This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 5:1-12:
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.”
Today we hear the most crucial part of the greatest homily ever delivered — the Sermon on the Mount. Thousands gathered near the shore of Galilee to hear Jesus of Nazareth speak, following him up the mountain to hear the Lord’s truth. In this key passage, which we call the Beatitudes, Jesus explained the core of faith and its practice. To understand what Jesus meant, we should ask ourselves first what those multitudes sought.
What exactly does “beatitude” mean? Webster’s defines it as “a state of utmost bliss,” which we define somewhat crudely as happiness. Indeed, some translations of this Gospel begin each Beatitude with “Happy are” rather than “Blessed are,” a choice that both explains the concept while disguising the context. What could possibly be “happy” or especially “blissful,” one might wonder, about being poor, mourning, hungering and thirsting, and persecuted? That question could apply especially to those in Israel at that time — ruled by Roman oppressors, whose religious leadership applied strict and exacting interpretations of the law, and who had been waiting for a promised Messiah and the restoration of their nation for centuries.
Our first reading from Zephaniah can help in understanding the Beatitudes. The prophet warned Judea before the first exile of coming disaster in his relatively short recorded testimony in the Old Testament. Zephaniah warns that a reckoning with the Lord is coming for Judea’s unfaithfulness and idolatry, and that the time of repentance has come. Not even Jerusalem will be safe, Zephaniah prophesied. “I will stretch out my hand against Judah, and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Ba’al and the name of the idolatrous priests.” The Judeans would ignore this warning all the way through the final fall and third exile, insisting that the Lord would never allow the temple to fall and that they were protected by it, a form of idolatry in itself that God smashed not once but twice — the second time after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
In today’s passage, though, Zephaniah promised that a remnant of the faithful would persevere. Who would these people be? “All you humble of the earth,” Zephaniah called to them, “a people humble and lowly. … They shall do no wrong and speak no lies.” Those would be the blessed, those who would find happiness in the Lord rather than in the material trappings of the world.
That still doesn’t quite answer the question, although it does give us some context for the Beatitudes. It’s Paul who connects the dots for us in today’s second reading. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains why Jesus chose His apostles and disciples, and the role of humility for the conversion of the world.
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.”
In other words, human strength counts for naught when it comes to the Lord, and our path to Him and to true and eternal happiness or “supreme bliss” begins with that realization. Life itself teaches us this, as we find when we open our hearts to the Lord. No one especially enjoys being poor, mourning, hungering and thirsting, and persecuted, but those are experiences that many if not most people will experience at some points in our lives. Those experiences are to remind us that we are all part of a fallen world, a world filled with goods from the Lord but also with the consequences of our sinful and acquisitive natures that see them as status symbols of strength and power.
The key passage of understanding the Beatitudes is this: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” Meek in this context does not have the meaning we give it today — shy, retiring, or afraid. Jesus means meekness as the decision to forgo the use of strength in favor of harmony. We know this Paul describes the risen Christ’s “meekness” in his second letter to the Corinthians in the context of forgiveness.
Meekness is not weakness; it is the answer to sinful pride and avarice. When we become meek, we begin to mourn our own sinfulness rather than simply compare ourselves favorably to others as a way to rationalize it. When we become meek, we see the poor among us, not just the materially poor but those poor in understanding with the Lord, and meekness then becomes a path of mercy and charity. When we become meek, we know that the Lord is with us through persecution and ridicule and no longer fear a loss of status or damage to our pride.
Finally, when we become meek, we realize that our own strengths as we see them compare little to the power of the Lord. We are called to use those to help others rather than ourselves, because in the end we are all the same in God’s eyes. Meekness helps us to come to a proper relationship with the Lord, and to recognize the dignity and humanity of all those around us no matter their circumstances. Rather than rely solely on our own efforts, we then allow the Lord’s power to work through the faithful, making us stronger — and happier — than living in sinfulness and arrogance.
We do not live in meek times, but then again, neither did the people of Jesus’ time, nor of Zephaniah’s time. We can still choose meekness as our guiding principle, and perhaps shine the light of the Lord a little brighter than what would otherwise be because of the times in which we live. That is not just how we can receive Christ’s blessings, but also how we can be Christ’s blessings in a fallen world.
The front page image is “Sermon on the Mount” by Cosimo Roselli, 1481-2. Fresco in the Sistine Chapel.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.