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JANUARY 30, 2011: FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13
I Corinthians 1:26-31
Matthew 5:1-12a

I’d much rather speak than write. I’ve no problem standing in front of large groups and talking about Scripture. I look forward to such occasions. On the other hand, I frequently look for any excuse to put off writing on the same topics. If I didn’t have deadlines for these articles, I’d probably produce very few.

I think I know the source of my aversion to writing: I can’t see my audience. When I speak I can see peoples’ faces. I know who they are; I can see their reactions. I have no idea who’s reading this commentary right now. Years ago during a Sunday dinner with my father, I was floored when he objected to a reference to him in that week’s article. “You read my articles?” I asked in amazement. “Every one,” he responded. “How else would I know if the pastor used your stuff in his homily this morning?” It never occurred to me that my own father was in my audience.

One of the good side-effects of my being diagnosed with lymphoma two and a half years ago was the huge number of letters, notes and emails I received with your good wishes and prayers for my recovery. (I’m glad to report that, as of my last PET-scan, I’m still in remission.) But all that correspondence helped me give a face to you who are reading these words. It’s made my actual writing much easier

Our sacred authors never had my “audience problem.” They knew exactly for whom they were writing.

When Zephaniah’s disciples put his spoken words into a written format, they presumed their audience would be the same as their mentor’s: a very small part of 7th-century BCE Israel. Though most biblical prophets probably began their ministries believing everyone would hear their words and quickly carry them out, eventually they realized Yahweh had drastically reduced their audience. “I will leave as a remnant in your midst, a people humble and lowly, who shall take refuge in the name of Yahweh: the remnant of Israel.”

Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians by reminding his audience of its pedigree. If they think they’re special, he points out who they were before the risen Jesus entered their lives. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise. . . the weak. . . to shame the strong. . . the lowly and despised. . ., those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.”

The Apostle is convinced that whatever happens in our life of faith is worthless if we forget that God alone has achieved it for our benefit. We haven’t pulled it off by ourselves.

But on the other hand, we’re a very unique people. Once we enter into that “kingdom of God,” everything around us is different. We simply don’t look at things, happenings, and people in the same way we did before.

Matthew writes for those who share this out-of-the-ordinary experience. His Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with a recognition of that reality. That’s why he singles out the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and persecuted. Matthew writes for these kinds of people. Only they will understand the wisdom contained in the next three chapters.  Others will judge Jesus’ words to be sheer nonsense.

When we hear Scripture, we’re always listening to someone else’s literature. Zephaniah, Paul and Matthew didn’t originally write for us. (Else they would have written in English!) On the other hand, our faith joins us to the sacred writer’s original audiences. Only such people can understand the true meaning of these words.