|The Sermon on the Mount, Cosimo Rosselli, Sistine Chapel, 1481-1482.|
Fr. Charles Irvin
Diocese of Lansing
A critic once challenged me by declaring that my homilies were preaching a message of failure to a bunch of losers. He was suggesting that the Good News of Jesus Christ is directed at losers, not at winners. Today’s Gospel account in which we find Jesus giving us the Beatitudes provides us with a good background to take a look at winners and losers.
As in so many things, a lot depends upon your viewpoint, the angle from which you are looking at things. St. Paul puts that issue into sharp perspective in today’s second reading which was taken from his letter written to very cosmopolitan and sophisticated Greeks living in Corinth:
Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters,” writes St. Paul, “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.”
So much of our spiritual life depends on how we see things. I daresay that everything depends on how we see people and things. It’s all a question of having eyes to see and ears to hear so that we may rightly understand. Do we see things in God’s light as God sees them – from above? That’s hinted at with the Star of Bethlehem guiding from above the wise men to Bethlehem and the Christ Child.
It is no accident that Jesus teaches His disciples on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Mountaintop experiences allow us to see things from above, from God’s perspective. What the worldly see is not what God sees. What the worldly judge to be desirable, God does not.
The Beatitudes provide a dizzying new vision of the world, a perspective designed to turn upside down the political and social world of the Roman Empire of Caesar Augustus and of the Jewish religious elite of Judea and Jerusalem. Likewise it calls us to a drastic and fundamental reassessment of our own political and social affairs, a reassessment that will not be realized without our dependence on God. No wonder, then, that the worldly mock and scorn the Beatitudes.
Jesus describes those who are truly fortunate, the lucky ones of their day. But it is not emperors, conquerors, priests, and the wealthy who enjoy this favor. Rather, it is the common people, those whom earthly success has largely passed by: the poor, the meek, the persecuted, and the peacemakers. How can this be? The answer is that even though they may have been denied worldly success, what cannot be taken away from them is their potential to live rightly by one another. It is all too easy for those who enjoy the pleasures of this world from their hilltop mansions to float above such obligations. Jesus goes on to say that so long as ordinary people stand for the right things and do not retreat in their rightness before those who seem to have more power, what is right will prevail. It’s their kingdom — a kingdom organized not from the top down, but from the bottom up. In the Beatitudes, Jesus offers a description of the community of goodwill His teachings will build in this world – if we follow them.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The poor in spirit are those who, no matter how much money that may have, realize they are relatively powerless without God’s power, an empowerment that gives them security in the face of all loss and disaster.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. It is the prerogative of God to bring good out of evil, light out of darkness, order out of chaos, and even life out of death. Mourning turns us back to God and calls down His love and compassion upon us, a love that empowers us to transcend our losses and rise again to meet new challenges.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. Being meek does not mean being a wimp. It does not mean being a doormat upon which aggressors wipe their feet. Some of our strongest leaders were meek – they recognized that God was about His work and they wanted to be a part of God’s work and accomplish His purposes. Abraham Lincoln was meek. He lived the Beatitudes. The Founding Fathers of our nation recognized our dependence on God.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lived in hunger and thirst for righteousness. So did President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. So did Nelson Mandela.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. We would think we are merciful but often that is merely wishful thinking because while thinking we are merciful we cling to our grudges, won’t let go of our resentments while remembering in detail all that others have done to hurt us. Just how full of mercy are we? Yet every day we pray: “Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Well, just what is the length, breadth, height, and depth of our merciful forgiveness? Each one of us here has to answer that question in his or her own heart. We will be forgiven using the measure with which we have forgiven others.
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God. Purity isn’t solely concerned with sexual sins. Having a clean heart involves a whole lot more, such as having a heart that is uncluttered, unadulterated, and focused.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. We can become overwhelmed when we consider how we will ever bring peace in our world, a world hopelessly mired in hateful revenge. But let’s consider that we can all be peacemakers in our own spheres of influence. In family quarrels we can bring peace. In misunderstandings between friends we can bring peace. How can we bring peace to our world if we do not have peace in our hearts?
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. One thinks of Christians throughout the Middle East who are being bombed and driven out of their homes and countries by militant terrorists. Here in our own country, think of Christians who are being mocked and scorned because they are pro-life.
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.
If anyone thinks that the Beatitudes are for the weak then they really don’t understand the strength that it takes to live them out. Doesn’t it take great inner strength to live up to the standards given us in the Beatitudes? Wimps couldn’t possibly do that, only people who have strength of character can. We are here to be nourished and strengthened by the Bread of Life so that with Christ’s love and values we can face what the world hurls at us while living in God’s blessedness within our hearts.