2017-01-24 12:00:00

4th Sunday of the Year – January 29, 2017

Zeph 2:3, 3:12-13; I Cor 1:26-31; Mt 5:1-12

C. L. James in his delightful book, To See a World in a Grain of Sand, tells the fable of a wise old cat who notices a kitten chasing its tail. "Why are you chasing your tail?" said the wise old cat. The kitten replied, "I have learned that the best thing for a cat is happiness, and happiness is my tail. Therefore I am chasing it, and when I catch it, I shall have happiness." The wise old cat responded, "My son, I too have paid attention to the problems of the universe. I too have judged that happiness is my tail. But, I noticed that whenever I chase after it, it keeps running away from me, and when I go about my business, it just seems to come after me wherever I go." We do not find happiness in material things, in a pill, in a bottle, or by having love affairs. Happiness is something that comes from within us. The only true source of a happy life is a God-centered life. Today’s gospel asserts that those who have recognized and acknowledged their dependence on God are the truly blessed and that they are the poor in spirit, the sorrowing, the lowly, those who hunger and thirst for holiness, the merciful, the single-hearted, the peacemakers and those persecuted for their right convictions.

Introduction: Today’s readings define our Christian goal of eternal happiness and explain the attitudes and actions necessary to reach it.  In the Beatitudes Jesus outlines the values and attitudes needed to enter and enjoy God’s kingdom: poverty of spirit, hunger and thirst for justice, compassion, meekness, mercy, integrity, peacemaking and willingness to suffer persecution for justice.  The beatitudes contain the most essential aspects of Christian behavior that we need to live in order to reach Christian perfection. They form the outline for Christ-like living.  They give the personal qualities expected of a disciple of Jesus or a way of life to be lived by a disciple.  They show us the values that Christ cares about. In essence, the beatitudes both fulfill and complete the Ten Commandments. While the Ten Commandments, given to Moses on Mount Sinai in the Old Testament Book of Exodus, relates a series of "Thou shall nots,” Jesus presents the Beatitudes in a positive sense, virtues in life which will ultimately lead to reward of  salvation - not in this world, but in the next.  Zephaniah, in the first reading, calls a “moral minority” of the Jews of his time blessed because they seek justice, humility, truth and righteousness, thus making a declaration of dependence on God.  In the second reading, Paul advises his Corinthian Christians to use their gifts and heaven-sent beatitudes for the good of the community because God has chosen to give them life in Jesus, by whom he justified, sanctified and redeemed them.  In today’s gospel, Jesus instructs his disciples in the paradoxical   blessedness of poverty, hunger, sorrow and persecution.  In poverty, we recognize God’s reign; in hunger, his providence; in sorrow, true happiness; and in persecution, true joy.  In other words, the blessed in Jesus’ list are  poor in spirit, compassionate, meek, merciful, clean of heart and peacemakers and those who  are willing even to be insulted and persecuted for their ideals and values. Each of the inspired authors of today’s readings, Zephaniah, Paul and Matthew, “makes a motion,” that each of us should consider making a Declaration of Dependence on God and lead holier and happier lives.

The first reading: Zephaniah prophesied in Jerusalem during a time when many in that city were faithless and corrupt.  Most of the book of the prophet Zephaniah is about a terrible day (“The Day of the Lord”) when the Lord will wreak vengeance upon idolaters and the unfaithful.  But this passage describes a "remnant," a humble and just minority who will receive, not vengeance, but security.  Both Jesus and Zephaniah address this remnant, or "moral minority".  They want their listeners not to choose the path of arrogance, not even to pine for power, but to "seek justice ... seek humility, do no wrong, speak no lies (Zephaniah), and to "thirst for righteousness, be merciful, be peacemakers” (Jesus).  

The second reading: Two things about the situation in Corinth made it necessary for Paul to remind the Christians there of their humble station and of his own humble apostolic status: 1) Corinth was a Greek metropolis with philosophers placing a high premium on knowledge and sophistication; 2) the Christians there enjoyed an abundance of what are called charisms, or spiritual gifts including some extraordinary powers like healing, prophecy, and speaking in tongues.  Paul advised these Christians to use their gifts and heaven-sent beatitudes for the good of the community, not just for their own aggrandizement, reminding them of the contrast between Christ’s values and the world’s values. 

