Friday, January 27, 2017

Kingdom of the Humble Poor: 4th Sunday in OT


Sea of Galilee viewed from Mount of Beatitudes
Children play make-believe games in which they are royalty—kings and queens, princes and princesses—but one of the main attractions of this kind of fantasy play is the imagined wealth that goes along with it.  Who would not like to wear the finest clothes, live in the finest dwellings, dine on the best food, and be waited on hand and foot by servants?
This is our standard notion of what “royalty” involves, but in this Sunday’s readings Jesus inaugurates a new kingdom, the “kingdom of heaven,” in which the aristocrats are going to live a lifestyle completely opposite of Robin Leach’s “rich and famous.”

1. Our Reading is Zep 2:3; 3:12-13:
Seek the LORD, all you humble of the earth,
who have observed his law;
seek justice, seek humility;
perhaps you may be sheltered
on the day of the LORD's anger.

But I will leave as a remnant in your midst
a people humble and lowly,
who shall take refuge in the name of the LORD:
the remnant of Israel.
They shall do no wrong
and speak no lies;
nor shall there be found in their mouths
a deceitful tongue;
they shall pasture and couch their flocks
with none to disturb them.

Zephaniah is read only rarely in the liturgy, so let us take this opportunity to make some comments about this important prophetic book. 
Zephaniah is unique among the biblical prophets in that he descended, apparently, from the royal house of David, being a great-great grandson of King Hezekiah (715–686 BC; Zeph 1:1).  During the reign of King Josiah (641-609 BC), Zephaniah announced, in bold and colorful rhetoric, the imminent arrival of the “Day of the LORD,” which he described as a day of definitive judgment on all the people of the earth, including and especially the people of Judah.
Nothing more can be determined about the life of the prophet or his dates of ministry beyond the information given in the book’s superscription (Zeph. 1:1).  The book itself divides easily into three major units:  (1) an announcement of the coming Day of the LORD (Zeph 1:2-18), (2) a series of oracles against nations and cities, beginning and ending with Judah and Jerusalem (2:1–3:8), and (3) oracles of restoration for the nations and Jerusalem (3:9-20).
Several times in Zephaniah oracles of universal judgment (or restoration) are juxtaposed abruptly with oracles addressed specifically to Judah or Jerusalem.  This juxtaposition is based on the theological concept that Judah, and particularly its capital, Jerusalem, represents the center of the cosmos.  Therefore, what happens to the cosmos affects Judah/Jerusalem, and likewise, what takes place in Judah/Jerusalem affects God’s relationship with the entire cosmos.  This concept of Jerusalem as “cosmic navel” will also be reflected in the New Testament, notably in the Book of Revelation and the apocalyptic discourses in the Gospels (Matt 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), where the destruction of Jerusalem and the destruction of the cosmos are simultaneously described.
Like many prophetic books, Zephaniah ends on a note of hope.  In the future, all nations will call on the LORD with a pure speech (3:9) and the exiles of Israel will return (3:10).  The humble remnant of Israel that survives the wrathful “day of the LORD” will find refuge in the LORD, who will comfort them (3:11-13).  Zephaniah concludes with an exuberant song addressed to the “daughter of Zion” (i.e. Jerusalem). Like a warrior renewing his affections for a maiden, the LORD will renew his nuptial love for Jerusalem (3:14-18).  The LORD will gather his humble ones into the holy city (3:19-20), and restore her fortunes.  (3:14-20).
There is a strong liturgical theme throughout Zephaniah.  The coming time of God’s judgment is described as if it were a liturgical feast (a “Day of the LORD”), and the pouring out of God’s wrath upon the earth, and especially Jerusalem, is presented as a heavenly liturgy in which the evil doers are transformed into sacrifices.  At the end of time, the nations will be prepared for authentic worship (i.e. to “call on the name of the LORD” and “serve him”, 3:9) by being granted a “pure speech,” i.e. a language suitable for the celebration of the liturgy.  The humble and lowly remnant of God (3:12) will gather at the place of worship: the “holy mountain” (3:11), i.e. Zion/Jerusalem.  The renewal of God’s love for Jerusalem will involve joy suitable for a sacred festival (3:17).  Thus, Zephaniah’s eschatological hope focuses on the restoration of communion between man and God through the celebration of the liturgy, in the proper place of its celebration (Zion/Jerusalem), and the tribulations leading up to this restoration of communion are in fact the earthly manifestations of a heavenly liturgy. This entire paradigm will be expressed in greater depth and detail in the New Testament, in the Book of Revelation.
The Lectionary chooses all of its readings from Zephaniah from the oracles of restoration (3:9-20), especially from the song of the daughter of Zion (3:14-18).
Zephaniah’s image of the “people humble and lowly” (3:12), the remnant of Israel that finds refuge from the LORD in Zion, is taken up in the preaching of Jesus as he “proclaims Good News to the poor” (Isa 61:1; Luke 4:18).  Zeph 2:3; 3:12-13 is proclaimed this Sunday, paired with the Beatitudes (Mt 5:1-12a) in order to show that Jesus’s concept of the “poor in Spirit” who will receive the “kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3) is not a theological novum, but a development of the prophetic theme of the humble and righteous remnant.  The community of disciples gathered around Jesus is this “people humble and lowly” prophesied by Zephaniah (3:12), and this community becomes the Church!
P. Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10:
R. (Mt 5:3) Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs!
The LORD keeps faith forever,
secures justice for the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets captives free.
R. Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs!
The LORD gives sight to the blind;
the LORD raises up those who were bowed down.
The LORD loves the just;
the LORD protects strangers.
R. Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs!
The fatherless and the widow the LORD sustains,
but the way of the wicked he thwarts.
The LORD shall reign forever;
your God, O Zion, through all generations. Alleluia.
R. Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs!

