The Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Zeph 2:3;3:12-13 + 1 Cor 1:26-31 + Mt 5:1-12
January 29, 2017
“He began to teach them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit….’”
John Crosby, who teaches at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, tells the story of two elderly rabbis, sitting on a bench in a park, conversing about their impending deaths. One of them expresses great anxiety about the judgment that God will pass on his life. So his friend, trying to understand his anxiety, asks, “Is it that you fear that God will ask you at the Judgment why you have not become another Moses or David?” And his friend replies, “No, I don’t fear that God will hold me to that standard. What I fear is that God will ask me, ‘Why did you not become the person I created you to be?’”
+ + +
In the release time program in Garden Plain, I visit classrooms on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Over the past few months I’ve been talking with the older grades about the Bible, and how the Bible is put together. One of the first things to explain is that the Bible is not a single book, but a library. Just as a library has many different types of books in it, so also the Bible. When you visit the library and take off from different shelves a cookbook, a collection of poems, a presidential biography, and a science fiction novel, you don’t read each of those books the same way. If you open a cookbook expecting it to read like a science fiction novel, you’re going to end up with a very strange supper.
The Bible is the same way, and that goes not just for reading the Bible, but also for listening to the Bible. That, of course, is what we do every time we come to Holy Mass. The first chief part of the Mass focuses upon passages from the Bible. But when we listen to them, if we don’t understand the differences among the books of the Prophets in the Old Testament, the letters of the Apostles in the New Testament, and the four Gospel accounts, we’re not going to get out of listening to the Scripture readings all we might.
All this is mentioned this morning not just to encourage you to study the Bible with a good Catholic commentary or study group. It’s mentioned because of where we find ourselves this Sunday with the Gospel Reading.
Following Christmas we entered again into the season of Ordinary Time, which will take us through all of February, since Ash Wednesday this year falls on March 1. So including today, we have five Sundays in Ordinary Time before Lent begins. On these five Sundays, the Gospel passage comes from Matthew Chapters 5 and 6, which are the first two chapters of Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount. If you’d like a recommendation for spiritual reading during these next five weeks before Lent begins, I’d encourage you to read slowly these chapters from Matthew that make up the Sermon on the Mount.
+ + +
Today’s Gospel passage is the first twelve verses of Matthew Chapter 5: the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. In our own day, preachers often begin a sermon with a story or a joke. Jesus decided to begin His Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes.
However, before he starts giving us Jesus’ sermon, St. Matthew the Evangelist mentions a few interesting details about Jesus. The evangelist relates to us that when “Jesus saw the crowds, He went up the mountain, and after He had sat down, His disciples came to Him.” Consider just two points in what St. Matthew explains: that Jesus went up the mountain, and that He sat down there.
Why did Jesus have to go up a mountain in order to preach a sermon? Obviously, He didn’t have to. Jesus preached many other sermons during the three years of His public ministry, and most of them were preached in other sorts of settings. But in St. Matthew’s account of the Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ first sermon, so Jesus is teaching us here not only by His words, but also by the setting that He chose, and by choosing to sit down.
Why did Jesus choose a mountain to be the site of His first sermon? St. Matthew clarifies this throughout the course of his Gospel account. Through his own observations, through the words and works of Jesus that he chooses to include, and through the way he structures his Gospel account, St. Matthew portrays Jesus as a “New Moses”. One reason for doing this is that unlike many other New Testament writings, Matthew’s Gospel account was written for converts from Judaism. This is why Matthew “refers to Jewish customs and institutions without explanation [of their backgrounds], and why he works nearly two hundred references to the Jewish Scriptures into his narrative”.
Moses was, for the Jewish people, the Prophet without peer. In the last chapter of the last book of the Jewish Law—Deuteronomy Chapter 34—following the description of Moses’ death, the Bible says that “there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, … and for all the mighty power and all the great and terrible deeds which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel.”
Yet even more important than all the signs and wonders and all the great and terrible deeds which Moses worked was the fact that the Lord chose him—Moses—to bear the Ten Commandments to His People. During the course of their Exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, God’s People stopped at Mount Sinai. There, while the rest of God’s People remained below, Moses alone ascended Sinai to receive from God His Ten Commandments. Moses then had to descend the mountain to give to God’s People this Law, the means by which His People could—we might say today—“keep right” with God.
But here in St. Matthew’s account of the Gospel, it’s not only Jesus who ascends the mountain. Jesus draws His disciples up with Him, and it’s not a voice from the heavens that speaks there to a prophet. Instead, the New Moses, God in the Flesh, speaks to His people face to face. Jesus gives to us, His people, not ten commandments, but nine beatitudes.
+ + +
Saint Augustine, in a sermon on Jesus’ promises of blessedness to those who follow Him, points out that “you couldn’t find anyone who doesn’t want to be… blessed. But oh, if only people were as willing to do the work as they are eager to get the reward! They all run up eagerly when they are told, ‘You will be [blessed]’; let them listen willingly when they are also told, ‘if you do this.’ Don’t decline the contest if you have set your heart on the prize…. What we want, what we desire, what we are aiming at, will come afterward; but what we are told to do[—]for the sake of what is coming afterward[—]must come now.”
We could spend an entire Sunday in Ordinary Time on each of Jesus’ beatitudes. But since our time is short, and since Jesus put the Beatitudes at the start of the Sermon on the Mount because He knew that a good teacher puts the most important lesson first, we ought to consider the first of the nine beatitudes as being the first for a reason.
Maybe as you heard Jesus proclaim the Beatitudes a few moments ago, another of them—not the first—struck you. Meditate on that beatitude during the Offertory. Meditate on it after Holy Communion and after Mass. Meditate on it during this coming week. But meditate nonetheless on the first beatitude: first to fall from Our Lord’s lips because He wants it first to shape our hearts.
“‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.’” St. Augustine preaches on the first beatitude by asking what “poor in spirit” means. He answers that it means “[b]eing poor in wishes, not in means. One who is poor in spirit, you see, is humble; and God hears the groans of the humble, and doesn’t despise their prayers. That’s why the Lord begins His sermon with humility, that is to say with poverty. You can find someone who’s religious, with plenty of this world’s goods, and not [because of that] puffed up and proud. And you can find someone in need, who has nothing, and won’t settle for anything. … the [former] is poor in spirit, because humble, while [the latter] is indeed poor, but not in spirit.”
It could be fearful for you to imagine dying and hearing the Lord say to you, “Why did you not become the person I created you to be?” This question could be fearful because the Lord has given us everything we need to reach Heaven. The Lord has given us life. The Lord has given us grace to strengthen us for the journey. And the Lord has given us the roadmap in these nine beatitudes. The first, upon which all the others rest, is humility: poverty of spirit. The Lord has even helped us to acquire humility, by gazing upon the humility He shows in His compassion, Divine Mercy, and self-sacrifice on the Cross.