4th Sunday A - Blessed are You

From Fr. Jude Botelho:

The first reading from Zephaniah speaks of the Day of Yahweh, when God will intervene directly in the life of Israel. Zephaniah advises the people to seek God in humility and lowliness. These are necessary conditions to find God for he rejects falsehood and the proud-hearted, who believe that they can manage on their own and don’t need him. The Israelite nation had suffered decades of oppression under the Assyrian rule, the prophet now announces the arrival of salvation and liberation of the little ones who have suffered under foreign rule. This ‘Day of Yahweh’ is a time of effective action by God on behalf of his people. God is close to those who are humble and depend on him.
Meekness is not weakness
St Clement Hofbauer of Vienna was collecting funds for orphans whose parents had died in the Napoleonic wars. He walked into a restaurant where three men were playing cards and asked them for a contribution for his good work. One of the cursed him and spat on his face. Hofbauer quietly took out his handkerchief wiped the spit from his cheek and said without the slightest sign of anger, "Now that was for me, sir. How about something for my orphans?" The abusive card player was so dumbfounded that he reached into his pocket and handed the saint all the money he had with him.
- Msgr. Arthur Tonne
In the second reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, Paul is aware of the diverse groups in Corinth who boast of their superior origins and ways of living the Christian life. Paul speaks bluntly to them and points out that none of them have grounds for boasting as none of them really come from noble stock. The Christian has only one basis for trust and hope and that is Jesus who died and rose again. In comparison with the Lord of life all divisions and privileges are insignificant. Unfortunately, even today, while claiming to follow Jesus Christ, people boast of being superior to others on the basis of race, colour, caste, class, education, social standing, all insignificant factors in matters of faith. "As Scripture says, if anyone wants to boast, let him boast about the Lord."  Today’s gospel portrays Jesus as an authoritative teacher, who solemnly announces the fundamentals of life in the Kingdom of Heaven. The disciples are the primary target audience of the Sermon on the Mount but the principles are addressed beyond the immediate circle of disciples to the crowds of followers. The principles are universal. They are delivered on the mountain, the favoured place among the Israelites for encountering God. The sermon on the mount contains the essence of Christ’s teachings and the beatitudes are the essence of that essence. In the beatitudes Jesus presents a new vision of the Kingdom and invites his followers to live that vision.

A new vision for new life
A native American chief who was nearing the end of his life gathered his three sons and told them, "Do you see that mountain in the distance? I want you to journey to that mountain, climb to its summit and bring back the thing you think will be most helpful in leading our people." After several days the first son returned with a load of flint stones, used to make arrow tips and spear points. He told his father, "Our people will never live in fear of their enemies. I know where there is a mount of flint." The second son climbed the top of the mountain and found forests rich with wood for making fires. When he returned he said to his father, "Our people will never be cold in winter. I know where wood can be found in abundance to keep them warm and cook their food." The third son returned late and empty handed. He stated "When I got to the top of the mountain I found nothing worth bringing back. I searched everywhere, but the top of the mountain was barren rock and useless. Then I looked towards the horizon, far into the distance. I was astonished to see new land filled with forests and meadows, mountains and valleys, fish and animals – a land of great beauty and great peace. I brought nothing back, for the land was still far off and I didn’t have time to travel there. But I would love to go there someday; I delayed coming back because I found it very difficult to return after seeing the beauty of the land." The old chief’s eyes blazed. He grasped this third son in his arms proclaiming that he would succeed him as the new chief. He thought to himself, "The other sons brought back worthy things, necessary things. But my third son knows the way to a better land. It is important that the new chief has a vision and has seen the promised land and burns with a desire for it."
- Brian Cavanaugh in ‘Sower’s Seeds of Encouragement’
In the beatitudes it is not starvation and misery that are being blessed- these are evil things. What is being blessed is reliance on God. Those who know their need of God, and live life as He would have them live it, are truly blessed. They are the most fortunate of all people, for God will give them all that they need. Only God can fulfill our emptiness. We like to believe that we can manage our lives, that we are self sufficient, that we can make it on our own. Those who put their trust in human resources will be disappointed but those who trust in God will never be disappointed. Men and women of all ages have drawn inspiration from the Sermon on the Mount. Mahatma Gandhi drew strength and inspiration from the Beatitudes for his concept of non-violence. Martin Luther King was convinced that his struggle on behalf of the poor and the oppressed would succeed only if it was based on justice, love and forgiveness, proclaimed in the Beatitudes. All the eight beatitudes have a second line that deals with relationship with God. The first and the last pledge the Kingdom in the present to those who are poor and persecuted, while the inner six look to a final completion of God’s work for the mourning and others in the future. These beatitudes form a summary of the Christian life. We are blessed by God when we depend on him and when we strive single mindedly for justice and are willing to endure for one’s fidelity. There is a present and a future dimension to the kingdom. The poor in spirit are not merely those who find themselves in poverty but those who know they depend on God for everything and are nothing without Him. They are those who joyfully acknowledge their dependence on his goodness and mercy. The beatitudes are a challenge to focus our lives not on our achievements and ourselves but on God alone. A challenge to live more for God.

