The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

Sunday Reflection by Sr Bridget O’Connell

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A – Lectio Divina on Mt 5,1-12

Matthew opens the sermon on the mount with the beatitudes. For the first time, Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God, and he begins with a repeated promise of happiness. The version of the beatitudes in Matthew (5,1-12) is more elaborate than that of Luke (6,20-26), and perhaps less close to the original. Nevertheless, in it we can see an element typical of the preaching of Jesus and one that is central to his gospel – the paradox.  Happiness is announced to people who are still in a miserable situation and their happiness is based on the future promise of God. People who have still not been set free from their state of need, have already a God who is committed to making them blessed. The list of apparently unhappy and insoluble situations is less important than the repeated proclamation of the promise. To be blessed, Jesus says, it is not necessary for us to escape from our need. It is enough to know that God has already declared that he is on our side. The best assurance that one day our fortunes will change stems from the fact that God has already chosen those who search for him.  Only a God like this can make us blessed, even if we still lack many things.

At that time  1 Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. 2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”

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I. READ: UNDERSTAND WHAT THE TEXT IS SAYING AND FOCUS ON HOW IT SAYS IT.

Although Matthew has already presented the essential content of the Gospel of Jesus (Mt 4, 17) he has not yet had it proclaimed to the nations. The “sermon” on the mount, Mt 5, 1-7, 29, is the first of the five great discourses contained in this Gospel. It is, therefore, the inaugural speech, stating the ‘hard’ demands of the kingdom that is to come, and setting out a programme. This gospel passage is the beginning of the ‘discourse on the kingdom’.  Its structure is obvious: a short introductory narrative sets the framework for the discourse which opens with a ‘collection’ of beatitudes. Mathew likes using fixed schemes, repeating words and parallel phrases. It may give an impression of monotony, but it has the advantage of making the thought clear. The text of the beatitudes is a good example of this.

The introduction lets us know the place and the people involved. Jesus is speaking to all the people crowding around him as well as to his disciples who are close to him.  We often focus on the mountain, the master’s ‘pulpit’, but two other details from the introduction need to be considered.  Jesus begins to speak when he sees the people. The disciples draw near when he starts to speak. Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God when he sees the people who have need of him, Mt 4, 23-25. Those who are already his followers must stay as close as possible in order to hear him.

It is worth noting that the discourse opens with a series of beatitudes.  The repetition, nine times, of the word ‘blessed’ is significant. The last beatitude, Mt 5, 11-12, is different from the earlier ones (Mt 5, 3-10). It is longer. It is addressed to all who are listening, and it is very obscure. The first eight all follow the same pattern: those who are living in a state of real need are called blessed. In the first four, it is those who are in need who are declared blessed and in the other four, those who do good things.

In all cases, the beatitude is promised not because the situation in which people find themselves is good. In reality, it is neither bad nor good. The promise is made for the future. To put this more clearly – the poor are already blessed and can be happy in all circumstances because they have God on their side, and he will not allow their poverty to overcome them.  For that reason the gospel proclaims a happiness which comes, not from what one does or does not do, but because God will never cease to do good to those who put their trust in him.  To have God with us, even in our present evils – in the future, it must be understood – is sufficient motive to live with them in a joy that does not depend on present wellbeing but on the divine promise. The last beatitude, the one which is spelt out most clearly, is also the most paradoxical. Happiness is linked to a situation which is the consequence of grave persecution. Happiness here is a command  which must be fulfilled, (note the imperative – rejoice!), and the motive for it is a promised reward “in heaven”.

II. Meditate:  apply what the text says to life

Few of Jesus’ statements are seen today as provocative and as far removed from the reality in which we live, as the beatitudes.  How can anyone call the poor or the persecuted blessed?  What basis has Jesus got for considering people blessed when they are mourning or suffering from hunger? Is it not being ingenuous, or even sarcastic, to say that the gentle will possess the earth, or that those who suffer today will be consoled … we know not when?   What gain is there for us, in today’s world, in keeping our hearts pure or in being merciful? Still, there is probably no other text in the whole of the gospel which states more radically and with less pretence, the fundamental laws of the kingdom of God. It was for very good reason that Jesus chose the beatitudes as the first words in his personal proclamation of the kingdom of God.

