Sunday Lectionary: Blessed are the unblessed

Beatitudes

Beatitudes

Back when I started this blog, I led a Young Adult Bible study group, so each week I would post my notes concerning the upcoming Mass Readings. My goal was to produce a commentary for the entirety of the Sunday Lectionary. However, this came to an end when I started attending an Eastern-Rite parish and handed the Bible Study over to another leader. The Eastern Churches have a different liturgical calendar and Lectionary, so the project came to an end.

This Wednesday I was leading a Bible study at a Roman-Rite parish, so I thought I would revive my tradition of posting my notes for today’s readings…

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Without a doubt, the jewel in this Sunday’s Readings is Christ’s Sermon on the Beatitudes. The other readings provide ample preparation for this Gospel passage by focussing upon the virtue of humility, as well as our attitude towards God which is best expressed in Christ’s opening statement that “Blessed are the poor in Spirit…”

1st Reading (Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13)

Zephaniah (“Yahweh protects”) is one of the minor prophets, whose book is found towards the end of the Old Testament. Zephaniah himself was of high social standing in Judah (possibly a descendant of King Hezekiah) and lived in the early 600’s BC, contemporaneous with the prophets Jeremiah, Nahum and Habakkuk.

Recent times had been rather dark. The previous king, Manasseh, had been possibly the worst king in Judah’s history. Most importantly, he had encouraged idolatry and immorality.

Zephaniah announces a coming judgement, which ultimately arrived in the form of the Babylonian invasion. The prophet spends most of his book warning the people about this coming “day of the Lord”. Fortunately, like many other prophets, he ends on a high note, looking forward to a future restoration of Judah. He truly “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable”.

Seek the LORD, all you humble of the earth,
who have observed his law;
seek justice, seek humility;
perhaps you may be sheltered
on the day of the LORD’s anger.

But I will leave as a remnant in your midst
a people humble and lowly,
who shall take refuge in the name of the LORD:
the remnant of Israel.
They shall do no wrong
and speak no lies;
nor shall there be found in their mouths
a deceitful tongue;
they shall pasture and couch their flocks
with none to disturb them.

Questions

  • What advice does Zephaniah have for his listeners?
  • What does Zephaniah appear to be foretelling?
  • What do we learn about this remnant?
  • Given what he exhorts, what might be some of the previous sins of the people?
  • What is the positive promise does the Lord make through Zephaniah?
  • How can we apply Zephaniah’s message to our lives today?
  • Do Zephaniah’s descriptions of the people describe me?
  • In what way can adversity and calamity draw us back to God?
  • In what way does it point to the Final Things?

Commentary

Seek the LORD, all you humble of the earth,
who have observed his law; …

He calls the people to humility, which would involve the abandonment of idolatry and immorality and turning in repentance to God. In Gospel, as Jesus presents the New Law, Jesus will speak of the “poor in spirit” and “the meek”.

The prophet will go on to speak judgement and destruction, but in exhorting people to “seek the Lord”, he appears to be holding out some hope that this could possibly still be averted. Either if it doesn’t hold back the destruction, it’s still good advice 🙂

…seek justice, …

In the Gospel we will speak of those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness”. Zephaniah’s mention of this suggests that the people had not previously been practising justice.

…seek humility;

This is the second time “humility” has been mentioned. This suggests that pride was also one of the key sins responsible for the coming judgement.

perhaps you may be sheltered 
on the day of the LORD’s anger.

Zephaniah speaks of future judgement, which will be fulfilled by the Babylonians. The verses preceding this extract describe the judgement in vivid terms.

Even after prophesying this punishment, there is mercy and hope. Zephaniah holds out the hope that those who are “humble” and “seek justice” will somehow be protected from the oncoming onslaught.

But I will leave as a remnant in your midst…

The Lord promises that the people will not be utterly destroyed. A portion will survive.

a people humble and lowly,
who shall take refuge in the name of the LORD:
the remnant of Israel.

Those who remain will throw themselves upon the mercy and providence of the Lord. They will be a purified, holy people.

