Jan 29, 2017: 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

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1st Reading – Zephaniah 2:3, 3:12-13

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.

Zephaniah was a prophet in the southern kingdom during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BC). By this time, the northern kingdom had fallen. Both the king and the prophet were calling the people to fidelity to covenant love so that the southern kingdom would not suffer the same fate.

Today’s reading uses bold lines to sketch two very different scenes.  In the first (2:3), the prophet exhorts the people to reform their lives. The second (3:12-13) is an oracle of salvation that promises a smaller but renewed community. Though the verses originate from different sections of the prophet’s proclamation, placed together this way, they interpret each other — it is a call to conversion and a message of hope.

Seek the LORD, all you humble of the earth, who have observed his law; seek justice, seek humility;

The exhortation is threefold: Seek the Lord! Seek justice! Seek humility! What is being required is a complete change of heart. Israel is being told to seek the Lord after having violated the covenant; to seek righteousness after having turned to sin; to seek humility after having acted arrogantly.

perhaps you may be sheltered on the day of the LORD’s anger.

If they do this, they will avoid the kind of defeat suffered by the northern kingdom.

However, the prophet cannot make any guarantees: all he can say is perhaps you may be sheltered from the wrath of God.

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.

This second part of the reading is very different; it contains a definite promise rather than a vague uncertainty.  God promises that a portion of the people will not only survive, they will faithfully conform to the covenant.  This remnant will be humble and lowly, perhaps having always been so, or perhaps because they were humbled by the suffering they had to undergo.

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.

There will be peace. There shall be no lying or deceit; the virtuous, truthful, sincere remnant shall know peace and prosperity. Note that this path of righteousness they will follow is a consequence of their deliverance, not the cause of it. Every good that comes to them is a gift from God.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 1:26-31

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.”

In today’s second reading, Paul reminds the Corinthians that, judged by the standards of society at that time, they are unimportant.  They have little, if anything, about which they can boast. Like our reading from Zephaniah, today Paul also teaches us humility.

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.

While there is evidence that even from the beginning some prominent people did join the Church, Paul’s evaluation of the Christian community was probably very accurate. He is not highlighting their shortcomings in order to insult them, but rather to point out that God’s wisdom and power are exemplified through them, if they interpret their experience correctly.

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,

According to Paul, God chose the lowly of the world in order to shame the arrogant. When God does wondrous things through the foolish, weak, or outcast, it is very clear to all that it is the power of God at work and not merely the abilities of human beings.  In this way, he might destroy the pretensions of all.

so that no human being might boast before God.

“Boasting (about oneself)” is a Pauline expression for a radical sin, the claim to autonomy on the part of a created being, the illusion that we live and are saved by our own resources.

It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus,

By God’s call and action, the Corinthians are transformed from being non-entities into a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).

who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,

Paul’s argument turns from ecclesiology to christology.  Christ is Wisdom of God, the depository of righteousness, the source of our sanctification, and the one responsible for our redemption.  Every good thing we have, we have received because of Christ.

In Christ, the Christian possesses all that the Greek and Jew yearned for: wisdom, justice, holiness, and redemption.

so that, as it is written, “Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.”

In contrast to boasting about oneself, “boasting in the Lord” is the acknowledgment that we live only from God and for God.

Gospel – Matthew 5:1-12a

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.”

In his gospel, Matthew draws many parallels between the life of Jesus and the life of Moses, including:

  • both escape a slaughter of the innocents,
  • both fast for 40 days (Moses on Mt. Sinai and Jesus in the desert),
  • both have a period of trial (for Moses it is 40 years in the desert, for Jesus it is 40 days in the desert), and
  • Moses goes up on the mountain to receive the word of God, and Jesus preaches the word of God in his Sermon on the Mount.

Parts of the Sermon on the Mount will comprise our gospel readings for the next six Sundays.

When Jesus saw the crowds,

In the two-verse interval between last week’s and this week’s reading, Matthew tells us that Jesus’ fame spread quickly, based on his preaching and miracles (Matthew 4:24-25).

he went up the mountain,

Matthew uses Moses imagery (like placing him on the mountain) because he is teaching that Jesus is the new Moses with authority from God to promulgate a new law.

and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.