Exegesis: Source of real happiness: Today’s readings tell us that real happiness lies in what are known as "the beatitudes."  “Beatitudes" are technically known as “macarisms,” (blessings - from the Greek makarios, meaning "blessed" or "happy").  These beatitudes echo Isaiah 61:1-2.  Other examples of macarisms can be found in the Book of Proverbs, the Psalms, and even in the book of Revelation.  There are thirty-seven beatitudes in the New Testament, seventeen of which are sayings of Jesus.  Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses who teaches us from the mountain that Christianity is more than obeying the Ten Commandments.   The Sermon on the Mount is almost surely a collection of Jesus’ teachings rather than a sermon delivered in one sitting.  The beatitudes of Jesus  were taught in Aramaic.  They are not simple statements; rather they are exclamations, i.e., ”O! the blessedness of the poor in spirit!"  (Compare Psalm 1 for a similar Hebrew version.)  Matthew presents the beatitudes as coming at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.  He gives eight beatitudes (the ninth being explanation of the eighth). 

Bombshells: In both Matthew and Luke the beatitudes are a “series of bombshells” or “flashes of lightning followed by thunder of surprise and shock" because Jesus reverses our “natural” assumption that happiness lies in riches, power, pleasure, and comfort.  We believe in personal pride; Jesus blesses poverty of spirit.  We seek pleasure; Jesus blesses those who mourn.  We see the prosperity of aggressive people; Jesus blesses the meek.  We love good food and drink; Jesus blesses those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  He challenges his listeners to find fulfillment of their needs in God in their particular socio-economic context.  The peasants, the farm workers and the artisans of the villages in Palestine were the oppressed class.  The majority of them had no political power or rights.  In contrast to them were the rich and powerful, who owned most of the land, collaborated with the hated Romans, controlled the Temple cult, and interpreted the laws of God.  Jesus addresses this situation in his beatitudes.  

The first set of four beatitudes: Happiness of the poor in spirit, the gentle, the mourners and the righteous.  Poverty in spirit is the fundamental condition to become blessed and happy. Jesus is not extolling the virtue of poverty but virtue of faith and trust in God because He is our ultimate source of security.  We are blessed when we know our need of God and do His will every day.  We are poor in spirit when we surrender our plans to God and ask for His help. We are poor in spirit when we admit our sins, mourn for their sins and ask for His grace and forgiveness.  The poor in spirit also  hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Jesus’ blessing of the poor would have been good news to the first disciples, who had "left everything and followed him" (Luke 5:11).

Jesus also tells us that if we are to be happy we are to be meek – gentle, self-controlled and God-controlled.  The meek are those who have made a complete surrender of self to God instead of becoming aggressive, demanding, and assertive.  Meekness or gentleness is the ability to be angry with the right people about the right things at the right time to the right degree, e.g., Moses.  True meekness allows us to fight for justice using peaceful means, as did Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.  Lenin is reported to have said on his death bed: “If I had ten young men like Francis of Assisi I could have averted the Bolshevik Revolution.”  Jesus says that we will be blessed when we hunger and thirst for what is right.  To be righteous means to do the will of God.  We are hungering and thirsting for righteousness when we have a profound respect for others and want to treat them with dignity.  So when we see other people abused in one way or another, we hunger and thirst that their dignity will be respected.

The second set of beatitudes: The happiness of the merciful, pure of heart, peacemakers and the persecuted.  The second set of four beatitudes in Matthew 5: 7-10 is best interpreted as promising rewards in life after death to people who practice virtuous behavior.  Giving unconditional forgiveness and showing the honesty and humility to ask pardon for our offences against others are signs of a merciful heart and the trump cards of happiness. Mercy is love extended, not out of necessity, but given through the desire to help.  Jesus gave the example of the forgiving love of a merciful heart from the cross by praying for his executioners.  As long as we hold something in our hearts against somebody we are neither free nor happy.  Hence let us forgive and forget and be merciful.  Mercy is also the ability to identify with others, to be willing to suffer with them and to walk in their shoes.  What Jesus meant about being pure in heart is that we cannot be happy if we are hypocrites.  The pure in heart are morally pure, honest and sincere.  The real accent in Matthew's sixth beatitude is on integrity.  We should be people of integrity and character.  The pure of heart will see God in their here-and-now ability to discern His presence in others and in the small and ordinary events of their lives.  

