January 29, 2017 — Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today’s Gospel Reading from Matthew recounts what we know as Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. This entire reflection could be devoted to that, of course, but as always, there are also messages that are important in the other readings. The Sermon on the Mount is the first of five teachings Jesus gives us in the Gospel of Matthew. The Lord gives this relatively early in His Ministry, not long after He has been baptized. In the entire New Testament this is the longest continuous section of Jesus speaking, and it is perhaps the most widely quoted of part of the four Canonical Gospels. It contains, after all, the central rules of discipleship.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (# 1716) this idea is supported as that states, “The Beatitudes are at the heart of Jesus’ preaching. They take up the promises made to the chosen people since Abraham. The Beatitudes fulfill the promises by ordering them no longer merely to the possession of a territory, but to the Kingdom of heaven.”
Probably every Catholic theologian and cleric has addressed the Beatitudes. On a Sunday with this same reading in his homily Pope Francis said in 2014, “These are our new commandments. However, if we do not have a heart open to the Holy Spirit, they will seem silly. The thought of being poor, being meek, being merciful does not seem to lead to what we consider to be modern success. But if we do not have an open heart and if we have not experienced the consolation of the Holy Spirit, which is salvation, we cannot understand this. This is the law of the free, with the freedom of the Holy Spirit.”
The First Reading is drawn from the Old Testament Book of Zephaniah. It was written at about the same time as Isaiah. We do not often hear readings from Zephaniah as it only contains about 1,400 words (compare that to our other two readings sources, 1 Corinthians with almost 7,000 words, and Matthew with more than 18,000 words.). The First Reading touches on traits on which we will be judged. It emphasizes the importance of humility, justice, and being lowly. Just as Pope Francis indicated in his homily on the Beatitudes, these are not traits many people in our world seek. Yet, these are exactly the kinds of attributes that follow lives of stewardship. That is why it is not easy.
In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (our Second Reading) the Apostle Paul also describes what it means to be a Christian and a steward, paralleling the First Reading and the Gospel. He reminds the Corinthians that they, too, need to be humble. It is possible that they, like many who felt they were “chosen,” had an inflated opinion of themselves, thinking that God favored them. In this reading Paul gently reminds them that God does not work that way. We need to keep that in mind ourselves; it is very easy when we feel that we have completely captured the secret of living, which may be true; however, we must take caution not to be self-righteous. Paul tells the Corinthians that they are not chosen because they are great, but because God is great.
Paul knows this firsthand; he was an educated man, but he also understood that the Lord selected fishermen and farmers first, and people like him second; the shepherds came first, then the wise men. Paul uses three words to emphasize his meaning — righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. Righteousness on our part is trying to live as Jesus told us; sanctification implies how we live, how we recognize that it is only through Christ that we are sanctified; and redemption reminds us of the sacrifice the Lord made in our behalf so we could be free and God would forgive our sins.
As indicated in the opening of this reflection, today’s Gospel provides us with instructions from Jesus as to what kind of people His disciples should be. There are more than enough key words on which to reflect and pray: poor, mourn, meek, hunger, mercy, peacemakers, clean, and persecuted to name a few. We could concentrate on each one, but it is worth pointing out that these are traits the Lord calls us to, and what He may mean by them.
For example, when Jesus says that to be blessed we need to “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” He is reminding us what our focus in life should be. In our world people hunger for many things that may not be that important — things like power and success and wealth and possessions and comfort. The idea of being righteous in His eyes is more important than any of those. When He calls us to be peacemakers, He probably does not mean that we do not just live in peace, but that we need to bring peace to others.
Finally, He reminds us that the reward for living in these ways may well be persecution. Why? Quite simply because the world has a differing view of these character traits and values. The question we are called to answer through our lives is, “Are these Beatitudes reflective of our lives?” They need to be.