Outdoor teaching was a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry. A disciple is a learner/pupil and by extension a follower/adherent.

At first glance, one might think that only the disciples heard this discourse, but the last verse of the entire Sermon on the Mount (7:28) notes that “the crowds were astonished at his teaching.”  It is believed that the disciples formed an inner ring around Jesus and the crowds formed one or more concentric outer rings.

He began to teach them, saying:

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the well-known Beatitudes. The word beatitude comes from beati, which means blessed or happy.

A beatitude, or macarism, is a literary form belonging to the Wisdom tradition.  Like most Wisdom literary forms, it describes a life situation that draws a connection between a manner of behavior and its associated consequences.  It’s immediately obvious that the values or behaviors Jesus advocates in the Beatitudes are frequently the opposite of those espoused by society at large.  Most, if not all, of the sentiments expressed are found somewhere in ancient Jewish teaching.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Beatitude #1.  The religious concept of poverty was deeply rooted in the Old Testament; as our first reading showed. The spiritual poverty referenced here points to humility toward God, not material poverty, which is important because Jesus is not calling material poverty a good thing.  It isn’t good for people to live in slums, go hungry, risk their health.  Neither is Jesus condemning ambition — most of us would agree that the world would benefit from having more successful Christians in powerful positions.  What Jesus does condemn is the inordinate love of riches themselves, a love that makes impossible meaningful concern for the afflicted.

The religious attitude of poverty is closely related to what is called “spiritual childhood.” A Christian sees himself as a little child in the presence of God, a child who owns nothing: everything he has comes from God and belongs to God.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Beatitude #2. Though the First Beatitude teaches that it’s always right to be detached from things, the Second Beatitude teaches that it’s never right to be detached from people.

Those who mourn are those who suffer from any kind of affliction — particularly those who are genuinely sorry for their sins, or are pained by the offenses which others offer God, and who bear their suffering with love and in a spirit of atonement.  Many forms of human growth, after all, require sorrow, suffering, or affliction as its seed.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.

Beatitude #3. Meekness connotes submissiveness and willingness to learn; those who are meek are teachable.  They remain serene, humble and steadfast in adversity, and do not give way to resentment or discouragement. Meekness can also be thought of as the mean between two extremes: excessive anger and apathy. It’s the ability to be angry with the right people about the right things at the right time to the right degree.

The “land” the meek will inherit is usually understood as meaning our heavenly fatherland.

The third Beatitude also echoes the words from the prophet Zephaniah in today’s first reading, where he promises peace and justice to a small portion of Israel, “a people humble and lowly.”

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.

Beatitude #4. A righteous person is one who sincerely strives to do the will of God.  In ancient Palestine, hunger and thirst were a constant and very real threat.  Our spiritual survival depends on our hunger and thirst for the kind of holiness that Jesus wants of us, as strongly as the ancients did for food and water.

Essentially, God hungers and thirsts for us to hunger and thirst for him.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Beatitude #5.  Mercy is not just a matter of giving alms to the poor but also of being able to identify with others, understanding toward their defects, helping them cope with those defects and loving them despite those defects. Being merciful means being willing to suffer with others and walk in their shoes.

True mercy is not a sentimental wave of pity, nor is it indifference to wrongs.

This is a principle that runs throughout the New Testament: it’s the merciful who shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.

Beatitude #6. Cleanliness of heart is a gift of God, which expresses itself in a capacity for love and truth, in having an upright and pure attitude to everything noble. The clean of heart are those who are motivated to serve God joyfully and purely, and not primarily out of self-interest.  Not only will they one day meet God face to face, they will also “see God” by discerning his presence here and now, in the small and ordinary events of their lives.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Beatitude #7. Note that Jesus speaks not of peacelovers, but peacemakers.  Peace and tranquil order have been God’s desire for us from the beginning.  It is sin that disrupted this order and destroyed the peace.  Those who overcome evil with good in order to reestablish peace are doing God’s work and will be children, or heirs, of God.  For more on the glorious blessing of being children of God, see 1 John 3:1 and Romans 8:14-17. Such a reward!

