"FIRST IMPRESSIONS"

4th SUNDAY (A) JANUARY 29, 2023

Zephaniah: 2:3, 3:12-13; 1 Corinthians 1: 26-31; Matthew 5: 1-12a

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

We heard the Beatitudes proclaimed to us in today’s gospel. But even if we are not regular Bible readers we have heard and seen the Beatitudes many times. They are posted at the entrances of churches, religious institutions, schools, hospitals and featured on memorial cards for our dead. They are even quoted on the talk shows in discussions on the world’s wars and disasters, "Blessed are the peacemakers… Blessed are the merciful…" Etc.

Some people hear the Beatitudes as a New Testament revision of the Ten Commandments. These are the ways we must behave, they think, to please God. But they are not commandments. In the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures they are Wisdom sayings. They invite us to take a second look at our world and its values and choose instead God’s ways which Jesus announces to us.

Society is ruled by those in power, high standing and who have all that people call "blessings." The implication is, that to have much is a sign of God’s favor. After all, doesn’t God reward good behavior and don’t the positive signs of my life indicate how God is pleased with me? That’s the reasoning of the world. But the wisdom Jesus shares with us in the Beatitudes is that God chooses to be on the side of those whose lives don’t show the expected signs of God’s favor: the weak and forgotten; those who seek justice, and who are persecuted for their beliefs. In other words, in God’s realm, the undervalued are worth much – worth Jesus giving his life for them. The Beatitudes are not entrance requirements to the kingdom, they are not orders for proper behavior. Nor are they a call to action, but are promises. They are indicative of where and how God is present and acting in our lives. In biblical language, the Beatitudes are "eschatological," i.e., they are present promises to oppressed people that point to the future – a future that is in God’s hands. To be "Blessed" is not simply to be "happy," but to know that we are already included in the realm (kingdom) that Jesus has come to announce.

While there are crowds following Jesus, he is teaching the Beatitudes to his disciples. He draws upon the promises and prophetic utterances of the Hebrew Scriptures. The account begins, for example, with Jesus going up a mountain: an allusion to Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the commandments from God (Exodus 19; 24; 34). The Beatitudes also contain many indirect quotations from Isaiah (e.g. chapter 61).

Matthew’s church was not a model of perfection, but had a lot in common with today’s church. His congregation also faced external persecution and internal problems. We can listen then to Jesus announcing to our community what Matthew’s church heard. Beatitudes were for them an assurance that those who faithfully endured could look forward, and even begin to enjoy now, full participation in God’s realm. Those Jesus names as "Blessed" live with confidence because we know that we are secure in God’s hands.

The Beatitude life is present tense. For example, "mourning" usually applies to our feelings when someone dies. But the sadness the Beatitude stirs is what we feel for a world that is far from God’s purposes: disciples mourn the idolatry, exploitation and violence that surround us. We mourn for a broken world. Each of us looks at the particular environment in which we live and mourn for what it reveals about how far we are from faithfully living God’s plan for the human community.

While we may tend to focus on one or two favorite Beatitudes, we need to see them as part of the whole; not as individual teachings. For example, if I am meek I’m also likely to "hunger and thirst for righteousness"; I will be a peacemaker and not respond to violence with more violence; and be merciful, forgiving the wrongs done against me, etc. Are the Beatitudes just impossible challenges for an elite group of Christians – Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, ML King, etc.? No, Jesus is speaking to each and all of his disciples, not just back then, but now.

Jesus himself embodies the Beatitudes. By his words and actions he turned the standards of our world upside down. In his teachings he is passing on the Wisdom that is his Spirit to us. By that Spirit we become his followers and can learn from him and follow his way of life. Along the way we "Beatitude People" falter and fail and from the One who is meekness and mercy himself, we receive forgiveness and strength to keep on striving to live his Beatitudes. We are not discouraged, for Paul reminds us, God chose the foolish and the weak (1 Cor 1:27). That described those disciples who sat close to Jesus on the Mount, and us who, with them, are being gifted with the Spirit of wisdom and thus, becoming "beatitude people."

The Beatitudes begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7). The rest of the Sermon will spell out the necessary instructions, i.e., how to live out the virtues described in the blessings. But remember, the Sermon begins not with commandments on how to please God, but with God’s initiative, blessing those who don’t usually feel blessed; giving a vision for what those awaiting Christ’s return.

The Beatitudes are a message of confidence and hope for all who suffer and are oppressed; who have no hope and nothing to expect in their lives. Someone I know, who has had terrible disappointments in her family, says often, "It is, what it is." But the Beatitudes stand against such resignation. My friend’s words might offer her some consolation, but they lack the hope that God can bring about change. In Jesus, God was offering a whole new start; a beginning that can only come from God. If we hear Jesus’ announcement that God is doing something new, then we can’t close the door on God. "It isn’t what it is – but what it will be."

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings:
https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/012923.cfm