One day she will be consoled by God.

Blessed the Church who renounces imposing herself by force, coercion or subjection, always practicing her Lord and Master’s gentleness. She will one day inherit the promised land.

Blessed the Church who has «hunger and thirst for justice» both within herself and for the whole world, since she will seek her own conversion and work for a more just and dignified life for all, starting with the least. Her longing will be satisfied by God.

Blessed the compassionate Church, that renounces rigorism and prefers mercy rather than sacrifice, as she welcomes sinners and doesn’t hide the Good News of Jesus from them. She will receive mercy from God.

Blessed the Church of «pure heart» and transparent conduct, who doesn’t cover up her sins or promote secrecy or ambiguity, as she walks in the truth of Jesus. One day she will see God.

Blessed the Church who «works for peace» and struggles against wars, who joins hearts and sows concord, as she spreads the peace of Jesus which the world can’t give. She will be God’s child.

Blessed the Church who suffers hostility and persecution on account of justice without fleeing martyrdom, as she learns how to mourn with victims and comes to know Jesus’ cross. There, God can truly reign..”

Today’s society needs to know Christian communities marked by this spirit of the Beatitudes. Only a Gospel Church has authority and credibility to show Jesus’ face to men and women today.

Christian Soul-searching

The Beatitudes call us to soul-searching and prompt a certain feeling of unease each time we hear them. But Jesus spoke them as an encouragement to us. They are not a law and lay no yoke on the disciple’s shoulders. In eight striking sentences they portray the marvellous freedom that a believer can enjoy. Jesus speaks from experience, because he lived the Beatitudes in his own life, and it is only by living them ourselves that we can discover how true they are.

Although they are not commands, they are revolutionary; and how revolutionary can be seen when they are compared with the beatitudes advocated by  the Old Testament wisdom tradition. This describes as happy the man who has a good wife, obedient children, faithful friends, who succeeds and prospers in all he puts his hand to. But according to Jesus, the truly blessed are not the wealthy, the socially celebrated and successful, but rather the poor, the hungry, the mourners, the despised and persecuted. We grasp this if we can answer the question, “Whom did Jesus have in mind when he spoke about the “poor in spirit”?” Was it the dispossesed, or those with plenty of resources without being over attached to them, or perhaps the people who were convinced that material things mean nothing and that God means everything? In fact the vast majority of the population of the Greco-Roman world in those times enjoyed little material prosperity.

In line with the Old Testament, it would seem that St Matthew’s “poor in spirit” was a reference, not so much to those lacking worldly possessions, but rather to those who found themselves in humble circumstances and continued to make do without complaint, those whose spirits remained free despite their lowly social standing and their servile duties, which were in such stark contrast to the arrogance of those who controlled the sources of wealth, and also were its main beneficiaries. Hundreds of years earlier the Psalmist prayed, “This poor man called, and the Lord heard him, and saved him from all his distress” (Ps 34:6). Such a person had some detachment from material things because he knew that they would not bring him complete happiness or security, and so he relied on God, confident that God alone would give him help and hope and strength.

But this does not mean that material poverty is a good thing. It simply is not. Jesus, fr example, would never regard that state as blessed where people live in slums without having enough to eat, and where health degenerates because conditions are all against it.

Paradoxically, Jesus himself never initiated any social reform, nor campaigned to redistribute wealth. “Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth, where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal, but rather lay up treasures for yourselves in heaven” he said in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6:19+). Despite his miraculous feeding of the multitudes Jesus’ concern never stopped short at the material goods, or lack of them, in peoples’ lives.

It was on people themselves, the human person  in relation to God, that Jesus focused his mission. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his saving justice, and all these other things will be given you as well” (Mt 6:33). And there is absolutely no doubt that his sympathy went out to the humble and those who were burdened, the outcasts like sinners and publicans who lived a despised existence on the verge of Jewish society. His love went out to people who have only God to turn to, the powerless, those who mourn, those who are persecuted, abused and calumniated on account of Christ, all these will be comforted. They will have mercy shown them. Theirs will be the kingdom of heaven; in them the love of God will reveal itself as the meaning of life; they will be called children of God, they shall see God.

Happy Attitudes

Some years ago I visited to the Holy Land.  I probably went at the best time of the year, towards late April. I was quite surprised at how beautiful it was and particularly the places Jesus chose for the various happenings recorded in the gospel. One sunny morning I climbed the hill of the beatitudes overlooking the lake and sat down there reflecting on today’s reading. The hill was ablaze with flowers. It suddenly dawned on me that Jesus Christ was not only the Son of God but he also had a marvellous eye for the beauty of nature. The beauty of his words on than occasion were fittingly matched by the beauty of his surroundings.

Yet, what he said there was extraordinary and radical. How his listeners reacted to it then, I have no idea. I have some idea what the reaction would be today. Imagine a father or mother giving this list as advice to their eighteen year old son or daughter as they set out to make their way in the modem world. Were they to suggest that the attitudes to get on were the following, to be attached to poverty, to be gentle, to be activists for human rights and peace etc, their offspring might be forgiven for thinking their parents had gone crazy.

If they were poor in spirit, that is not dependent on others, especially people of influence, to get on, they wouldn’t go far. How often parents have said to me because they think the priest has influence: “You wouldn’t put in a word with so-and-so for my boy?” How often we imply if we do not say to our children:

“It’s not what you know but who you know that counts.” Whatever else gentleness or meekness may achieve, it won’t help you climb the ladder of success in the company. To do that you need to be pushy and aggressive and you may well need to be ruthless as well. We know well what happens to those “who hunger and thirst after right.” Their cases are well documented in history books. They end up, like St Paul or Andrei Sakharov, in a prison cell. Not many like Nelson Mandela become president after twenty-eight years in prison. Most finish up in an unmarked prison grave unknown and forgotten. The attitudes listed by Christ in his sermon are exactly the opposite of what the world demands of the successful. As St Paul says: “It was to shame the wise that God chose what is foolish by human reckoning, those whom the world thinks common and contemptible are the ones God has chosen.”

