Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 30, 2011 – St. John’s
Our NT readings today are all about contrasts. Writing to the Christian community he had gathered by his preaching a few years earlier, St. Paul describes who they are by contrast to others in Corinth: not many of them were wise, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. But God had chosen the foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, the lowly and despised he preferred to those who were something. None of the Corinthian Christians had any reason to boast of anything except in the Lord.
St. Paul was anticipated by Christ himself. With today’s Gospel, the liturgy begins a reading of the Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew’s Gospel, a successive reading that will end in early March, just before Lent begins. This Sermon, in which Matthew has gathered much of the ethical challenges that Jesus posed to his contemporaries, begins with the Beatitudes. And the Beatitudes begin with contrasts and the reversal of fortunes: The poor in spirit will be blessed with the Kingdom of heaven; mourners will be comforted; those hungry and thirsty for righteousness will be filled; those persecuted for justice’s sake will be rewarded.
As with St. Paul’s description of the Corinthian Christians, these blessings are not first of all descriptions of what people should be like; they are, rather, descriptions of what God is about to do and they identify those for whom he will do it. You may recall the lines from the poet Wordsworth about those fortunate enough to have experienced the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” Recall another Beatitude spoken by Jesus: “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see and the ears that hear what you hear, for many a prophet longed to see what you see and never saw it, longed to hear what you hear and never heard it.” What eye had never seen and ear had never heard was now coming: God was about to give the kingdom to the poor-in-spirit, to the meek; he was about to comfort those who mourn; he was about to embrace peace-makers as his own children; he was about to reveal himself to the pure in heart; he was about to satisfy those hungry and thirsty for his righteousness. Blessing was it, bliss was it, to be among the poor, the meek, the mournful, the persecuted upon whom such favor was to come. Just at the moment when we may be tempted to sigh in envy of those who actually saw and heard Jesus, we remember his last Beatitude, spoken to a doubter: “You have believed, Thomas, because you see me. Blessed are they who have not seen and have believed.”
The reversals expressed in the Beatitudes we also find many times in the parables and other sayings of Jesus, where we learn that the first shall be last and the last first, that the humblest will be raised and the mighty lowered, that the tiny seed will become the great tree. In the verses immediately preceding those we heard today, Paul contrasted God’s folly to human wisdom, God’s weakness to human power: “Jews demand ‘signs,’ and Greeks look for ‘wisdom,’ but we preach Christ crucified–a stumbling-block to Jews, and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s ‘folly’ is wiser than men, and his ‘weakness’ more powerful than men.” Something like an inversion, a subversion, of values is going on, as the philosophers might say. It is as if the signposts by which we orient ourselves in the world have been reversed, as if the very criteria by which we judge and evaluate things have been turned on their head, as if the very ground on which we think we safely stand has been shaken, has moved, as in an earthquake.
That was the kind of difference Jesus represented in the ancient world, even in his own Jewish world, and that was also the kind of difference the birth of a group of Christian believers represented in the Greco-Roman culture of the first century. The blessings Jesus announced and brought described what God was like, and those upon whom those blessings came knew that those blessings now described also what they must be like to be children of such love, children of such blessings. The Church of such a God would have now to be a Church of such a God, as much a contrast within larger societies and cultures as Jesus was in his.
Throughout the two thousand years of Christian history, the Church has sometimes represented such a contrast and at other times it has failed to meet the challenge. There have been ages of persecution because of the Christian difference, and in some parts of the world, the Middle East in particular, the age of persecutions is not over. There have been times and places in which the Church has nearly disappeared into the surrounding society whose values it sometimes even sanctioned, as when in our own country people defended slavery and racism by appeal to the Bible or when people turned patriotism into idolatry.
Every generation of Christians is placed before the challenge of readings like those we heard today, and that means that we here today should be challenged by them. Where does blessedness, happiness, really lie? How is wisdom to be defined? What is the genuine power that should be admired and sought? Today’s two NT readings give God’s answer to such questions. How do we answer them?