The Open Ended Call
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 5: 1-12a
FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [A]
USCCB link to all three readings
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."
The Beatitudes cited in next Sunday’s Gospel open the three-chapter segment known as the Sermon on the Mount. Commentator R.T. France (see home page) is quick to point out, though, that the “sermon” at this juncture of Jesus’ ministry was not intended for mankind, but rather, as the intimate instruction of the Apostles who have answered Jesus’ call to enter the Kingdom. Now they (and we) will find out precisely what the Kingdom of God stands for. France prefers the title “The Discourse on Discipleship” for Chapters 5-7.
A cautionary note is called for in addressing Sunday’s texts. Catechists—myself included—have been very quick to call the beatitudes, and the three explanatory chapters that follow, a new moral code. One often hears that the Beatitudes are the new Ten Commandments, with Jesus as the new Moses. However, France would have no argument with Hans Kung’s On Being a Christian (1976) in which Kung describes Christianity as the only religion in the world that calls us to become like God. The adjective “blessed” in this reading aligns with God as revealed in Jesus: poor in spirit, mourning for suffering, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, clean of heart, a maker of peace, persecuted and reviled for goodness’ sake.
The Beatitudes reflect the state of the saints, those who have walked in the footsteps of Jesus. The culmination of their journey is union with God, or as Matthew puts it, “your reward in heaven will be great.” It would be wrong, then, to claim at any point in one’s life that one has accomplished or finished the requirement of a beatitude. Can one ever say, “I’ve made enough peace” or “I am done mourning for the suffering of the world” or “I have been merciful enough?” The beatitudes have something of the open-ended quality pf a psychological projective test: there are always more ways to concretely live the law of Christ; the Christian qualities of sensitivity and imagination are always operative. For this reason, to look at the beatitudes as merely moral guidelines or codes is to miss the mark.
The term “poor in Spirit” in the first beatitude is an Old Testament term of praise. It refers to those who, despite poverty and destitution, not only maintain faith in God but also engage in eschatological or future hope and trust, that God will be their deliverer whatever the odds of the present moment.
As France notes, it is illogical to say that those who mourn are happy. The intent of the beatitude is the statement that those who presently mourn will eventually be comforted. This beatitude is closely related to the first; those who are presently mourning are expressing grief over their current predicament of poverty and powerlessness. When coupled with the hope of the previous paragraph, their tears will be washed away.
The term “meek” includes the poor listed above, but it also refers to those whose attitude is not arrogant or oppressive. They stand in silent contrast to those who seek power and riches, and God will confound the world by establishing the meek as the master of the new Kingdom.
Those hungering for righteousness are seekers of good conduct in their own lives. They are not moral scolds calling for God to punish their evil neighbors, as is sometimes the interpretation of the text. The “merciful” of the beatitudes carry a generous and unjudgmental attitude toward the world at large. They are assured that God’s treatment of them will be marked by this same kind of forgiving temperament.
“Peacemaking” is an active behavior, far more than simply maintaining a calm demeanor. This beatitude includes making peace with one’s own enemies and bringing together those who are estranged from one another. I am reminded of the old saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall catch hell from all sides.”
The last lines of Sunday’s reading are directed to the Apostles, as “blessed are you….” The pronoun change is critical, for it marks the end of the generalized description of the Kingdom of God and begins the pointed instruction to those who would follow Jesus through his own ministry. For the next three chapters, Jesus will elaborate on the sweeping descriptions of the beatitudes in terms of how his followers will adopt a moral plan of action. It may be helpful to add that the next sentence following Sunday’s text is “You are the salt of the earth.” France refers to the following chapters as the fulfillment of the Law.
I might recommend that Chapters 5 through 7 be read together as a whole. They represent the full scope of Jesus’ mind on the Christian life while bringing the teachings of the Law and the prophets into fulfillment. The Lectionary of the Mass will draw from this section for through the Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
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