Tuesday, January 24, 2017

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time

“Blessed are the poor…”  When we Christians hear this phrase we immediately think of the Beatitudes as Jesus taught them from his Sermon on the Mount.  But while we may easily recognize these words, what do they really mean?  Perhaps a deeper study of our readings for this week will help us understand…

Zephaniah 2:3, 3:12-13
Psalm 146:67, 8-9, 9-10
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Mathew 5:1-12a

Our first reading comes from the book of the prophet Zephaniah.  If you’re looking for hope in the scriptures, I would avoid Zephaniah.  Although Zephaniah’s prophecy takes place during a time of great reform under King Josiah, his message is a dire warning to the people of Judah.  The Lord is angry and there will be fierce retribution for the people of Judah.  Does Zephaniah offer an hope?  Today’s passage offers this:  for “all you humble of the earth, who have followed his law… perhaps you may be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.”  Even though the people turn back to the Lord under King Josiah, Zephaniah sees this as too little too late.  The Assyrians have already concurred the North, and soon the Babylonians will be coming for the South.  All that remains is humility.  Our Psalm echoes this spirit of the poor seen in our readings as we sing “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

Our Gospel, which takes place shortly after last week’s story (gathering his first disciples), has Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus climbs a hill, sits down, and gives us the Beatitudes:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  It sounds nice, but what does it really mean?

As it starts out, on the surface, it shows a heavenly preference for the poor.  In this case, “the poor” represent those special classes protected by Mosaic Law (widows, orphans, foreigners, the poor of society)… but it goes farther than that.  A surface reading would seem to tell us that the poor need not worry about their lot in life because in they will be rewarded in the end.  While this may be true, it could also be read that those who are not poor are absolved of any duty toward them.  Quite the opposite.  Mosaic tradition, the Prophets, and Jesus here are saying we need to take an active role in protecting the poor.  Because the poor are considered blessed, those blessings then transfer to those who help, and in doing so, will see God.  This understanding of “transference” is something a modern audience might miss with a quick reading.  By helping those who are “blessed,” we become blessed ourselves.

Our second reading continues our study of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  Though not directly related to our theme of the Beatitudes, Paul reminds us that we were not chosen for our wisdom, wealth, or power.  Instead, “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise.”  In fact, if we are to boast of anything, we “should boast in the Lord.”  Again, it’s not our great deeds that save us, but rather our humility.

Final Thoughts:

I have to admit… for a long time I struggled with the Beatitudes.  On the surface it seems someone like me has little to recommend them to the kingdom of heaven.  Look again at the list:  The poor, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted.  All these people would appear to have a better chance of getting into Heaven than me.  My everyday life doesn’t really reflect these conditions… at least, not in the way they effect so many others.  Is there any hope?

But then I was taught that these Beatitudes are just part of a deeper theme that not only runs through Matthew’s Gospel, but through our overall Christian ethic.  Reading scripture like this requires us to dig deeper, and try to understand these words like those who first heard them, that is in the spirit of the Mosaic Law.  We need to understand that all these people in need are a protected class in the eyes of the Lord, and that we, as the Lord’s followers, have a duty to serve these people in need.  We may not be poor, but we have a duty to help the poor.  We may not be mourning, but we have a duty to help those who mourn.

There are also times in our lives where we ourselves may be poor or mourning, but when we are not, we owe a duty to those who are.  This understanding not only brings greater meaning to the Beatitudes, but they form an ethical thread that we will see again and again as we journey through Matthew’s Gospel, like when we hear, “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.” (Matt 7:12), or “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”  (Matt 25:40).

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