The idea of the “kingdom of God” is very rare in the Old Testament.  In fact, the phrase “kingdom of God” never occurs!  The reality of God’s kingdom is described in some texts of Daniel (2:44; 4:34; 6:26; 7:27).  The Books of Chronicles use the very similar phrase “kingdom of the LORD” to describe the Davidic Kingdom (1 Chr 28:5; 2 Chr 13:8!) and that is a very significant fact for understanding Jesus’ teachings on the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” in the Gospels.  
Only a few psalms mention God’s kingdom (e.g. 103:19).  The most explicit mention comes near the end of the psalter, in Ps 145:13: “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.”  This idea of the kingdom of God, expressed so clearly and suddenly in Ps 145, is continued in Ps 146, our responsorial, in the tenth verse: “The LORD shall reign forever! Your God, O Zion, through all generations!”

The Church chooses Ps 146 because of this kingdom theme, expressed in the previous psalm and picked up again in 146:10, together with the theme of God’s provision for the disadvantaged: the oppressed (or “poor,” v. 7), the hungry (v. 7), captives (v. 7), the blind (v. 8), the bowed down (v. 8), the righteous (v. 8); migrants, fatherless, and widows (v. 9).  The “reign” of God is for such as these.  We see the strong similarity between this catalogue of the disadvantaged and the catalogue of qualities of the blessed in our Gospel Reading. 

It is very important that we recognize this continuity between the Old and New Testaments.  Jesus does not proclaim something completely new in the Sermon on the Mount.  He says, “I have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets (i.e. the Old Testament), but I have come to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17).  And so the Church chooses the readings from Zephaniah and Psalm 146 precisely to show how Jesus’ teaching fulfills hopes and anticipations which were already present in the Scriptures of Israel.
2. Our Second Reading is 1 Cor 1:26-31:
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."

Although the Second Reading is working ad seriatim through important passages of Paul’s Corinthian letters, we could scarcely ask for a better thematic match to the Gospel on this Sunday.  Here, St. Paul stresses God’s preferential option for persons who are despised by human society: poor, outcasts, the politically incorrect, those who are deplored and despised by the elite.  Such persons come more readily to the Gospel, because they recognize their own need.  Wealth and success does not blind them to their essential nothingness.  
This passage of 1 Corinthians exhorts us to practice the virtue of humility.  We recognize that, in the presence of God, we are nothing—we are nothing, have nothing, can do nothing.  And yet we rejoice that God gives the one thing that is everything: his Holy Spirit.  God living in us through his Spirit enables us to be all, have all, do all.  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” Paul boasts elsewhere, always boasting in the Lord and never in himself (Phil 4:13).  This recognition of our own nothingness in God’s presence is the heart of what “poverty of Spirit” means in the first beatitude of our Gospel Reading. 
G. The Gospel is Mt 5:1-12a:
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."

First, we should recognize that when Jesus “goes up on a mountain” to teach, it is a Mosaic motif.  Moses was the great teacher of Israel, who climbed Mt. Sinai to teach the Law of God.  Jesus is recapitulating this motif.  Jesus is the New Moses, who will teach a better law, and correct some of the compromises that Moses introduced into Israel’s legislation (Matt. 5:21-48).

Now, with respect to the Beatitudes (which are just the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount and not synonymous with the entire Sermon, which lasts from Matt 5-7), we should note that there are eight main ones, vv. 3-10, followed by an epilogue on persecution (vv. 11-12).  The first and eighth beatitude promise the blessing of the “kingdom of heaven.”  That is a literary device called an “inclusio” (beginning and ending on the same topic) which highlights the main point.  So the Beatitudes are about the kingdom of heaven, specifically, they are the virtues that are required of kingdom citizens. 

Finally, we should note that the beatitudes are not a simple grab-bag of random virtues, but there is a certain progression as we move through them.  They are all inter-related, and to a certain extent they move from one to the next.