And then some
A successful businessman once was asked the secret of success. His reply summed success in three words: AND THEN SOME. He learned early in life that the difference between average people and truly successful people could be simply stated in those three words. Top people did what was expected and then some! Jesus taught the and then some principle in the Sermon on the Mount. He is saying: Go beyond what is expected! Go a little further! Let these words serve as a tonic for your spirit. Practice your faith faithfully –and then some. Give generously of your time and resources- and then some. Greet those you meet with a smile – and then some. Meet your obligations; be dependable –and then some. Do your best in all things and at all times –and then some.
- Clarence DeLoach Jr.
5. Matthew 5:1-12 - "The True Nature of Happiness"
Some years ago the Raleigh, North Carolina News & Observer published an article entitled: "How Do You Measure Up As A Man? The article stated that some extensive research had been conducted on the 20th century standards for measuring a man. The criteria were quite interesting and I thought that I might list them for the men here this morning just to see how they measure up.

1. His ability to make and conserve money (That lets me out already).
2. The cost, style and age of his car.
3. (This is my favourite) How much hair he has.
4. His strength and size.
5. The job he holds and how successful he is at it.
6. What sports he likes.
7. How many clubs he belongs to.
8. His aggressiveness and reliability.

Jesus Christ also once set down eight principles for the measure of a person. His standards stand in stark contrast to the aforementioned. There would appear to be a wide gulf between the popular image of the successful person and what God sees as the successful person.

Here's what happened: Jesus had just started his ministry and was gaining in popularity. Large crowds were gathering. He had just picked out his disciples. And in the quiet of the rolling grassy hills of northern Israel by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus delivered a sermon to a multitude. Acres and acres of human faces. The crowd represented a cross section of humanity...

"Mushers" and people who travel by dog sled over snowy, frozen terrain. "Mushers" have a saying: "If you're not the lead dog, the scenery never changes."

That "Mushers" saying has become a centerpiece doctrine of the leadership literature that has been inundating the corporate and church worlds of the last thirty years. If you are not the "top dog," in other words, no matter how far you travel your journey is just going to be a "tale of tails."  

Striving to be "top dog" is the goal we are encouraged to achieve from our earliest childhood to our graduate school education. No one wants to be the "under dog" or the "low dog." Being "on top" means getting the best grades in school, in order to get the best opportunities, the best treatment, the best salary, the bst office, the best seats in the house, the best table, the best of everything everywhere you go. Who could possibly not see the advantages that come with being at the "top" and not the "bottom" of the heap? 

