4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 29, 2017
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Today’s reading from the Gospel of St. Matthew
is one of the most beautiful texts in all of Scripture:
the wonderful “Beatitudes” of Jesus.
“Beautiful” is perhaps the best word to describe these beatitudes
because the words “beautiful” and “beatitude”
come from the same Latin word:
“beati”, which means, blessed–as in “blessed are they.”
But some people like to think that the word “beatitude”
is related to the word “attitude”
–that the be–attitudes are so called
because they describe the way our attitudes should be.
Frankly both perspectives work for me:
the beatitudes teach us an attitude
that make us “blessed” or “beautiful” in the eyes of God.
Because the 8 beatitudes are so beautiful and positive and simple,
sometimes people tend to misunderstand them as somehow in contrast
to the more negatively worded and strident 10 commandments.
But that’s really the opposite of what they are.
Rather than contrast with the commandments, they instead illuminate them.
Instead of making the Christian life simpler and easier,
in some ways they make it even more difficult and demanding.
The beatitudes are the first part of Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount”.
With these beautiful words and promises he draws his audience in,
and shows them the riches of his kingdom.
But just a few verses after them
Jesus goes on to place them in their proper context:
“Think not [He says]
that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets;
I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
The beatitudes take the commandments and “fulfill them”
–make them deeper, richer and more profound.
With them Jesus tells us that the law of God
isn’t just what you do with your outward actions, as important as they are,
–it also has to do with your thoughts and feelings
–with your whole heart and mind: with your ATTITUDE.
So, as he continues with his “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus tells his disciples,
“You have heard…it…said…, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’
But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully
has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
“Again you have heard…it…said……., ‘You shall not swear falsely….’
But I say to you, ….Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘yes’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No’;
anything more than this comes from the devil.’”
In Jesus’ time, many of his fellow Jews
were being overly simplistic about the law of Moses,
especially some of the scribes and Pharisees that he calls
“snakes” and “hypocrites”
–an attitude that if we just avoid
doing a few particular narrowly defined things
we can avoid condemnation.
But in doing that, they lost sight of the fact that the law was there to teach them
a way of thinking, a way of living, a way of loving.
Follow the law, yes, absolutely;
but follow it with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.
And so, he gives them the beatitudes, as not something that “you shall not” do,
but rather as something you shall do;
and not as something very narrowly defined,
but a permeating attitude with wide ranging effects;
and not something merely to avoid condemnation,
but something to gain the greatest reward:
to become blessed– beautiful–in the eyes of God.
So we hear: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Who are “the poor in spirit?”
The poor here aren’t simply the physically or financially poor
–you can be dirt poor and be the most terrible person alive
–with absolutely nothing “Blessed” about you.
Jesus is talking about “the poor in SPIRIT”
–the spirit is that capacity we have to be open
to having a loving relationship with God.
“The poor in spirit” are the ones who have no treasure, no possession,
not even another person,
which is more important to them, in the depths of their hearts,
than their love for God, and his love for them.
They’re the ones who hear the commandment:
“I am the LORD your God: you shall not have strange gods before me.”
and think not simply, “I better not go to a pagan temple,”
but more importantly,
they resolve to radically change their whole attitude
and put God above all things and possessions and persons.
And who are “they who mourn?”
There’s nothing terribly wonderful about mourning or suffering.
When Jesus speaks about “those who mourn”
he’s talking about those who, like himself,
endure suffering patiently, accepting it as the will of God,
as somehow part of God’s plan for their ultimate benefit.
These are the ones who hear:
“Honor your father and your mother,”
and don’t just think about listening to or calling their parents
only when it’s convenient.
Instead, as children they obey their parents,
or as adults they go out of their way to be helpful to their parents,
especially as they grow older,
even if being obedient or helpful causes them real inconvenience
or even genuine suffering.
And who are “the Meek?”
Sometimes we think of meek persons as sort of sniveling cowards,
or people who simply keep their mouths shut.
But how can cowardice be seen at all as part of the life of Christ
who so bravely gave his life for us on the Cross?
And what man or woman could be blessed by keeping quiet,
for example, in the face of injustice?
No, to be “meek” means to recognize and accept
that God has a plan and a calling for each one of us individually:
His plan for you is a little different from your neighbor.
To be meek then, means to happily accept the different role each of us
has to play in God’s plan for the world.
And so, to Christ, the meek person hears, for example:
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods”
and thinks not just about the stuff his neighbor owns,
but, more deeply, the meek person
is not jealous or envious of anything
any gift, physical, emotional or spiritual,
God has given his neighbor,
or any task God has called his neighbor to do.
So, the mother or father of a large family
doesn’t try to live like a single person with no commitments,
and the priest who is called to muddle through as a simple parish priest
doesn’t get upset that he won’t ever become a bishop.
“Blessed are the merciful…[and] the peacemakers”
–”You shall not kill.”
“Blessed are the clean of heart”
–”You shall not commit adultery.”
You can go through each of the beatitudes and, with the heart and mind of Christ,
hear the echo of the commandments.
And you can go through each of the commandments
and hear the echoes of the beautiful promises of the beatitudes.
But without going through all the combinations here,
let’s sum up by looking at the last and greatest of the beatitudes:
“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.”
In this beatitude
Jesus essentially lays out the depth of the demands of all the beatitudes,
in the same way he does when he tells us about the greatest commandment
–the words of the Old Testament that summarize all ten commandments:
“you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
Those who are blessed are those who give themselves completely in love
— in all aspects and at all times in their lives—
to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Those who hear the call to love God
not merely as a request for warm feelings and sentiment,
but of committed and sacrificial love
–love that endures even when others tell you that it’s foolish,
and even when it causes you
to lose everything else in your life that’s valuable to you:
money, home, friends, family
—even to lose your physical life itself.
Sometimes, we can be like the scribes and Pharisees
–the “snakes” and “hypocrites.”
We can be overly simplistic, looking for loopholes,
in our understanding of what it means to love God and follow him.
But the promise of beatitude, of becoming truly beautiful in the eyes of the Lord
and living the most beautiful life–both now and forever
–involves much more than only avoiding simple technical violations
of the commandments.
It demands a whole-hearted attitude that permeates everything we do and think.
It is a complete commitment and sacrifice of our entire self to love God.
And in this beautiful attitude of complete love we will find the truth of the promise “Blessed are you.”
And we find the reason that the beatitudes close with the command to
“Rejoice and be glad.”