We speak a lot nowadays about “practising Catholics.” We have reduced practice, conveniently for ourselves, to one single solitary item. And one that is not too demanding at that, attendance at Sunday Mass. There is no mention of that in the sermon on the mount. Christ did not set up a moral code with the “i’s” dotted and the “t’s” crossed. He probably knew we were good at that ourselves, if the Pharisees were anything to go by. He simply pointed out the attitudes needed to enter the kingdom of heaven.

These “happy attitudes” are the charter of the kingdom. They are ideals and like all ideals well-nigh unattainable. What is the point of them then? They are the heights we aim at and measure our standards against. Fortunately for us, history throws up rare examples of individuals who incarnate one or other of these beatitudes, like a Francis of Assisi or a Mother Teresa of Calcutta. There are many others whom we know nothing about “whose godly deeds have not failed.” As St Paul says in today’s reading: “You, God has made members of Christ Jesus and by God’s doing he has become our wisdom, and our virtue, and our holiness, and our freedom.”

Condensed Gospel

Today’s gospel, naming the beatitudes, is like a summary of Jesus’ teaching. It is the gospel in a condensed form and, therefore, requires a great deal of teasing Out to get to the simple point-by-point message that it contains.

We are all familiar with political manifestos. These are statements about where the political party is at, what they stand for, what is in it for you if you vote for them, and what they intend to achieve if you elect them. Many people are quite cynical about politicians, and politics in general. No matter how sincere their promises are, many of them fail to deliver on those promises. Today’s gospel is Jesus’ Manifesto. The important thing for us to remember is that, in the words of Jesus, “heaven and earth will pass away before my word passes away.” In other words this is a manifesto in which he certainly will keep his side of the bargain.

There is a lot of teaching contained in today’s gospel, and it would not be possible for us now to reflect on it at any great length. Let me try to put the beatitudes into simple ordinary words, and that, in itself, might help us. They are blessed who are detached, and have a humble attitude. Even if they have great riches, the riches do not possess them, nor are they boastful and proud about them. Grief is the price you pay for love, so, if you have any capacity for love, then you will need to carry some tissues with you. If you never want to cry at a funeral, don’t ever love anyone. The meek and the gentle are the opposite to the bully, and they are the ones who are really powerful. Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King refused to fight back, so the only way to stop them was to kill them.

They are good people who have a real desire for justice and fair play, and who are prepared to ensure that this is available to others. As you treat others, so you yourself will be treated, so if you want mercy, forgiveness, and compassion, then you must begin by giving this to others. A pure heart is not devious, deceitful, selfish, and cunning. A pure heart reflects an aspect of God. Jesus did not say that they are blessed who have peace. Rather did he commend those who build bridges of peace and reconciliation between others, and between themselves and others?

Jesus warns us that, if we follow him, we will be treated like he was. There is a cost in Pentecost, and following him means taking up the cross. Right from the beginning when Simeon took the child in his arms in the temple, he announced that Jesus would be a sign of contradiction. Everything he said, everything he did, and everything he stood for, was a contradiction to this world and its values. Those with power, prestige, and control were threatened by him. The religious leaders who ran the show, and who were the final arbiters as to what was right and wrong, were so threatened by him that they planned and succeeded in killing him.

Response: There is a certain sense of cleansing in today’s gospel. It is about letting go of things in our lives that are not life giving, and about becoming wholesome and free. It is a programme for living, a blueprint for inner peace and happiness. Religion runs the risk of being about rules and regulations and, ultimately, about control. Spirituality is totally the work of the Holy Spirit, and it is about surrender. Spirituality is about letting go, knowing that, in death, I must let go of everything anyhow.

To live life more fully, it is necessary to be as free from outside controls as possible. I can have wealth, but it need not control me, and drive me in a compulsive way towards accumulating more and more wealth. When I forgive someone, I am setting myself free. Having a resentment against another is a case of me drinking poison, and I’m expecting the other person to die! When I am authentic, or pure of heart, I become a life-giving person, and I mediate life to others. It’s rather frightening to think that if I am inauthentic, lam mediating death to others.

When I take Jesus and his message seriously, and decide to follow him and to belong to his kingdom, then I can be sure and certain of meeting opposition. Quite a lot of that opposition will come from within myself. Self-preservation is a fundamental human instinct. Following Jesus involves dying – to self, to my creature comforts, to my pride, etc. If I let my head take over, rather than responding from the heart, then I risk getting sidetracked into endless cul-de-sacs. Prudence will advice me to hold back, and not get too involved. Procrastination will cause me to do nothing, really, because I will end up not doing anything today that I can put off till to-morrow.

This is one of those days when I wish I had copies of today’s gospel, and a highlight marker, to give to each of you as you leave. I would ask you to read, and re-reread the Beatitudes and highlight those words you wish to take to heart. Do we ever take time out to reflect on how we are living our life? Part of the weaknesses of our human condition is that it blinds us to the reality of how we are. I could be a bully, and be the only one around who doesn’t know that. It is a good thing, from time to time, to take the lamp of truth and go inside, and see what’s happening there.

Today’s gospel is all about blessings, a whole shower of blessings, when I make myself available to receive them. I open my heart, and I ask the Holy Spirit to imprint the words of today’s gospel on my heart and on my life. I accept the words as a guide to wholesome living, and a way to the life God intends for me.

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