Heading into our fourth Sunday in ordinary time, it’s worth taking a few minutes to get your heart and mind primed before you go to Mass this weekend. One easy way to do this is to spend some time reflecting on the Mass readings before you walk into the Church. This weekend, the first reading is Zephaniah 2:3, 3:12-13; the second reading is 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; and the Gospel is Mathew 5:1-12. You can read the full text of this Sunday’s readings on the USCCB website click here) or look them up in your own Bible.
There is no shortage of people who aspire to capture and keep our attention. Celebrities, athletes, marketers, corporations, activists, and politicians exercise a great deal of time, energy, and money trying to get our attention. Once they think we’re listening, some will tell us what we want to hear – or part of what we want to hear – in hopes that at the very least, we’ll keep listening.
The Gospel this Sunday might (at first) be mistaken for a political rally, but it doesn’t turn out the way you might expect.A crowd has gathered to listen to a leader – one whose words and sentiments seem to resonate with their own. In this case, Jesus is not standing behind a podium in a theater or stadium, but is standing at the top of a mountain – echoing an earlier scene from scripture when another leader (Moses) had taught them from the heights of a mountain. And much like Moses’ presentation of the commandments, what Jesus has to say is going to be hard.
His focus on trials and sufferings just sounds hard – particularly when you frame it within readings that focus on being poor. For Zephaniah, this people of the poor is made up of Israelite men and women who sought after what was right and humble, and who waited faithfully for the coming of the Messiah – no matter how bleak things would look. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul points out that (over and over again) God chose people we never would have – the foolish, the weak, and the lowly – to bring about His kingdom.
Which brings us to the Gospel. There’s Jesus, teaching from the same sort of place that Moses first taught the commandments, with a crowd expecting to hear many things. Perhaps they were they awaiting new commandments in the spirit of Moses, or a call to revolt against their Roman oppressors. What he offers instead – the Beatitudes – consists of a list of 8 difficult virtues we ought to seek after, alongside the struggle and promise that comes with each one. As Zephaniah wrote, to live in faith the way Jesus presented it means to seek after justice and humility. To be called to be a leader means, as St. Paul wrote, to be counted among those who are seen as foolish, weak, or lowly. And to finally get it right means that your immediate reward will include poverty, mourning, and persecution.
These are not exactly the sort of things you share in a legendary speech. It’s definitely not the sort of thing I’d like to hear (do this/follow me and your life is going to be hard!) In the beatitudes, Jesus recognizes that there are challenges and sufferings that come with trying to live a holy life. And these sufferings can be tremendously hard, so His reply is meant to remind us that Jesus has conquered this world (John 16:33) and that He has prepared a place for us in Heaven (John 14:2-3) – may we get there someday.
But the consolations He promises are not simply for the world to come. We will know comfort and peace even here and now, as Jesus will show us what it means to suffer, what it means to be lowly and weak when He accepts crucifixion and death on our behalf. Through this act more than any other, we see the beatitudes come to life as we discover that He is the one who offers us the Kingdom, who comforts us in our mourning, who rejoices with us even as we suffer. In return, we are invited to become the people of the poor – poor in spirit, seeking justice and humility, willing to be seen even as fools as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus Himself.
In a lot of ways, it sounds like the sort of thing that is very simple… but exceedingly difficult. And this is one of the great challenges of the Christian life: simply doing the difficult things because it is what we have been called to do.