Sunday of Week 4 of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Commentary on 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. He presents five long discourses by Jesus, which can be seen to match the Pentateuch (the five first books of the Bible), traditionally attributed to Moses as their author and which embody the Jewish Law. 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 Mount is the first of these five discourses. It is not a tape recording or a verbatim record of an actual sermon or address. Rather, it is a collection of sayings and teachings 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 specially present, and there are several instances in both the Hebrew and Christian Testaments where mountains feature in a significant way. Apart from today’s example, we have, to give just two examples, Mount Sinai where God gave the Law to Moses, and the mountain of the Transfiguration where something of Jesus’ inner reality was revealed to three chosen disciples.

Jesus sat down, a position of authority, e.g. when the Pope speaks officially, he does so ex cathedra, sitting on his chair or throne. Jesus’ audience consists of the Twelve, his other disciples and all those who wish to hear what he says.

The core of Christian living
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. Yet, they are often not understood as such. In many ways, they are largely ignored as guides to Christian living, and many Christians still regard the Ten Commandments as their life guide. As a priest, I have yet to hear anyone refer to the Beatitudes in making their ‘confession’!

However, there are major differences between the Commandments and the Beatitudes. In a literal sense at least, the Commandments are fairly easy to keep. And, what is very significant as far as the Gospel is concerned, they can be observed without love. They can be kept in a very selfish, self-centred way. This was perhaps the problem of the rich man who said he kept the Commandments since he was young but could not bring himself to share his wealth with the poor. This was surely a failure in love for the neighbour. And so he could not become a disciple of Jesus.

In the society where Jesus grew up, a good person was understood as one who kept the Law perfectly. In fact, many of them can be kept by not doing anything at all e.g. not stealing, not being violent, not doing any sexual acts, not talking about other people… A highly introverted, narrow-minded Puritan might very well be observing the Commandments to the letter. And this was where the conflict arose between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees.

Strictly speaking, the Beatitudes are not commandments. They are not so much things to be done, or rules to be kept, as deep-down attitudes of the mind. And, in fact, their observance is only possible with a deep love of God and of other people. They can never be kept fully – they are goals that are always calling us further. They never leave any room for complacency. One can never say about the Beatitudes what the rich man said to Jesus, namely, that he had kept all the commandments since he was young.

Sources of true happiness
Each Beatitude begins with the word “Blessed”. ‘Blessed’ is a translation of the Greek makarios, and the Latin, felix. The 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…”. ‘Blessed’ used in that sense is also a good rendering.

The Beatitudes must be understood in the context of the Kingdom. The Kingdom, as discussed previously, is not a place. It is that complex of relationships that exists between God and those who have totally accepted him as the Lord and guide of their lives, and who share God’s vision of what life is about.

So, in the Kingdom it is not the rich, the successful and the powerful who are really happy and fortunate, but the meek and lowly. Clearly that is not the conventional way of thinking for many in our world. And that is why to enter the Kingdom requires metanoia, a radical change in the way we see life and its values.

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; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

It is also made in the First Reading:

Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility… For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly… They shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths.

Eight paths to happiness
Right at the beginning of Jesus’ teaching he throws down a challenge to conventional thinking. Let us now take a brief look at each one of these ways of being blessedly happy.

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. Poor in spirit are those who clearly acknowledge that they depend totally on God. With such an attitude one has already entered the Reign of God. One acknowledges clearly that one is not self-sufficient, that one’s life always hangs by a thread and can be snuffed out at any moment. In our daily lives we are dependent on a huge number of people who provide for our needs. It is the loving power of God, accepted and experienced, that helps us to see just how dependent, how powerless in every respect we really are.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted
Here we think not just of those grieving for a death, but those also 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”. They face this pain with others and do not run away from it in hedonistic, escapist enjoyment. They realise that often the only way to cope with pain is not to go round it, but to go through it. Such people will, in turn, experience comfort and a certain inner peace. They can discern the loving presence of God even in situations that seem so negative and painful.

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, bullying and violent manipulation. It embodies deep respect and tenderness towards all. It learns to find and radiate goodness everywhere. It is not to be identified with wimpishness, weakness or cowardice. The truly gentle person, the one who can remain gentle and respectful of the other’s dignity in the face of provocative violence, is a very strong person. It is not an attitude we normally see in the heroes of action movies, who are more likely to deal with hostility by visiting violence on their foes. There is a fullness of life for the gentle that the arrogant and violent and manipulative can never know. And the world is theirs in a way that is never possible for the merely rich.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled
For those who live in an area of abundant water and food, hunger and thirst are rarely experienced as the poor of the desert lands often experienced in Jesus’ time. 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 fulfilment. There are people in our society who only hunger and thirst to have the goods of this world for themselves, whatever impact this may have on others. But there are in our society others who have a hunger and thirst to dedicate their lives and energies to work for the restoration of true justice and peace in our societies. Such people belong to the Reign of God, for it is God’s will that that hunger for justice be satisfied.

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. Such people can be absolutely assured of God’s compassion for them. In another context, Jesus told his followers to imitate the mercy and compassion of God. This means we have to put aside all forms of judgmentalism and prejudice, not to mention hate and contempt for others. This is part of the command to love our enemies, those who hate and curse us. Our instinct is to pay such people in kind, but then we are no different from them. On the contrary, we need to pray that their bitter hearts may be softened, that they may be enabled to reach out in love to all without exception.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God
This is not about sexual purity. It refers to the person who sees things with a totally unprejudiced eye, with no distortion whatever. They have 20-20 vision of everything and every person around them. They are able to see things and persons as they are. This is a very rare quality. They are the complete opposite of the self-centred bigot, the racist or the narrow-minded legalist. It is not surprising that such persons can see God, not in the sense of having visions, but in being able to discern God’s loving presence all around them. Such persons are truly blessed.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God
Those who are active agents of unity and reconciliation wherever they are. The peace here is not simply an absence of hostilities, an uneasy truce, but a genuine healing and bringing together. We can be peacemakers in our families and homes, in our schools and workplaces, between churches, and in all the areas of our society where there is conflict. Peace is inextricably linked with justice; there cannot be peace where there is prejudice, discrimination or exploitation. It would be difficult to find a nicer thing to say of anyone than that he or she was a peacemaker. No wonder such people are called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven
How can people who suffer be called blessed? Because of the reason why they suffer – they do it for the Gospel, for the sake of justice and goodness. To suffer for bringing truth and justice into the world has a consolation and joy all its own.

Historically, think of civil rights marchers in the 1960s, singing in the paddy wagons on their way to prison. Remember the many Christians who have lost their lives striving for justice in many countries. Our more recent times have allegedly produced more martyrs for faith and justice than any previous century. It is something for which we should be both proud and ashamed. But we pray that there will always be people who would be deeply unhappy if they did not remain true to a calling to justice and peace. We know the unease we feel when we compromise on truth or justice. There are some things which are bigger than us, and we will be more ready to give up everything for their sake and experience a special joy in doing so. As a young mother said to me once soon after having her first baby: “Now I know why a mother will gladly die for her child.”

A special relationship
The Beatitudes have a quality and depth which goes far beyond the 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 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. This is what the ‘Kingdom’ is all about. It is a completely different ball game. Am I ready for it?

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