JANUARY 29TH, 2017: FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Seek the LORD, all you humble of the earth,
who have observed his law;
seek justice, seek humility;
perhaps you may be sheltered
on the day of the LORD's anger.
But I will leave as a remnant in your midst
a people humble and lowly,
who shall take refuge in the name of the LORD:
the remnant of Israel.
They shall do no wrong
and speak no lies;
nor shall there be found in their mouths
a deceitful tongue;
they shall pasture and couch their flocks
with none to disturb them.
Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters.
Not many of you were wise by human standards,
not many were powerful,
not many were of noble birth.
Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise,
and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing,
to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God.
It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus,
who became for us wisdom from God,
as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,
so that, as it is written,
"Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord."
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain,
and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.
He began to teach them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you
and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward will be great in heaven."
I presume one of the most difficult things the historical Jesus encountered as an itinerant preacher was simply to get people to “try it:” to actually carry out the unique concepts he was sharing; to weave these new behavior patterns into their daily lives. Matthew has placed many (but not all) of these concepts in his well-known Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7). For the next four weekends we’re going to be hearing some of Jesus’ “unconventional” ways of relating to others.
I once paraphrased several of these concepts and read them to a junior boys’ religion class, asking just two questions: “Who said this?” and “What do you think about what he or she said?” Though at that point they had at least 10 years of Catholic religious education, not one student could tell me who taught the morality Matthew included in his Sermon on the Mount!
One young man finally raised his hand and said, “I don’t know who said those things, but whoever it was must have been crazy!” Most people find it quite difficult to both appreciate and imitate the faith of Jesus.
That seems to be why Paul of Tarsus not only was amazed that some Corinthians could do both, but it also forced him to reflect on the caliber of people who actually pulled this off. “Not many of you,” he writes, “were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” This certainly ran counter to his expectations.
There could only be one reason for these most unlikely people to accept and imitate Jesus’ dying and rising: God. Who else would have chosen “the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something?” As the historical Jesus had promised, the Apostle eventually discovered God at work in these “weak, foolish” individuals.
Paul’s experience ran parallel to that of the classic Hebrew prophets like Zephaniah. Like all those unique individuals who spoke in Yahweh’s name, Zephaniah had to deal with the disappointment that only a handful of Israelites actually listened to and carried out their words. Only this “poor, lowly remnant” dared “take refuge” in Yahweh. The vast majority of the prophet’s audience looked in other directions for the security they needed.
Yet as Jesus’ earliest followers also discovered, once someone commits himself or herself to relating to God and one another in a totally unselfish way, their whole lives turn upside down. That seems to be why Matthew chose to begin, not end his Sermon on the Mount with the “Beatitudes.” Though chronologically such a reflection usually happens at the end, not the beginning of our faith experience, it gives his readers something to look forward to.
Such things as poverty and mourning take on a deeper meaning. Seeking for righteousness – creating life-giving relationships with one another – gives us more satisfaction than anything else we’ll achieve in our lives. Being mercy-giving and peace-creating people turn us into the individuals God expects us to be.
But on the other hand, such a constant quest for righteousness will certainly bring problems and persecution. Many of our friends will believe we’re also “crazy.” Though we don’t enjoy such painful encounters, never should they weaken our determination to work at becoming other Christs. It’s the one thing that brings real blessedness – real satisfaction – to our otherwise humdrum lives.
The late Karl Rahner once remarked that once Christians become more than 20 per cent of the population, the faith becomes so watered down that it no longer has an effect on the world around us. In God’s plan, only an “insane” remnant can actually change things.