January 29 2017 (A) Fourth Sunday of the Year

A. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: The Beatitudes and Our Vocation to Beatitude

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).

First Reading (Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13). In your midst I will leave a humble and lowly people. The prophet Zephaniah proclaimed God’s message in the seventh century B.C. against Israel’s enemies and also against the wickedness of Jerusalem. But he also sees the future conversion of the pagan nations and ends his message with a song of joy for Jerusalem, whose sins he sees as forgiven. For pagans and the Jewish people he lays stress on salvation for the poor and the humble. It is they who will be God’s chosen ones. The opening words in today’s reading: “Seek the Lord all you, the humble of the earth” are actually addressed to Israel’s pagan enemies, to be converted. The final section: “In your midst I will leave a humble and lowly people” are addressed to the ideal, but actual, Israel, of the future. They will be the sentiments expressed by Jesus in the Beatitudes, which this reading is intended to accompany.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 145[146]). How happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Second Reading (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). God chose what is foolish by human reckoning. What Paul has to say in this reading on the centrality of the “foolishness” of the Cross and the success in preaching this message may be better understood through Paul’s own experience with his contacts with the learned at Athens and the generally lower society of Corinth. This will be done in the comments to 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 in next Sunday’s readings. From Athens Paul went on to Corinth, and at first had no great success, but in a vision was encouraged by the Lord to stay. The Lord said to him “Do not be afraid but stay, for I am with you … for there are many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9-11). As we noted above in the comment on the second reading for the Second Sunday of the year, about two-thirds of the population of Corinth were slaves and it is likely that for the greater part the members of the Christian community were also drawn from this class or from the lower classes, although there were also learned and well educated members in the community. Paul recalls this sociological fact here to illustrate the victory of the Cross, and God’s victory through the apparent weakness and foolishness of the Cross to make clear that Christianity is successful through grace and the power of God alone. Christ, through the victory of his cross “has become our wisdom, and our virtue, and our holiness, and our freedom”, permitting us to boast, but only about the Lord.

Gospel (Matthew 5:1-12). How happy are the poor in spirit. Today’s Gospel reading with the Beatitudes introduces the lengthy Sermon on the Mount according to Matthew (Matthew 5:1-7:21), sections of which will be read as Gospel texts until the Ninth Sunday. Jesus is presented as viewing the crowds. He is a Second Moses on a mountain, and as befits a teacher he is seated. The Beatitudes and the Sermon look backwards and forwards, towards Israel’s long years of awaiting for the coming of the kingdom and forwards in time through his disciples, salt and light for humanity, faithful to Jesus’ teachings. He reinterprets the Law and the Prophets for a new age, stressing repression of anger and respect for others, with passing references to adultery and divorce. He goes beyond the Law and the Prophets in teaching to ignore the “eye for an eye” attitude and to love one’s enemies. He reinterprets the Jewish pious practices concerning almsgiving, prayer (with inclusion of the “Our Father”) and fasting; stresses purity of heart, advice on seeking entry at the final narrow gate, and concludes with an admonition against self-deception, by being doers of his words rather than just hearers, and thus building one’s spiritual life on rock, rather than on sand.

            A beatitude, by which a person is happy or blessed, is favour by God. The beatitudes on Jesus lips would fit in with his mission of fulfilling the expectations of Israel down the ages. One of those classes was those designated “the poor”, here called the poor in spirit, in their innermost being, and thus open to the coming of God’s kingdom, or in Matthew’s way of writing “the kingdom of heaven”. The second beatitude on the meek is more or less the same as the first. The meek is less a designation of temperament as of social class. Jesus himself described himself as meek. “The land” to be possessed, in this context means more or less the same as the kingdom of heaven. Possession, like the kingdom itself, will be here on earth and in eternity. Those who mourn, in this context, are not the melancholy or the victims of oppression, but in the biblical tradition those who mourn that fulfilment of the promises has not yet come. The “justice”, “righteousness” (NRSV) for which the saints thirst is not justification here on earth, or eschatological vindication, but the right conduct here on earth that God requires, “what is right” as another modern translation puts it. Jesus himself (Matthew 18:33) will later stress the importance of being merciful. The purity of heart refers to single-mindedness, intent on doing God’s will (see Matthew 6:22-23). No one on earth can see God, but his presence can be perceived in his Son Jesus and in his creation. The just in heaven see his face. There are two Beatitudes on persecution. The first is on those in general who are persecuted for the sake of what is right (“righteousness”, NRSV). The second is on disciples of Jesus in general (the Twelve Apostles have not yet been chosen). Jesus foresees that they will be persecuted, abused and slandered for being his followers. They are asked by Jesus to be glad because of this; their reward will be great, and persecution brings the Christian community into the tradition of the Old Testament prophets.                

B. Reflection & Dialogue: The Beatitudes and Our Vocation to Beatitude

The Catechism of the Catholic Church considers the Beatitudes of such importance that it devotes a special section (numbers1716-1720) to them and their bearing on Christian teaching and Christian life. “The Beatitudes”, it reminds us, “are at the heart of Jesus’ preaching. They take up the promises made to the chosen people since Abraham. The Beatitudes fulfil the promises by ordering them no longer merely to a territory, but to the Kingdom on Heaven. The Beatitudes depict the countenance of Jesus Christ and portray his charity. They express the vocation of the faithful associated with the glory of his Passion and Resurrection; they shed light on the action and attitudes characteristic of the Christian life; they are the paradoxical promises that sustain hope in the midst of tribulation; they proclaim the blessings and rewards already secured, however dimly, for Christ’s disciples; they have begun in the lives of the Virgin Mary and all the saints”.

The Catechism text goes on to speak of the desire for happiness, noting that the Beatitudes respond to the natural desire for happiness. The desire is of divine origin: God placed it in the human heart in order to draw mortals to the One who alone can fulfil it. The New Testament uses several expressions to characterize the beatitude to which God calls mortals: the coming of the kingdom of God; the vision of God: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God”; entering the joy of the Lord; entering into God’s rest.

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