3 February 2008, Fourth Sunday of the Year

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

Today we begin the Sermon on the Mount.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is presented as the new Moses.  Just as the Pentateuch embodies the Jewish way of life, so these discourses embody Jesus’ vision of the life he proposes for us. The Sermon on the Mount is a collection of sayings and teachings of Jesus focusing on the personal qualities expected of a disciple of Jesus. It is given on a mountain.  Mountains are traditionally seen as holy places where God is especially present and there are several instances in both the Hebrew and Christian Testaments where mountains feature in a significant way.  Just as the Ten Commandments are the core of the Jewish way of life and a law to follow, so Beatitudes are the core of the Christian way of life. 

Strictly speaking, the Beatitudes are not commandments.  They are a way of life to be lived by a disciple. Each of the Beatitude begins with the word “Blessed,” meaning of these words is a combination of happiness and good fortune.  So we could translate either with “Happy are those…” or “Fortunate are those.”  The Beatitudes must be understood in the context of the Kingdom.  The Kingdom is God’s rule in the heart of the person. This point is made forcefully by Paul in today’s Second Reading.  “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.  It is also made clear in the First Reading. “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility.”

There are eight paths to happiness:

a. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. The poor in the Bible are not just the materially destitute but all those who in their need turn to God: the Anawim.  Poor in spirit are those who clearly acknowledge that they depend totally on God.  Based on this passage that symbolically echoes the rewards that are mentioned in the beatitudes, the “poor in spirit” is one who has a “faint spirit.” And what does it mean to have a faint spirit? It means to be frail, weak, and feeble. It means to be an infirm, indistinct, lacking force. These characteristics describe the submissive nature of the person who is common, plain, simple. These characteristics describe the person who is humble in nature. All these characteristics of the faint spirit oppose the proud spirit. These characteristics oppose wealth, status, self- assertion and strife. The poor in spirit, the common or simple person, is not one who became poor as a result of business failure or personal bankruptcy. He is poor in spirit in the sense that he was born simple and remained simple, his poverty not allowing him the arrogance and assertiveness of the wealthy.

b. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Here we think not those grieving for a death but those who feel a deep sorrow for the evils and injustices of this world.  They mourn not just for their own pain but are in solidarity with all those who are the victims of “man’s inhumanity to man”. 

c. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. The Greek word here for “meek” is praus, a word only found in Matthew and then just three times.  It is normally translated as “gentle and kindly”.  It is the very opposite of arrogance. It embodies deep respect and tenderness towards all. 

d. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. The intense hunger that Jesus speaks about here is that people everywhere may have what is due to them for a life of dignity and fulfillment. 

e. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. This is not just pity or sympathy but a deep down compassion and empathy, a real entering into the pain that others are experiencing.  In another context, Jesus told his followers to imitate the mercy and compassion of God. 

f. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. It refers to the person who sees things with a totally unprejudiced eye, with no distortion whatever.  They see things and persons as they are. 

g. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. The peace here is not simply an absence of hostilities, an uneasy truce but a genuine healing and bringing together.  We can be peacemakers everywhere.  Peace is inextricably linked with justice and absence of prejudice.

h. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. They do it for the Gospel, for the sake of justice and goodness, for truth and justice into the world have a consolation and joy all its own.  Here, the Gospel speaks of two kinds of persecution. The first kind in Matthew 5:10 consists of being persecuted for what is right. An example would be defending the underdog, the black sheep of the family, the minorities. The second kind of persecution that is mentioned in Matthew 5:11 have to do with spreading and defending the Words of God in fidelity to the Holy Catholic Church.

Ultimately, The Beatitudes have a quality and depth which go far beyond the mere moral requirements of the Ten Commandments.  They call for a very special relationship with God and with the people around us.  They involve not merely a personal observance of some ethical rules but a deep concern to be involved in the building up of the world we live in, helping to make it a place of truth, love, compassion, justice, freedom and peace.  As can be appreciated, the poor in spirit, the humble, will not inherit a powerful worldly kingdom. Their eternal reward is spiritual. Those who persevere to the end, maintaining a simple life of obedience, humility and servitude, they will no longer mourn but will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.

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