In 1897 vision scientist and psychologist George M. Stratton (1865-1957) created a pair of glasses that turned the world upside down. Actually, he turned the world right-side-up because our eyes project an image to our brains that is naturally upside down. Our brains take an image and invert it - giving us our "right side up" perception of the world. Stratton strapped on his goggles and proceeded to blunder into things for several days. In this new, now "upside-down" world, his brain was seeing liquids "poured up," he saw himself walking on ceilings. Everything he viewed was completely inverted.

But only for a few days. Our eyes are our cameras, but the pictures we take with our eyes are developed by our brains. After a few days Stratton recorded that his most powerful visual organ, his brain, had figured out that something was amiss. After a few days his brain re-inverted the images it was receiving, and the world no longer looked upside down to the scientist. His brain completely flipped the images and presented him with a right-side up world once again. The process took about three days...

1.     Having Lost All, All Is Found

"Having reached the end of the Beatitudes, we naturally ask if there is any place on this earth for the community which they describe. Clearly, there is one place, and only one, and that is where the Poorest, Meekest, and most sorely Tried of all men is to be found - on the cross at Golgotha. The community which is the subject of the Beatitudes is the community of the crucified. With Him it has lost all, and with him it has found all."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
2.     Balance: The Law of Love

Plato once imagined the spiritual journey as a chariot moving through the wilderness of life, with the soul as the charioteer trying to rein in two powerful horses: the horse of anger or passion, and the horse of reason or order. Plato understood that both passion and reason can be life-giving, but only when they are held in dynamic tension, only when each power neutralizes the potential destruction of the other. This morning Jesus tells us that we must balance the passion of anger with the discipline and reason of love. And he tells us that the law of love can best be fulfilled, not through rules, but through relationships.

Susan R. Andrews, The Offense Of Grace, CSS Publishing Company, Inc.
3.     The Key to the Beatitudes 

The idea of being poor in spirit is the key to all that is to follow in the Beatitudes. I like the note in the Life Application Bible:

"You cannot mourn without appreciating how insufficient you are to handle life in your own strength.
You cannot be meek unless you know you have needed gentleness yourself.
You cannot hunger and thirst for righteousness if you proudly think of yourself as already righteous.
You cannot be merciful without recognizing your own need for mercy.
You cannot be pure in heart if your heart is full of pride.
You cannot be a peacemaker if you believe that you are always right.
You cannot identify with Christ in the face of negative reactions from others without dying to yourself and renouncing your own rights."
All of these beatitudes are rooted in humility, being poor in spirit.

Owen Stepp, Unlikely Blessings
4.     God Shows Through

One Sunday as they drove home from church, a little girl turned to her mother and said, "Mommy, there's something about the preacher's message this morning that I don't understand." The mother said, "Oh? What is it?" The little girl replied, "Well, he said that God is bigger than we are. He said God is so big that He could hold the whole world in His hand. Is that true?" The mother replied, "Yes, that's true, honey." "But Mommy, he also said that God comes to live inside of us when we believe in Jesus as our Savior. Is that true, too?" Again, the mother assured the little girl that what the pastor had said was true. With a puzzled look on her face the little girl then asked, "If God is bigger than us and He lives in us, wouldn't He show through?"

That is what the beatitudes are about - God showing through.
Jerry Shirley, When God Shows Through 


5.     God Means Everything

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

William Barclay says this verse means, "Blessed is the man who has realized his own utter helplessness, and who has put his whole trust in God. If a man has realized his own utter helplessness, and has put his whole trust in God, there will enter into his life two things....

He will become completely detached from things, for he will know that things have not got it in them to bring happiness or security; and he will become completely attached to God, for he will know that God alone can bring him help, and hope, and strength.

The man who is poor in spirit is the man who has realized that things mean nothing, and that God means everything."

Mickey Anders, The Beatitudes Are Not Platitudes!

