THE BEATITUDES: AN UPSIDE DOWN VIEW OF LIFE
(A biblical reflection on the 4th ORDINARY SUNDAY [YEAR A], 29 JANUARY 2017)
Gospel Reading: Matthew 5:1-12
First Reading: Zephaniah 2:3;3:12-13; Psalms: Psalm 146:1,7-10; Second Reading: 1Corinthians 1:26-31
The Scripture Text
Seeing the crowds, He went up on the mountain, and when He sat down His disciples came to Him. And He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-12 RSV)
Everybody wants happiness, but it is the most elusive of all human pursuits. Perhaps one reason is that we do not all agree on what makes for the happiness. Some say you have to be rich to be happy. Others agree with the idea behind the beer slogan, “Live with gusto; after all, you only go around once in life.” Some insist, “Look after number one; take care of yourself.” Others protest, “I want to be free to do what I want, when I want.” And of course there is the cliché, followed by not a few, “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die.”
Jesus disagreed with all these ideas. In fact in His proclamation of the beatitudes read to you a few moments ago in the Gospel, Jesus took all these ideas and turned them upside down. He said to be happy is to be poor, to be sorrowing, to be lowly, to be merciful, to suffer persecution. That sounds crazy to most people. The precise meaning of each of the beatitudes is not easy to explain – scholars have written many long commentaries on them. This is no wonder, because though the beatitudes do not exhaust all of Christian teaching, they do capture much of the heart and spirit of Christianity. Perhaps today, in thinking further about only the first of these beatitudes, we can appreciate better what it means to be a Christian and in the process discover how the upside down ideas of Jesus lead to true happiness.
What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Many Christians, throughout the centuries since the day Jesus proclaimed this beatitude, have found happiness in embracing voluntary poverty out of love for God, but the primary concern of Jesus was not with how much people do or do not have. Surely, Jesus had no illusions that destitution and happiness go together. Actually, Jesus urged His followers to help overcome the destitution of others. When Jesus used the word, “poor”, He did so against a whole background of Old Testament theology. The poor of the Lord in the Old Testament, the anawim, were those people who did not rely on any worldly means to fight the battle of life. They did not trust in wealth, or military power, or political shrewdness. They depended completely on God to protect them and lead them successfully through life. They stood before God, helpless and defenseless, trusting in Him and Him alone. They were the humble and lowly spoken of in the first reading today. They took refuge in the Lord. They were the poor in spirit.
Does all this sound unrealistic? Many would say that it does. After all, you can’t look after number one or live with gusto if you don’t depend on money. You can’t be free to do whatever you want if you rely on God for help, because His help comes only to those who keep His commandments. And yet we have the word of Jesus that poverty of spirit is happiness. That happiness begins even now, as we see in the serene peace of the saints, who lived according to the beatitudes. In another way, the words of Jesus look forward to a happiness that is to come in heaven, but that is realism. Even those who live only to eat and drink know that tomorrow they die. And then what? Is the pursuit of happiness so ephemeral that it must end with death? Eat and drink today and die tomorrow – what a bleak, depressing outlook on life!
Others protest that to be happy you have to be self-made and self-reliant – the old rugged individualism idea. That is why they say you have to look after number one. They judge religion to be a crutch, a means of strength for a weak personality, a form of psychological support. But again, where does realism lie? The realistic, mature person faces the truth. If a man is a crippled, he must use crutches. To look upon his crutches with disdain, or in a moment of supreme foolishness to throw them away with the protest that he can be independent of them, is the height of unrealism and stupidity. The truth is that we are the creatures of God, the Supreme Being. We depend on Him for our existence, as well as for all the means of survival both in this world and in the next. You may call religion a crutch, if you like, but you must also be prepared to recognize that as human beings we are spiritually cripples. That is a harsh way to put it, we all must admit. But hopefully it brings out the truth that to be realistic and mature, as well as psychologically healthy, we must admit our complete dependence on God.
Paul in the second reading recalled how God chose from among the Corinthians the weak, the lowborn, the despised, and those who counted for nothing to be His people, the anawim. We must realize that we too are called to be the new anawim, the people who are poor in spirit. In today’s Mass we should stand before God, conscious of the fact that we are helpless and defenseless, and that we must put our whole reliance on Him.
As far as many are concerned, the beatitudes are an upside down view of life. An upside down cake, when it comes out of the oven, looks very plain and unattractive. But when it is cut and served, the appetizing part is then on top.
Prayer: Lord Jesus, at present Your beatitudes may not appear attractive, but when You come in judgment You will show that beneath the surface appearance Your teaching contains both truth and beauty, leading to lasting happiness. Thank You, Lord. We praise Your holy name, now and forever more. Amen.
Jakarta, 27 January 2017
A Christian Pilgrim