by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“God chose those whom the world considers absurd to shame the wise; God singled out the weak of this world to shame the strong. God chose those whom the world looks down on, despises and regards as nothing, in order to destroy what the world regards as important.” 1 Corinthians 1: 26-31
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: the reign of God is theirs…” Matthew 5: 1-12
In his book, Who Needs God?, Rabbi Harold Kushner, reflecting on religion, wrote: “Religion is not primarily a set of beliefs, a collection of prayers or a series of rituals. Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing. It can’t change the facts about the world we live in, but it can change the way we see those facts, and that, in itself, can often make a difference.” (Harold Kushner, Who Needs God?, p.19, Simon & Schuster, N.Y. 2002)
I suggest that Jesus came to appreciate that the Jewish religion, into which he was born, became for him a way of seeing. He grew into looking at the world through the eyes of the God with whom he developed an intimate relationship. The reign or kingdom of God to which he constantly referred was a shorthand term for seeing the world as God saw it – a state of existence in which all people were valued as daughters and sons of God; where they would know and experience true justice and equality; where they would receive mercy, compassion and consolation according to their circumstances and needs; where they would know they were loved and respected by God and would, in turn, recognise God as the source of all goodness and love. That, I suggest, was the dream that Jesus held for all humankind. What he taught to those who cared to listen to him was designed to assist them to see the world as he saw it and learn to be at home in such a world. That, essentially, is the dream of Jesus for all of us.
Today’s gospel-reading, to which we now refer as “the sermon on the mount”, is the appeal that Jesus made to the people of his day to shift their priorities from what was held up to them as success in the world in which they lived. Instead of holding up to them financial security, fame and reputation, and whatever else they could acquire and accumulate as indications of success, Jesus pointed out that a different set of priorities would emerge when the reign or kingdom of God broke into the world. What Jesus listed to his audience, and which we now call the beatitudes, outlines a shift in attitudes that would characterise people’s lives as they became captivated by Jesus’ dream for the world. If they took to heart what Jesus held up to them, their minds and hearts would be changed.
In today’s second reading from Corinthians, we read how Paul described to the people of Corinth those who found the courage to adopt the programme for living which Jesus had outlined in the Beatitudes. That programme was a reversal of what their world held up to them and what our world now holds up to us. Paul expressed it this way: “It was to shame the wise that God chose what is foolish by human reckoning, and to shame what is strong that he chose what is weak by human reckoning; those whom the world thinks common and contemptible are the ones that God has chosen – those who are nothing at all to show up those who are everything” (1 Corinthians 1: 27-28).
The accomplished Lutheran theologian and New Testament scholar, Joachim Jeremias (1900-1979) suggested that a helpful way for us to understand the Beatitudes is to approach them by dividing them down the middle into two columns like this:
Blessed are the poor in spirit theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Blessed are the gentle they shall have the earth for their heritage
Blessed are those who mourn they shall be comforted
Blessed are the pure in heart they shall see God
…..and so on for all nine of them. (cf Joachim Jeremias, The Sermon on the Mount, Fortress Press Minnesota, 1963)
Jeremias maintained that the parts listed in the right-hand column describe the promises made to God’s faithful people as they are expressed in the First or Old Testament, while the parts listed in the left-hand column describe those who heed the call of Jesus but are so often categorised as losers. By his bringing the two columns together, Jeremias asserted, Jesus was stating that those who put them into practice were giving tangible witness to the actual arrival of the reign of God.
The poor in spirit, the gentle, those who are persecuted in the cause of right not only give witness to the reign of God but know that all they are and have, including the earth on which they live, are the result of God’s magnanimous and beneficent love. It is they who reach out in reconciliation to those who persecute them and regard them as worthless. In and through them, Jesus expresses the power of God to transform the world into the reign or kingdom of God. Joachim Jeremias maintains that countless followers of Jesus, captivated by the Beatitudes, have identified with the blessings of the left-hand column in the hope that they will be instruments of making real the kingdom expressed in the right-hand column. That hope will only come to reality if the local Christian communities of which we are members are seen to accompany and engage with the poor, the lonely, the neglected and the persecuted, wherever we find them. If we cannot immediately see them, we have a responsibility to search them out.
There is one final clue to understanding the significance of today’s gospel-reading. It is the fact that those who prescribe the readings for us to reflect on every day of the liturgical year, have also listed this gospel-reading for the feast of All Saints on the 1st of November. To live the Beatitudes is to walk the way of holiness. Implicit in Jesus’ articulation of the Beatitudes and their expansion into the full Sermon on the Mount is an invitation to all of us to embark on a way of seeing. Beside Rabbi Harold Kushner stands the great Jesuit theologian and palaeontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, who stated that his mission in life was to help people to see. When we can see with eyes of faith, we have the added advantage of growing to be faithful to the Jesus in whose footsteps we commit ourselves to walk.