4th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2011

30 January 2011

Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12 – 13
1 Cor1: 26 – 31
Matthew 5: 1 – 12

Many years ago when I worked in Nigeria in West Africa a notice appeared in one of the daily newspapers.  It said ‘Advertisers for Jesus Christ wanted’.  I was sorry that I never answered this, as it would have been interesting to know what qualities they were looking for in the people they were seeking. 

Today’s gospel sums up the kind of people Jesus himself is looking for in order to advertise his kingdom.  He lists a number of qualities which he considers very important. We might say that as Moses received the 10 commandments from God, Jesus is giving his list known as the Beatitudes which complements or offers another way of looking at the original 10 commandments.  As someone pointed out they are the Be-Attitudes, the attitudes of Jesus himself which he recommends to his disciples. 

Nearly all the 10 commandments found in Exodus 20 start with a prohibition –‘You shall not’. Only a couple of them are put in a positive way like ‘Honour your father and your mother’. 

But here in the Beatitudes we have a different emphasis. Jesus is stating that those who put them into practice are Blessed or Happy. He doesn’t state you must or you have to keep them. And certainly not that you will be punished if you don’t respond positively. He is simply pointing out the reality that if you do live by them you will be truly blessed or happy not just when you die but beginning right now.  So they are offered more in the form of an invitation or an encouragement. He invites people to try them and see for themselves that they are only way to true peace and joy. We must beware of making them into commandments.  Anyone who has tried to live by them will know what Jesus is talking about. Of course, Jesus was the one who lived them out to the full and he invites us to do likewise knowing it is a lifetime’s work but he assures us of the help of his Holy Spirit.

Another way of looking at the Beatitudes is to see them as God’s dream for us.  God is offering us the possibility of dreaming his dream, of dreaming the dream of God. Jesus offers them to us as a guideline for discipleship. It reminds me of a woman in her forties who said to me that her dream is to go to university in a few years time when her children are educated. She said that she is already saving for this in order to realise her dream. She knows it won’t be easy but she is determined to make it happen.

She underlines an aspect of the beatitudes which is important. In the original language of Jesus, Aramaic, the word for ‘beatitude’ comes from an active verb so does not have a passive quality to it.  Thus to be blessed means ‘to set oneself on the right way for the right goal’ just as this woman is doing. It also includes the idea of turning away from whatever prevents one from achieving this goal. This may also include the idea of renewal. The beatitudes are offered by Jesus to empower us. They offer us the possibility of changing what is not good. Thus, ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be satisfied’. We just don’t sit around hoping things will come about only by prayer. We must actually become involved in working for justice. Also ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ – again a call to ‘make peace’ not just to hope it will happen. Even ’blessed are those persecuted for the sake of righteousness’ assumes they have been struggling to achieve this.

Because it is the first beatitude mentioned ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ it is the key to all the others and it is written in the present tense where all the others refer to a future reality. The best translation I have seen of this first beatitude is ‘blessed are they who desperately know their need of God’’. This was the attitude of Jesus himself. He knew that as a human being like you and me he totally needed the help of his Heavenly Father to bring about the kingdom having done all he could humanly do himself.  I am sure that if a priest asks in a church on Sunday ‘who needs God’s help?’ all hands will be raised. But to desperately know how much we need God is a different experience. Just like a drowning man knows he desperately needs the help of someone to save him. Once we are convinced of this then we will turn to God who will certainly help us because we allow him to enter our lives. Very often when things are fine we don’t think that we desperately need our God but in fact we do. And when we allow God to enter into our lives then we will be empowered to work to bring about the dream of God. One danger with this first beatitude would be to reduce it to a purely spiritual dimension. It means also working to improve the physical and material condition of the poor in whatever way I can.

It is a good idea that if we are examining our consciences in preparation for Confession, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we should use these beatitudes as a guide to see how we are living out our Christian commitment.

“Lord Jesus, help us to be more and more aware how desperately we need your help to live out the beatitudes in our daily lives so as to bring about your kingdom here on earth. Amen”

Fr.Jim Kirstein, SMA