Instead of merely longing for peace in the world we must be peacemakers in the little world around us.  Peacemaking demands positive actions for reconciliation. Making peace involves proclamation, diplomacy, self-control, a willingness to forgive and to promote the work of forgiveness among others. Peacemakers work for “shalom”– the wholeness and well-being that God wills for a broken world. Shalom means that you be blessed by the presence of all good things.  Jesus said we will be happy if they persecute us because we are in the right.  Early Christians were persecuted for a variety of reasons.  The Jews persecuted them as heretics.  The Jews and the Romans falsely accused the Christians of immoral practices.  The words of the Last Supper, "This is my body….  This is my blood," led to charges of cannibalism.  The Agape (Love Feast) and the kiss of peace led to charges of sexual immorality.  Apocalyptic literature like the book of Revelation led to charges of sedition.  Today, Christians face persecution in different forms all around the world.  Internally, adherence to Christ’s values means persecution by our own selfish desires.

 The beatitudes versus liberation theology:  If the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful and the hated are all blessed, then why should anyone attempt to help them improve their lot?  Indeed, that was the argument often used by previous generations who had not been exposed to the “Theology of Liberation.”  God, so runs this argument, has ordained that the poor should be content with their lot.   They claim that a person who has absolutely no possessions is free to seek God alone.  But they ignore the difference between choosing poverty and being plunged into it without one's choice, due to the unjust socio-political situation.  Only a few saints, such as Francis of Assisi, chose the sufferings and hardships that poverty brings.  Perhaps what Christ is really telling us is that we should work to improve the conditions of the poor in order for the poor to have a choice.  They have the right to choose whether or not to embrace poverty, rather than having it thrust upon them by greedy exploiters.

“The heart of Christ’s teaching:” The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the importance of the beatitudes as “the heart of Christ’s teaching.”  “The beatitudes describe our relationship to the Kingdom in three ways.  First, these simple rules address our highest desire: happiness with God.  For, only God can satisfy the heart.  Second, they describe the path to God for us as individuals and together as a Church.  Through the Beatitudes, we share God's very life (sanctifying grace) because we enter into his Kingdom.  Finally, they challenge us to live moral lives by putting God first.  If we want to know what it truly means to be a Christian, we should read the Beatitudes in Matthew” (CCC 1716-1724).

Life messages: 1) Respond to the challenge of the beatitudes in daily life.  Millions are starving, persecuted, homeless, and leading hopeless lives.  The Beatitudes propose to us a way of life, inviting us to identify with the poor, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst after justice.  They challenge us to be compassionate people, to be men and women who are pure in heart, and to become the peacemakers in our dealings with one another, in our families and in the society at large, even when this approach to things exposes us to ridicule and persecution.  "As long as you did it to one of these, my brethren, you did it to me" is the criterion for our Last Judgment.  Mother Teresa and her Sisters accepted this challenge and demonstrated that we can ‘live the beatitudes’ in the modern world.  Hence let us remember that each time we reach out to help the needy, the sick and the oppressed, we share with them a foretaste of the promises of the beatitudes here and now.  This is why, down through the centuries, individuals, congregations and church bodies have practiced charity in creative, faithful ways.  They have operated soup kitchens, food banks, clothing centers, homeless shelters and housing programs.  Such enterprises represent a wonderful outpouring of good will and Christian faithfulness to the challenge of the beatitudes.  Let us have the good will to participate in such activities in our parish and in our community. 

2) Choose the way wisely.  "There are two Ways, one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the two Ways." These are the opening lines of the "Didache," a first century Christian catechism used to teach new Christians the essence of the Christian faith.  The way of life is the way of Jesus that leads to eternal life.  The challenge of the beatitudes is: “Are you going to be happy in the world’s way or in Christ’s way?”  If we choose the world’s way, we are seeking our blessings in the wrong place.  Sometimes we think that good health, long life, happy relationships, and a good job are blessings we “deserve” for being honest, not cheating on our taxes, coming to church, and giving a little to charity.  This is the easy way of the world, but the hard way of Jesus requires toil and suffering by working for the poor, the sick and the hungry.  God wants us to live as brothers and sisters who care for one another.  Doing so yields an "eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (II Cor. 4:17).  In the final analysis, the blessing of the beatitudes is the possession of “the Kingdom of God." 

Barbara L. Frederickson, Ph.D., has spent fifteen years studying happiness, and she has reached the conclusion that happiness comes from finding positive meaning in the things that happen to us. You get a flat tire on the way to work. Bad experience. You have a great conversation with the mechanic who comes to fix your flat. Good experience. Your presentation at work didn't wow your colleagues as much as you had hoped it would. Bad experience. You learn valuable lessons from your failure that you can use in making your next presentation. Good experience. People who find positive meaning, even in bad experiences, are happier and more resilient than are people who only focus on their bad experiences. (Rev. Frank Lyman.)

Source: Homilies of Fr. Anthony Kadavil

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