They shall do no wrong
and speak no lies;
nor shall there be found in their mouths
a deceitful tongue;

The remnant will live upright lives (“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”). Virtue concerning their tongues is emphasized.

they shall pasture and couch their flocks
with none to disturb them.

…and through this purification and preservation, they will live in peace. In the Gospel we will read that “Blessed are the peacemakers…”

Psalm (PS 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10)

The response from today’s psalm is drawn directly from today’s Gospel. The psalm itself deals with some of the same themes: the oppressed, hunger, justice

R. (Mt 5:3) Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs!

The LORD keeps faith forever,
secures justice for the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets captives free.

R. Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs!

The LORD gives sight to the blind;
the LORD raises up those who were bowed down.
The LORD loves the just;
the LORD protects strangers.

R. Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs!

The fatherless and the widow the LORD sustains,
but the way of the wicked he thwarts.
The LORD shall reign forever;
your God, O Zion, through all generations. Alleluia.

R. Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs!

Questions

  • From where does the Response come?
  • How does this psalm relate to the Gospel?

Commentary

The LORD keeps faith forever,
secures justice for the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets captives free.

God is faithful in his covenant love for His people.

The LORD gives sight to the blind;
the LORD raises up those who were bowed down.
The LORD loves the just;
the LORD protects strangers.

We are told about God’s ability to reverse situations. His love is promised for the just.

The fatherless and the widow the LORD sustains,
but the way of the wicked he thwarts.

God cares for the vulnerable.

The LORD shall reign forever;
your God, O Zion, through all generations. Alleluia.

The psalmist testifies to Jerusalem.

This also points forward (in the anagogical sense) to our reward in Heaven.

2nd Reading (1 Cor 1:26-31)

Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians during his time in Ephesus, most likely on his “Third Missionary Journey”, around AD 56. Paul himself had founded this congregation in Corinth around AD 51. It was a very diverse congregation, with rich and poor, free and slave, Jewish and Gentile. However, the congregation did not represent the “movers and shakers” of the city. The Church was tremendously blessed in terms of spiritual gifts, but this appears to have become a source of boasting among them.

Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters.
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.”

Questions

  • From the text, what do you think was the make-up of the Corinthian congregation?
  • What is the significance of calling the Corinthians “brothers and sisters”?
  • How does Paul describe the Church?
  • According to Paul, how does God use this?
  • Does the description of the Corinthians describe me?
  • Do I think that God can really use my weakness?
  • What might be a fault to be found in the Corinth congregation?
  • What does Paul mean at the end when he talks about “boasting in the Lord”?
  • If God chooses the weak, what boasting can we have in being Christian?

Commentary

Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters.
Not many of you were wise by human standards,
not many were powerful,
not many were of noble birth.

The makeup of the Corinthian congregation was mixed, and as a whole they did not represent the societal elite of Corinth.

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.

This is a consistent pattern in God’s operation, using weak things so that His power and glory can shine through. Those “who count for nothing” may well refer to Gentiles.

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,

The Corinthians can’t boast in anything, since everything ultimately comes from Jesus.

“Christ was made our sanctification, not so that he might change what he was but that he might sanctify us in the flesh.”

– St Ambrose of Milan (A.D. 381), The Holy Spirit 3,4,26

so that, as it is written,
“Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.”

This is a paraphrase of the Greek version (LXX) of Jeremiah 9:24. In its original context, the prophet challenged the wise and well-to-do of Israel to stop boasting about their worldly blessings and instead give glory to the Lord.

The Corinthians were boasting about their spiritual gifts, rather than giving glory to God.

I have heard it said that evangelism is simply one hungry beggar telling another hungry begger where the food is.

Gospel (Mt 5:1-12)

The Beatitudes represent the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Although I typically don’t like “The Message” translation, I do find its rendering of this text to be very thought-provoking.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain,
and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.
He began to teach them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
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.”