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Beatitude #8. Fidelity to Jesus’ precepts is deepened by the test of persecution, some degree of which continues to be inevitable today. When this happens, either one stays true to Jesus Christ at whatever cost in terms of reputation, life, or possessions — or one denies him. Every Christian who is faithful to Jesus’ teaching is in fact a “martyr” (a witness) who reflects or acts in accordance with this beatitude, even if he does not undergo physical suffering or death.  To adhere to Christ’s values sometimes means persecution by our own selfish desires.

Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.

This is not a ninth beatitude, but rather an elaboration on the eighth.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”

An invitation to put this teaching into practice.

Note that all the Beatitudes speak of this world, containing congratulations on what is, and promise a reward that always consists in at least an improved relationship with God.  To view our life as blessed doesn’t require us to deny our pain or to put on a happy face no matter what.  It simply demands a more all-embracing vision.

Connections and Themes

Disciples as humble learners. Last Sunday, we focused on the disciple as being one who is called.  Today we see another characteristic of a disciple: one who learns.  For the next six Sundays, we will read about Jesus giving his disciples lessons in the art of discipleship.

To follow Jesus doesn’t merely mean to travel with him from place to place.  It means learning from him, and to follow his way of life and his manner of thinking.  In order to learn, one must have the requisite inner attitudes: humility, openness to teaching, willingness to learn.  The first two readings remind us that God calls those who are foolish, weak, and lowly — or rather, God calls us all to be disciples, but only those with the inner attitude of a learner are willing to follow.  It’s difficult for those who consider themselves powerful and of noble birth to humble themselves to the position of follower, or to consider themselves foolish, weak or, lowly.

The lessons. If the disciples are learners, then the first lessons are the Beatitudes, and the same lessons are placed for us, the modern-day disciples.  We must look honestly at ourselves and consider what is in our minds and hearts.

How can we learn the lessons of poverty?  We must consider how we manage the goods of this world — do we hoard them, or use them as leverage against others?  Are we attached to material things in a disordered way, looking to them as an end unto themselves to provide happiness and fulfillment?

Suffering is an integral part of life.  How do we react to it?  Do we suffer for the right reasons?  Do we grieve because we are petty and feeling sorry for ourselves, or because we long for a world of justice and peace?  How can we learn the lessons that suffering has to teach?

All three readings speak to humility and lowliness as primary requirements for being disciples.  Jesus’ equivalent of these qualities is meekness.

[Meekness is] the mean between two extremes: excessive anger and total apathy.  It’s the ability to be angry with the right people about the right things at the right time to the right degree.  Anger is the necessary handmaiden of sympathy and fairness, in that the most dedicated must be angry at “society,” or “the ruling classes,” or “meddling bureaucrats” to be motivated to do something about justice.  But anger, like the moral qualities it exists to defend, must be checked by other qualities like self-control and duty.

Meekness is the quality possessed by Moses, whom Scripture calls by far the meekest man on the face of the earth (Numbers 12:3), but who nevertheless was blazingly angry when he came down from the mountain and found his people worshiping the golden calf.  Meekness is the quality envisioned by the Book of Proverbs (16:32) when it says that he who rules his temper is better than he who takes a city.  People can’t lead others until they’ve controlled themselves.  And so the meek will inherit the land.   [Harold A. Beutow, God Still Speaks: Listen!]

As disciples, we are also taught to forgive those who wrong us and to work for peace rather than revenge.  In short, these Beatitudes, these blessings, call for difficult and profound inner transformation.

The rewards are great. Zephaniah saw a ray of hope, where God promises peace and justice to a small remnant of the people.  Paul reminded the Corinthians that by world’s standards, they were non-entities, but by spiritual standards, they have Christ and are therefore all important.  And the Beatitudes, of course, each come with an associated blessing.

Following Christ runs counter to the conventional wisdom of society and requires a complete change of heart, but the rewards are tremendous — both for us individually, and for the world at large.

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