6.     "Best All Around"

I remember in high school having the "Who's Who" for my grade, and one of the categories was "Best All Around." To be considered for this category, the student needed to have a multitude and a wide variety of attributes...and be good at them. Characteristics like being smart, friendly, well-dressed, pretty/handsome, good at sports, and perhaps being musically gifted or artistic are important to have if you want to qualify for the category.

Similarly, if you could make the Beatitudes as a sort of checklist for Christians, they could see the areas they need to improve in. Perhaps if they could check all of the Beatitudes off the list, they might qualify as a sort of "Best All Around" Christian, a great inspiration and role model.

Jim Forest, The Ladder of the Beatitudes

7.     Better than Average 

A while back, I read that 85% of all drivers in America consider themselves "above-average" drivers. Of course, this cannot be true: By definition, I believe only 49% of drivers are above average. However, the survey gives us an insight into human nature: People generally view themselves as better than others. And if they are better than others, then they are doing a good enough job.

This transfers over into religion far more than we are aware, and it becomes apparent in how these Beatitudes are taught. Often one will hear, "The message of the Beatitudes is that, if I do these things well enough, then I will be happy. If I am good enough at these things, then I will be blessed." It's a human standard of measure: "If I am better at this than average, then I'm in good shape." But does this work for sainthood?

Tim Pauls, What It Takes to Be a Saint

8.     You Can't Make It "By The Book"

A small parable: Once upon a time, there was a company who had two junior executives. One did everything by the book, was diligent and trustworthy, always made sure he was covered and, since he always went by the book, rarely made mistakes. The other also was a hard and diligent worker, but he often tested the rules, sometimes received some criticism, and sometimes made mistakes. One day an opening came up for a senior executive position, and the owner of the company promoted the one who made mistakes over the other. Of course Mr. "By the Book" was enraged and asked his boss why - after all, he had a better record, didn't he? He NEVER made mistakes. He ALWAYS followed the book. To which his boss replied, "Yes, but what will you do someday when something comes up that isn't covered by the book. You know the rules, but he knows what we are doing here, and why we are here. He UNDERSTANDS the company. And that's why he was promoted over you."

How do we obtain God's blessing? Well, the answer, of course, is that it's not something we obtain - it's not for sale. It's something he has already freely given to you, but which you can only recognize when you accept it as a gift, and live in it.

Gary Roth, All of God's Blessings

9.     Healthy Are the Poor in Spirit 

Some years ago a panel of doctors was appointed by the Federal government to meet together and draw up eight laws of public health that could be printed in pamphlet Form and distributed to the public. After twelve days off exhaustive meetings, the doctors were unable to come to a consensus. It seems that their areas of concern were so diverse: one was a cancer specialist, one a cardiologist, one a psychiatrist, and they all approached the problem from their own discipline. The chest expert was concerned about coal dust from the mines and lint from textile mills, while the psychiatrist was concerned about the effects off urban stress. Finally, Dr. Harold Sladen offered Hospital in Detroit came up with an appropriate idea. He said: Let's just republish the eight beatitudes of Jesus and simply replace the word "Blessed" with the words "healthy."

10.  Blessed Are the Cheese Makers 

Here is the infamous bit from Monty Pythons "Life of Brian." All great humor must have one essential element: Truth. This bit certainly has that. Jesus' words when misunderstood has led to some pretty fantastic conclusions. And so, this is dedicated to all those knuckle headed interpretations throughout the years. There are two main characters in the bit who are called Trouble and Bignose. They are at the back of the crowd when Jesus is giving the Sermon On The Mount:

Trouble: Well go and talk to him somewhere else... I can't hear a bloody thing.
Bignose: Don't you swear at my wife.
Trouble: I was only asking her to shut up so I could hear what he was saying, Bignose.
Bignose wife: Don't you call my husband Bignose.
Trouble: Well he has got a big nose.
Jew: Could you be quite, please. What was that?
Trouble: I don't know... I was too busy talking to Bignose.
Man: I think it was 'Blessed are the cheese-makers'...