Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
January 29, 2023 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Zephaniah 2:3’3:12-13 | Psalm 146:6-10
I Corinthians 1:26-31| Matthew 5:3-12

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

Some churches exhibit an established reputation for a legalistic approach to religion tied to a theology that goes something like this: Obey the human-made rules of the church, and God will reward you with an eternity in Heaven if you die. Disobey those rules, and you will instead roast in Hell. It’s known as the eschatology of the Four Last Things, Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

For these traditional Christians, rules are everything. Protestants say if it’s in the Bible, it’s God’s law. For them what counts is what’s in the Bible, nothing else. This idea is known among scholars as the sola scriptura principle. Roman Catholics say if the pope says it, it’s God’s law. The Roman Church draws its rule-making authority from the Bible as well. They claim that Jesus appointed the Apostle Peter and his successors as head of the Church in his earthly absence. On this basis, the Roman Catholic church falsely claims that it’s the “one true church.” Reality is, there is no such. God loves all churches equally. Sometimes we make the mistake of equating God’s preferences to our own.

No matter what your preferred flavor of Christianity is, being Church is not a legalistic endeavor. Being Church arises from your relationship to God and others. Conventional street-level Christianity boils down to the Ten Commandments found by Protestants and Anglicans in the Book of Exodus and by Roman Catholics and Lutherans in the Book of Deuteronomy.

Regardless of which iteration of the Ten Commandments you accept, eight out of ten of the commandments are phrased in the negative: do not do this or that. Those sound like simple, black-and-white concepts, easy to follow: simply don’t do whatever.

By contrast, only two of the Ten Commandments are positive mandates: Keep holy the Sabbath and honor your father and mother. However, these particular two commandments have the potential to incite conflict: does one go on a family outing to please one’s parents, or does one stay behind and take the bus to church, as I often did as a child? A possible resolution to this dilemma is to consider the idea that honoring one’s parents does not mean obeying or pleasing them one hundred percent of the time.

What this is saying is that prohibitory commandments are easier to understand than commandments that establish mandates. That is probably why the Beatitudes found in today’s Gospel are so perplexing for both theologians and ordinary Christians. Not only are all positive statements, but none of them ask or tell us to actually do or refrain from doing particular acts. Rather, they are statements of the human condition and prescriptive aspirations. They do not tell us that if you do, or fail to do, certain things, something bad will happen to you.

The reason is that mandates, as contrasted with prohibitions, leave wide room for interpretation. Such is true with the Beatitudes that comprise today’s Gospel. That is why old-fashioned theologians are skeptical of the notion proposed by their contemporary sisters and brothers that the Beatitudes replace the Ten Commandments. The simplicity of binary alternatives provides many religious people with the familiar comfort zone they seek as part of their relationship with God.

To live one’s life in a manner circumscribed by the Beatitudes is much more difficult and demanding than living by the Ten Commandments. The demands the Beatitudes make on us are far more demanding and far more complicated than those admonished and mandated by the Ten Commandments. However, we should not consider the Beatitudes as a replacement for the Ten Commandments, as some theologians have advocated. Indeed, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” The Beatitudes are part of that fulfillment.

The Beatitudes and the Ten Commandments do not contradict one another. They can and should be read together. The Beatitudes provide what the Ten Commandments omit.  If anything, the Beatitudes are an interpretive lens for the Ten Commandments.

In the Jewish Pharisaic tradition of which Jesus was part, the Beatitudes fit the definition of midrash. Midrash responds to contemporary problems and crafts new stories, making connections between new realities and unchanging biblical text. There are two kinds of midrashim (that’s the plural of the word), one known as midrash halacha, which deals with religious law and practice, while midrash aggadah occupies the meeting ground between reverence and love for the wording of the fixed text of the Torah, and theological creativity.  The Beatitudes straddle both genres of midrashim as they reflect on the state of the human being in the human condition, a human condition that includes suffering, inequity, and injustice.

The Matthean Beatitudes are one of the more familiar biblical passages and have been subject to extensive exegetical analysis. Matthews’s Gospel was composed during a time of religious, political, and social upheaval. At that time, around sixty-five to seventy A-D, the Roman Empire was about to invade and conquer Jerusalem, scattering communities of both Messianic and non-Messianic Jews. Not only did Rome take over in seventy A-D, but the split between followers and skeptics of Jesus in the Jewish community became complete and is still yet to heal.