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

The primary reference is poverty of spirit, which is a recognition of one’s spiritual bankruptcy and need to be infilled with God’s spiritual riches, i.e. his Spirit, granted by faith through the sacraments.  Nonetheless there is a relationship with material poverty. Material riches can be a great distraction to the spiritual life, sidetracking us to pursue goals other than God.  So elsewhere Jesus will warn about seed that is choked by the “cares and riches” of this world.  For this reason, many saints have understood “poor in spirit” to be “poor for the sake of the Spirit,” that is, temporally poor for the sake of spiritual ends. Thus, those who go into religious life take a radical vow of poverty.  But even we lay people should practice restraint in material wealth.  How do we practice it?  The principle of St. Josemaria was “have nothing unnecessary.”  He encouraged lay people to pare their belongings down to what they really needed for their vocation, and then to take care of those things so that they would not constantly be wasting money by replacing them. 

Thus, “poor in spirit” refers to spiritual poverty, but nonetheless is tied to living a form of temporal poverty as well, because temporal indulgence is incompatible with spiritual poverty.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

This refers to those who mourn for their spiritual poverty, for their nothingness, for their emptiness, for their sins.  Thus, recognizing that you are “poor in spirit” leads to contrition (sorrow for sins), but that is good, because God will comfort the contrite.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Meekness is roughly the same as humility. It is the virtue of not putting oneself forward, not throwing your weight around, being docile.  Citizens of the kingdom of heaven are meek/humble because they realize they are spiritually poor, that they really aren’t much considered by themselves, without God’s grace.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Kingdom citizens hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they realize they do not have it of themselves, but need to receive it from God.  By ourselves, we are so weak, and continue to fall prey to temptations that lead us away from God and estrange us from others.

Nonetheless, a secondary sense refers to the practice of fasting.  Abstaining from physical food in various ways is a long-standing spiritual discipline in the Church, from apostolic times (Acts 14:23) to the present.  Fasting is a tangible way to “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  We want to overcome our sins and disordered passions so badly, we will undergo hunger and thirst to reach that goal.

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. 

Kingdom citizens are merciful, because, recognizing their own sinfulness and emptiness, they can empathize with other sinners and grant mercy to them.  They recognize in others their own weaknesses.

Incidentally, although the Year of Mercy is past, mercy continues to be a central part of our lives.  If you are interested in learning more about Biblical mercy, I just realized a new talk set on this subject.  Click here.

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

The interior pain that comes from the recognition of spiritual poverty, of mourning for sin, and seeking God’s grace, purifies the heart from attachments to the world, particularly the lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh.  Giving in to our passions and disordered desires clouds our vision and prevents us from seeing reality as it is. Since God is ultimate Reality, distorted vision keeps us from seeing him.  Penance, prayer, and almsgiving are excellent ways to clear our spiritual eyes.

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Kingdom citizens no longer fight and make war, because it is the desire for temporal goods, essentially lusts, that cause war.  We can see how thoroughly St. James, the Lord’s cousin, assimilated the beatitudes in James 4:1-10:

James 4:1   What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members?  2 You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask.  3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.  4 Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.  5 Or do you suppose it is in vain that the scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit which he has made to dwell in us”?  6 But he gives more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.  8 Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind.  9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection.  10 Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.

True peace is found from denying our passions and lusts and turning to God to find our true joy.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Kingdom citizens who live the virtues of the beatitudes will be hated by those who don’t want to give up their lusts, because,
first of all, the disciple is a painful reminder to others that they are not following the way of God; and, secondly, the disciple becomes an impediment to others fulfilling their lusts, because he will not cooperate. Only in this way can we understand the hyperbolic venom and slander aimed at the pro-life movement, for example.  Legal protection for the lives of the unborn would mean persons in our society would have to restrain their sexuality when they are not in a position to conceive and raise children.  Our society as a whole does not want any constraints on the expression of sexuality, which is a form of the lust of the flesh.  Those who live chastely and remind others of the dignity of the unborn child are a rude reminder and impediment to the rest of society in its pursuit of unrestrained indulgence in the lust of the flesh.  So anger, slander, dismissiveness, and other behaviors are expressed toward those who advocate for the unborn. 

Nonetheless, the persecution of Christians in most western nations still does not approach the kind of physical brutality Christians in Muslim and communist countries continue to experience. 

Waves of persecution come and go throughout the history of the Church. Persecution comes with a blessing, however,  because it assists in gaining detachment from the things of this world, thus helping us to live true spiritual poverty.

So persecution makes us poor, which brings us full circle to the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit …”

Jesus is the Son of David, come to reestablish the kingdom of the LORD on earth.  But Jesus’ kingdom is an upside-down kingdom that calls good what the world calls bad, and bad what the world calls good.  This Sunday’s readings call us to leave the ways of the world and practice the virtues of kingdom citizens, but also warn us that this is a choice to travel upstream against the current of our culture.

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