Questions

  • When in the Old Testament do you see someone ascending a mountain to teach? What is the difference?
  • Why does Jesus sit down?
  • What does it mean to be “blessed”?
  • How might of Jesus’ audience responded to these beatitudes? Do we allow these words to shock us?
  • How does the different parts of each beatitude relate to each other, the blessing and the promise?
  • How does this Gospel relate to our other Readings?
  • When do you think these blessings are realized? In this life or in the next?
  • How do you see this teaching reflected in Jesus’ own life? What about the apostles? Your own life?
  • In what way are these words comforting to those experiencing persecution?
  • Can you think of someone who is “poor in spirit”? Can you think of some other famous people who exemplify some of these different beatitudes?
  • Which of these eight blessings do you find most attractive? Which do you most want for yourself? What about for other people? Are there any in particular which scare you?

Commentary

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, …

Jesus is the New Moses. This is something of particular importance to Matthew’s Gospel:

  • Both saved as infants
  • Both associated with Egypt
  • Both fasted and tested in the desert
  • Both covenant mediators
  • Both give a law
  • Moses gave five books of the Bible, Jesus gives five speeches

Moses led the Children of Israel through the Red Sea and then gave them the Law (Exodus 19). Jesus has now passed through the waters of Baptism in the Jordan and is now about to give the New Law. The differences is that Moses went up to the Mountain and brought it down, Jesus brings people with him up the mountain.

God promised Abraham that his seed would be a blessing for the whole of humanity. Whereas the Mosaic Law was for the Children of Israel, this is for all. In the Beatitudes, he pronouncing a blessing on all who suffer.

The “Sermon on the Mount” is about to begin…

…and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.

The position of a teacher was sitting, with his disciples sitting at his feet.

The disciples are closest to Jesus, but he is teaching everyone, including the crowds.

He began to teach them, saying:

It is worth pointing out that St. Augustine saw a key relationship between the Beatitudes and the Gifts of the Spirit.

The Beatitudes describe a world turned upside-down. It describes the rule of the Kingdom of God which is here (Luke 11:20), but not yet completed (Luke 11:2). This is in stark opposition to the standards and expectations of the world, which we read about in the Second Reading.

There is nothing here about being a descendant of Abraham or keeping the Mosaic Law.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

I don’t think it is accidental that Jesus starts here. This kind of humility is the precursor to all that follows. Each of the Beatitudes can be seen as building upon each other.

The linguistic pattern here is common in both the Psalms and Wisdom literature.

The word “Blessed” is often translated as “happy”, but it does rather limp. The Greek word is “Makarios” and is an adjective meaning fortunate or blessed. It’s not asking for blessing, but a declaration that someone already has or will receive a blessing from God. These blessings are fully realized in Heaven, although they may be experienced in part here and now.

The “poor in spirit” know that they need God’s grace. They declare spiritual bankruptcy. Like the remnant described by Zephaniah, they know they have an utter dependence upon God.

There is a consistent pattern here, of strife and reward.

This isn’t a glorification of poverty, but descriptive of a disposition. I am reminded of St. Therese of Lisieux who described herself as a little child holding up her arms and letting her father lift her up.

As in the Second Reading, God uses the unexpected things of this world.

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

Those who have sorrow for the state of the world, their sins and those who suffer. In Revelation 7:17 we are told that God will wipe away every tear.

Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.

Those who are humble and don’t let resentment build up. They appear powerless and unimportant. Both Jesus and Moses are described as “Meek”. The “land” may be understood in multiple senses, ultimately pointing towards our heavenly homeland.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.

Strives to do the will of God.

Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.

Overlooking the failures of others. Imitate God in this respect.

Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.

The heart is the very centre of who you are, the source of your thoughts and emotions.

Keeping oneself unstained by the world allows one to see God.

This is our ultimate goal in Heaven, to see God, the Beatific Vision.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.

If one has these attitudes, one will radiate peace

If one is a peacemaker one shares in the work of Christ reconciling the world to God.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Patience during persecution:

“The profitable thing is not suffering those evils, but bearing them with equanimity and cheerfulness for the sake of Christ.”

– St. Augustine

We are each called to be a “martyr” (witness).

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.”

The Christian life isn’t going to be easy, but it has great rewards, both here and in the hereafter.

Resources

These are some of the resources I read or listened to in preparing these notes:

What are your thoughts about this article?