Jesus was convinced of something that, unfortunately, is not a conviction nowadays, even among believers.  Jesus believed – and he said many times – that God can bring happiness, even to those who do not hope for it, but only when he is accepted as man’s sole sovereign. The God who was to come demanded of those who were waiting for him a happiness that was real enough, strong and stupendous enough, to enable man to live in any human situation, however desperate it might be.

Jesus believed that the happiness that the kingdom of God brings can best be found in situations of financial penury, or in low social status, in the midst of calamities, or in that seemingly impossible struggle to bring peace on earth.  God can do the impossible precisely where it seems that nothing leads to happiness or gives hope of happiness.  Where our happiness is put at the service of our neighbour and when we make ourselves little, God makes us blessed. In the kingdom announced by Jesus it will be those most in need who recognise the presence of God. Those who have had least of the things of earth will enjoy God most in his kingdom. Precisely for this reason, those who suffer most now are able to live, with all the more reason, in expectation of his kingdom. They will know happiness in a unique way when God reigns over them.

It would be a mistake to think that, on the mountain of the beatitudes, Jesus wanted to console the crowds and the disciples who followed him and came close to listen to him. Rather than comforting the weak, Jesus was proclaiming a God who is strong and overcomes evil, wherever he finds it. He was not exhorting. He was evangelizing. He was not speaking to the poor and defenceless. He was proclaiming his God, the protector of the poor.  The beatitudes, therefore, are about God, a God who is a paradox. He is truth, and worthy of belief. He declares himself in favour of those who have no one to help them. This is the God of Jesus. Proclaiming him is good news, excellent news.

The poor, the persecuted, the peacemakers, the pure of heart, those who mourn and suffer persecution,  do not expect that God will change their lot. The God of Jesus is their only salvation provided he is their only protector.  The simple message that such a God exists, with specific plans to establish his kingdom among those who feel his absence because they live submersed in misfortune, should be enough to fill them with happiness. Jesus devoted himself to preaching this God to all who had need of him. People make more effort to attain this happiness when they trust in a God who is determined to make them happy and who promises future happiness. A God like this must, of necessity, make his subjects happy.

Our problem is to believe in the message of Jesus, but this is also our opportunity. This depends not on our already being disciples of Jesus but on our becoming blessed citizens of the kingdom of God. Either Jesus is wrong when he calls those who are suffering blessed, or else we are wrong when we base our happiness on the absence of pain… and of God.  We have to believe therefore that the God of Jesus is a God who defends the weak, who chooses those who are forgotten, who is mindful of the defenceless. Those who have no hope of defending their rights find in him their help, and a reason not to despair. And if they wait, they will be protected by his power. Knowing that there is a God committed to making them happy, is enough to make them feel blessed already. The God of Jesus is the only reason we have to feel joy while we suffer pain.

The curious thing is that those whom Jesus proclaimed blessed are not the same people we consider blessed. The truth is that the promises of Jesus do not have much ‘logic’. To our way of thinking, the people to whom Jesus promises happiness are unfortunate people who accept their situation without rebelling. Jesus however, takes it for granted that one can be blessed even in painful situations. The happiness that he promises is not one that comes from our life or that we succeed in extracting from our present fortune. The poor are not blessed with their situation but because they have a God who will change their situation.  Mourning and suffering from hunger, being persecuted or meek, do not fit in with our idea of happiness, nor with God’s idea either. It is precisely for this reason that God has promised, and Jesus has assured us, that these situations will not last for those who are suffering…

With the beatitudes Jesus does not promise good fortune to everyone. Indeed, he did not say that those who were there at the foot of the mountain were blessed, nor those disciples who had followed him closely. It is not through being a disciple that one can hope for the happiness that Jesus promises. The happiness offered by God is obtained only by certain people – those who attract God’s attention either because of their unfortunate situation of suffering, or because of the good they do to others.  The other kind of happiness, the kind that comes from satisfaction with oneself and is nourished by not loving others, has no future. It may be fashionable today, but it has no future because it does not take seriously the God of Jesus, and because it neglects the poor and those who are suffering. Jesus tells us that those who do not accept poverty or persecution, suffering and hunger, peace and purity of heart as their task, will not have God in the life to come. For this reason, and this reason alone, they will never be truly blessed in this life.