The community that the author of Matthew addressed experienced religious upheaval, conflicts of authority and interpretation of the law, and cultural clashes. Almost two thousand years later, the same problems touch the experience of our church and society.

Central to the Beatitudes is the concept of the “Kingdom of Heaven” also known as “the Reign of God.” The image of the “Kingdom of Heaven” or the “Reign of God” bookends the eight Beatitudes. Since Jesus came proclaiming the gospel of the reign of God (also meaning “the kingdom of heaven” or “eternal life” in Matthew), one can conclude that the Beatitudes held together by these bookends explicate what it means to live in the church baptized into God’s reign and what it means to live in our empires as citizens of God’s kingdom as contrasted with earthly political regimes.

But God’s reign cannot be limited to any specific institution or ideology or to any certain rules and regulations.  That is why there is no such thing as “one true church.”

In institutionalized Roman Catholicism, through centuries of councils and catechisms, dogmas and decrees, norms and traditions, the power and ability of the Roman hierarchy to control people were beyond question. God’s will was often equated with the will of humans who made the rules.

However, God, and the characteristics that apply to God, exist independently of any institution no matter how large. Therefore, God’s reign encompasses more than a single religious event or single collectivity of persons. God is a reality encompassing actuality, presence, dynamic, being, force, strength, existence, subsistence, and power. God is ultimately a mystery beyond human understanding. We have to understand the Beatitudes in that context.

Each of the Beatitudes begins with the word, “Blessed.” The Hebrew equivalent word is baruch, as in, baruch ata Adonai, the beginning of the shema from the Book of Deuteronomy in the Torah, The shema begins, “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” Those words are a foundational declaration on the nature of God for both Jews and Christians. When we tell another person that they are “blessed,” we recognize that person as created in God’s image.

In the Greek New Testament text, the word used for “blessed” is makarios, which means “fortunate.” So when we say to someone, “blessed are you,” we are wishing that person good fortune. We’re telling that person, “We are happy for you. We are glad you are happy.”  What Jesus is telling us to do is to wish others happiness by recognizing their godliness. In giving us the Beatitudes, Jesus recognizes our difficulty in finding good fortune in some of the most unlikely people and situations.

Unlike much of the Bible, the Beatitudes are not just platitudes for analytical exegesis, but they offer practical wisdom for daily existence by freeing us from a pattern of thinking that relies on institutional structures and regulations. Let’s take them one by one.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice here that Jesus said, “poor in spirit,” not people without money. You can own large amounts of money and property, yet still be poor in spirit if you turn their lives over to God and, in the power of God, work for the fulfillment of justice on behalf of those who are indigent. By their knowledge of God’s reign in their lives, the “poor in spirit” recognize their intense need for God. Recognizing their dependence on God, they trust in God’s loving care to meet their needs. By their awareness of the Spirit of the Lord given over to them, they accept their responsibility to image God by working to reorder creation.

When you turn yourself over to God, you can be a blessing to others.

“Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

We all have, at one time or another, experienced the loss of a loved one through death or another variety of separation. The second Beatitude touches on the reality of death in all its forms. It addresses all the death-dealing forces that undermine health in our lives and the world. As such, it touches the human experience like no other. Consequently, it also represents the fulfillment of more of humanity’s hopes than any other. Far from being limited by the forces of pain that too often control our lives and those of our loved ones, this passage depicts the promise of Jubilee, the “year of the Lord’s favor,” which proclaims that the pain of the world one day will be reversed.

Be a blessing to those you encounter who are mourning by comforting them.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” What is a “meek” person? When used in a positive way, meek describes someone who shows patient restraint. When used negatively, it means overly submissive. What Jesus was getting at, however, was meek in the positive sense, that of being non-violent. Violence is not only physical. It is verbal as well. In other words, a meek person is one who does not employ violence as a means to prevail. A meek person is not someone who allows others to take advantage of the weakness of another. Violence often arises from the need to control another person through fear and intimidation. The land is often associated with wealth. What Jesus is saying is that wealth obtained or defended by violence amounts to ill-gotten gains.

Bless those around you with patient restraint and don’t take advantage of the weakness of another.

“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” Some scholars substitute the word “righteousness” for the word “justice.” “Justice” as practiced by the imperial powers of Rome and the Temple priests is different from that advocated by Jesus. For Jesus, justice is the authority of God which must rule the world. For Jesus, the goal of justice is to reorder the world’s chaotic alienation.

Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah tell us that God’s justice begins with a personal experience of God’s care for us in our disorder and need. Prayer is a response to our hunger and thirst for God. Hungering to be grounded in God, one longs to be a part of God’s life and household. Searching for that household involves a commitment to enter God’s reign through justice.

Bless others by treating them justly, with the compassion that characterizes God, starting in the household where you live and the church you attend.

The most practical of all the beatitudes is my favorite: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” This is the same attitude we see in the Our Father when we as God to forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others. In everyday language, “what goes around, comes around.” This particular beatitude is the most challenging. I often ask myself why people aren’t merciful to one another.

We ask for God’s mercy, but often don’t show it to others. Being merciful to others is not always easy, as again, we instinctively want to retaliate against those who wrong us, and we instinctively want to see wrongdoers punished. Mercy is part of what God is, and part of what we are. We are created in the image of God, and the God I know is merciful, as we are told twenty-six times in Psalm one-thirty-six and in numerous other places in scripture. The core of human nature, with fear out of the picture, is to be merciful to others. Be merciful, and others will be merciful to you.

Be a blessing to others by showing mercy. Don’t punish other people. Don’t retaliate against other people.

“Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.”  I am not talking about your physical heart. I am referring to your inner disposition. The “purity of heart” described in this Beatitude seems to characterize a kind of interior lack of duplicity, guilelessness, and wholeheartedness. It means being genuinely a good and loving person from the inside out. Being pure in heart involves having a singleness of heart toward God. A pure heart has no hypocrisy, no guile, and no hidden motives. The pure heart is marked by transparency and an uncompromising desire to please God in all things. It is more than an external purity of behavior; it is an internal purity of the soul.

Likewise, “seeing God” does not mean some kind of physical “sighting” of God or the beatific vision of one’s dreams. “Seeing God’s face” depends on a purity of heart that represents a person’s total commitment to God’s plan.

Be a blessing to others by actualizing the pure goodness that resides within you and not from undisclosed ulterior motives.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” To be a child of God is to be brothers and sisters together in God’s household. When Jesus told his disciples to proclaim his gospel, its message was the opposite of that of Caesar’s world. Jesus told them that, as they entered the various households, they should greet the people with peace. But in Jesus’ day “spreading peace” meant subjecting other peoples to Roman dominion.  The peace Jesus advocated, however, was not disorder. Rather, he promulgated a new kind of justice that would bring about the reign of God where justice and peace will meet.  Peacemakers are instruments of God who actively work to create a new world order enhancing the integrity of creation itself.

Be a blessing to others by peacemaking without domination. Make peace in all areas of your life, including your household, church, and secular community. If you dominate at all, do so through peacemaking.

“Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Persecution often results from fidelity to God’s justice. Since God’s reign is linked with justice, our ministry for justice automatically deepens within us the experience of God’s reign, which is justice. The inevitable sign that we are faithful to God’s justice is persecution, sometimes resulting in martyrdom.

In pursuit of God’s justice, Christians experience conflict both within the church and outside it. You will recall the Jesus said we would experience conflicts in our families if we totally commit to him. My experience has been that on a practical level, many who live in non-Christian households experience conflict and alienation if they find Jesus and get baptized.

Persecution and misunderstanding not only come from family and friends but can be anticipated from society itself. Jesus predicted that when he said, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.”

To be a Christian today is not easy. We live in a society today wherein affluence has choked off God’s word in such a way that Jesus’ promise of having foes within “one’s own household” is a harsh reality.

Be a blessing by standing up for Jesus, but don’t do so by denigrating others.

Regardless of the outcome of earthly conflicts, Jesus always wins in the final analysis. What Jesus taught, in the Beatitudes and elsewhere, is eternal. Focusing on what is eternal does not mean forgetting what’s happening today and acting according to what might happen in the next life. Eternity is all-inclusive. What is happening now is just as much a part of eternity as what will happen tomorrow. To truly be a blessing, you must act with both today and tomorrow in mind.

The Beatitudes call all of us to priestly ministry. I am a Priest with a capital “P.” If you are baptized, you are a priest with a small “p.”  All priesthood means being a gateway to God for others. When we hand our lives over to God, comfort those who mourn, show patient restraint, do God’s justice, are merciful to our sisters and brothers, act from pure motives, resolve instead of exacerbate conflicts, and are loyal first and foremost to Jesus, we are, and will always be, a blessing to the world. AMEN.